Workplace outbreaks of COVID-19 are mostly preventable by following recommended practices intended to reduce exposure. Failure to follow these practices has resulted in numerous workplace outbreaks of varying sizes.
Examples of mistakes resulting in outbreaks include:
Travel and large meetings
– Early in the pandemic, at a time when many other companies were restricting travel and large meetings, one company held a leadership meeting which resulted in more than 100 people becoming infected and spreading the infection in at least 6 states and 3 countries. Some attendees had flown in from parts of Europe with significant epidemics.1
Insufficient availability of PPE
– A number of outbreaks reported in hospitals and skilled nursing facilities have been associated with a lack of available PPE, especially respirators.2-5
Ignoring physical distancing
– As of June, more than 25,000 cases of COVID-19 were reported among workers in meat-packing plants.6
At one plant, a worker reported that at “least two employees were infected, and 90 percent of the staff was still working ‘less than a meter away’ from one another”.7
More than 15,000 prison
staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, although it is unclear how many of these cases were due to workplace exposure.8
Prison staff have reported inadequate PPE and confusion about how and when to social distance.9,10
Bars and restaurants
were a source of an infection cluster in Hong Kong affecting staff and customers, presumably due to a lack of distancing.11,12
Sick workers continuing to work -
In a community where hospitals were seeing large numbers of patients connected to a meat packing plant, public health officials were concerned that “many employees must be working when sick and spreading infection to others”.13
Lack of protections for workers in congregate living settings/dormitories
– In some settings, workers live and work together in dormitories or onboard ships.
“often live in crowded housing, sharing space with other families. Many are transported to job sites in packed vans”, increasing the risk of an outbreak.14
In an outbreak involving hundreds of sailors
on the USS Theodore Roosevelt in April, higher odds of infection were associated with self-report of not wearing a face covering, not avoiding common areas and not observing social distancing.15
While not yet implicated in published reports, a number of additional mistakes could also lead to outbreaks including:
Not requiring customers to wear masks
– Would expose workers, especially in grocery stores and big box stores.
Workers in quarantine or isolation returning to work before medically appropriate
(including symptomatic workers with a negative RT-PCR test).
Many reports of outbreaks appear in the lay media. Some state public health departments, such as Oregon, provide details of workplaces where outbreaks have occurred, but not the causes of the outbreaks.16
CDC has published information on some of the outbreaks in skilled nursing facilities, prisons, and a naval vessel in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).5,15,17
Most outbreak investigations are not published.