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Coronavirus spreading rapidly in L.A. workplaces that ignore safety rules

Nurse Bobby Binissa takes the temperature of a patient at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills.
Nurse Bobby Binissa takes the temperature of Felix Camacho of San Fernando at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Saying Los Angeles County is in an “alarming and dangerous phase” of the pandemic, health officials said the coronavirus is spreading rapidly in workplaces that are not following safety rules.

While the county is seeing outbreaks at a variety of workplaces, the sectors with the highest numbers are food processing and distribution facilities, including meatpacking plants, manufacturing facilities, garment factories and wholesale warehouses.

Often the locations are not enforcing physical distancing among employees or implementing infection control procedures, including the proper use of face coverings and frequent sanitation, Los Angeles County Health Officer Muntu Davis said.

“We’re not seeing the compliance that we need with the public health directives being in place to keep people’s health and livelihoods safe,” he said. “Our paramount concern is for the safety of all employees and their families.”

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Essential workers, many of them Latino, have been disproportionately hit by the coronavirus. There have been growing calls for both government regulators and employers to do more to keep them safe.

County inspectors have responded to 2,000 to 3,000 workplace complaints a month for the past several months. So far, the county has completed 52 outbreak investigations at restaurants, 47 at grocery stores and 23 at wholesale food manufacturing sites.

At restaurants, inspectors have discovered a lack of physical distancing in kitchens, employees not wearing face coverings properly, infrequent sanitation practices and business owners who are unaware of requirements to quarantine employees who are close contacts with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.

“We rely on the many, many people who make our goods, ship those goods, and make and prepare our food among other critical functions,” Davis said. “Those folks need to be safe and healthy at work. Business owners and operators need to adhere to the mandatory health officer orders so that our schools can reopen and we can get more people back to making a living.”

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The worst local workplace outbreak occurred at Los Angeles Apparel, a garment manufacturer based in South L.A. More than 300 of the company’s nearly 2,300 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and four have died, Davis said Thursday.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said that it first shut down operations at the garment manufacturer June 27 after inspectors found “flagrant violations” of public health infection control orders and said the company failed to cooperate with an investigation of a reported coronavirus outbreak.

The company’s founder, Dov Charney, disputed those claims.

“I question whether there was an outbreak at my factory,” Charney said Thursday. “An outbreak would mean that the percentage of infections were greater at the factory over a period of time than in the surrounding community. Where is the evidence?”

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L.A. is prosecuting more than 70 businesses so far for allegedly flouting COVID-19 rules. The group includes pet groomers, salons and smoke shops.

News of the increased spread at workplaces comes as the number of patients hospitalized in the county with confirmed coronavirus infections reached new heights this week.

On Monday, 2,193 patients were in hospitals with confirmed coronavirus infections — a single-day record for the county. The number dipped slightly Tuesday, to 2,173, before rebounding back to Monday’s high on Wednesday, county data show.

Hospitalizations, which had been declining since early May, began ticking up in mid-June and have continued their rise in July. Records show that hospitalizations of patients with confirmed coronavirus infections have jumped about 31% over the past three weeks.

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Younger people, between the ages of 18 and 40, are also being hospitalized at a significantly higher rate than in previous weeks, data show.

“The shift from declining rates to increasing rates happened very rapidly, and we now see a three-day average of over 2,000 people hospitalized on a given day, which is more people hospitalized each day for COVID-19 than at any other point during the pandemic,” Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Wednesday.

While the mortality rate is stable in Los Angeles County, the increase in hospitalizations will probably result in additional deaths in the coming days and weeks, Ferrer said.

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Experts say deaths are a lagging indicator of coronavirus spread and probably reflect exposures to the virus that occurred four or five weeks earlier.

Higher mortality rates among lower-income communities and Black and Latino residents in Los Angeles County have become a key concern for health officials as hospitalization rates continue to climb. Deaths among Latino residents make up 60% of the fatalities that have occurred outside skilled-nursing facilities in the county, data show.

“Unfortunately, a lot of disproportionality can be traced to the fact that a significant number of essential workers are low-income or are people of color,” Davis said. “Oftentimes, people who are low-income cannot stay home to work, and early in the pandemic, there were few protections offered at many work sites. There were no requirements for masking and for physical distancing.”

As global pandemic rages, vacancies and political inaction at Cal/OSHA are potentially endangering millions of workers, experts say.

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L.A. County officials announced 59 new fatalities Thursday — pushing the total death toll past 3,900 — as well as 4,592 new cases, bringing the cumulative count to 147,592.

The county’s increasing hospitalization rate also mirrors trends in other areas across Southern California, including Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, and across the state as a whole. As of Thursday, more than 6,700 patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 were being hospitalized in California.

Health officials in Orange County reported that 722 patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19 were hospitalized as of Tuesday, a new daily record for the county. That number dipped slightly — to 711 — Wednesday. Data showed that as of last week, the number of patients in hospitals had jumped 97% over three weeks, an indicator that health experts say shows the virus is spreading more rapidly in the region.

Coronavirus hospitalizations in California are at an all-time high. Doctors and nurses at some hospitals say their long-feared nightmare has arrived.

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Earlier this month, L.A. County officials projected the possibility of running out of hospital beds in two to three weeks, with the number of ICU beds possibly being exhausted sometime in July.

“If the trajectory continues, the number of ICU beds — our most limited resource — is likely to become inadequate in the near future,” officials wrote in a memo issued July 4 by the L.A. County Department of Public Health to healthcare providers.

“What this means for us is that we need to continue to take steps to protect our healthcare infrastructure so that hospitals are able to manage the growing number of people that need inpatient care,” Davis said. “That’s why our public health directives like staying at home, avoiding close contact with people you don’t live with and wearing cloth face coverings is so critical.”

Times staff writer Luke Money contributed to this report.


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