Major retailers hit hard by L.A. County COVID-19 outbreaks

Los Angeles County is actively investigating 538 workplace COVID-19 outbreaks — the highest number ever — as health officials continue to plead with residents and businesses to do all they can to blunt the spread of the coronavirus.

The investigations are being conducted at nonresidential settings where at least three laboratory-confirmed cases have been reported and include every kind of workplace imaginable. Outbreaks have been confirmed at warehouses, corporate offices, manufacturing plants, distribution centers, police and fire stations, courthouses, retail outlets, car dealerships, restaurants and grocery stores.

In short, as one slide noted during a news conference held by county officials Monday, “there are outbreaks everywhere.”

Some larger retail chains have been especially hard hit, with 349 combined employees testing positive at 15 Target locations countywide, 263 workers at nine Home Depots, 92 at six Whole Foods Markets and 383 at nine Costco warehouses, according to county data.

In all, more than 11,800 workers have been infected in the outbreaks currently under investigation.

Officials have noted, however, that outbreaks don’t necessarily indicate any safety lapses on the part of the workplaces as the virus is spreading widely and rapidly throughout the region.

However, with the county reporting roughly 15,000 new coronavirus cases every day, officials stress that it’s vital for everyone to do everything possible to protect themselves.

“The damaging impact to our families and our local hospitals from this surge is the worst disaster our county has experienced for decades,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said this week. “And, as with other terrifying situations, the end of this surge only happens when more people and more businesses take control and do the right thing.”

Health officials regularly inspect businesses to make sure they are following coronavirus rules.

During the most recent round of visits, officials said the majority of businesses were complying with most public health protocols, but noted some issues — such as failing to abide by capacity limits or ensure that employees and customers were wearing face coverings and maintaining physical distance.

The county issued 83 citations from Jan. 3 through Monday, according to a public health statement, bringing the total number of tickets written to 613 since the end of August. Those cited most recently included restaurants, gyms, hair salons, places of worship and malls, officials said.

“We’ve conducted thousands and thousands of inspections to ensure compliance, and we continue to investigate workplaces where there are outbreaks and when we hear concerns from workers or patrons,” Ferrer said. “We’ve closed businesses and other places where large outbreaks have occurred. We’ve worked with hundreds of businesses to improve workplace conditions. We’ve issued fines. We’ve issued citations.”

However, the repercussions of transmission can ripple beyond the workplace. Employees may become infected and then expose their family members or roommates to the virus.

Experts say people who must leave home to work and those who live in crowded housing arrangements are at particular risk of contracting the coronavirus.

“All it takes is one mistake and, soon, five, 10 or 20 other people become infected,” Ferrer said. “This deadly virus continues to spread at alarming rates, and the most important way to stop it in its tracks is to avoid interactions with others and protect ourselves at all times.”

She went so far this week as to urge people who must go out of their households to even wear a mask at home if they live with an elderly person or someone who has an underlying medical condition.

Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services secretary, said that guidance “does make a lot of sense from a science transmission basis,” particularly in communities with significant levels of spread.

“A great deal of transmission happens in household transmission — people you live with who go out and live their days, they go to work, they’re an essential worker, they become infected, they’re asymptomatic ,and then they get a high-risk family member infected,” he said Tuesday. “So the same rules that help protect you in your workplace can also protect you in your household.”

L.A. County is fast approaching 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases and will likely reach that milestone this week. Nearly 11 months passed before the county topped 500,000 cumulative cases, but officials have reported nearly that many again in just the past month.

COVID-19 has affected the entire community, officials say, and it will take the entire community to beat back the latest surge.

“We’ve had the tools, the warnings and the restrictions in place for weeks. But it has been insufficient because the biggest single factor in all of this comes down to individuals taking appropriate action, taking personal steps,” Ferrer said. “We really just need everyone to do the right thing to protect each other so we stop the transmission that’s now occurring in epic proportions.”