Mark D. Wilson @MDWilsonSA Lori Hawkins @LoriCHawkins
May 19, 2020 at 4:29 PM
The construction industry — which largely has continued to operate through the coronavirus outbreak — accounts for more than half of the new clusters of COVID-19 infections among industries being tracked by Travis County health officials outside of nursing homes, long-term care facilities and other health institutions, according to new data.
Health officials are tracking 36 clusters of coronavirus infections in Travis County workers in a variety of industries, interim Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott told Austin City Council members Tuesday. The clusters include the construction, manufacturing, retail and health services sectors, and 19 of the clusters are in the construction industry, Escott said.
Local health officials define a cluster as three or more confirmed cases, Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden said, so at least 57 construction workers tested positive. The clusters represent cases identified from May 1 to 17.
Health officials say that identifying and tracking these COVID-19 clusters can help slow the spread of the virus.
The number of clusters occurring in the construction industry is worrisome, Escott said, because workers without paid leave or the ability to stay home might avoid testing so they can continue to support themselves and their families.
The number of clusters occurring in the construction industry is worrisome, Escott said, because workers without paid leave or the ability to stay home might avoid testing so they can continue to support themselves and their families. He warned of the potential for more cases as more people head back to work.
“There’s ongoing concern about being detected, there’s some ongoing concern about being able to work,” Escott said. “Quite frankly, there’s a disincentive right now for people to get tested, because if they test positive, then they’re out of work, and in some circumstances they don’t have assurances of a paycheck.”
Phil Thoden, president and CEO of the Austin chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, said under city rules, the construction industry is required to report to Austin Public Health any cases of coronavirus on a job site, regardless of where the infection occurred.
That allows health officials to focus proactively and quickly on specific construction targets as needed, and contractors can perform added cleaning as well, Thoden said in a letter to members.
“Perhaps this proactive approach is why construction is shown to have more clusters than other industries that do not have to report to health officials in the same way and where clusters can easily go unaddressed,” he said.
Thoden said his takeaway from health officials’ report on Tuesday is that 92% of 127 workers on two targeted job sites tested negative for the virus.
“That’s 116 workers out of 127 without the virus on those two sites, and I think that speaks to our industry’s ongoing implementation of heightened safety and health protocols,” he said. “The previous characterization by a local health official two weeks ago of job sites being ‘hot spots’ suggested a much higher rate of infection.”
Thoden said efforts by the AGC Austin chapter to educate workers are ongoing, and more than 1,000 bottles of hand sanitizer have been distributed to local job sites.
“This week we are delivering more hand sanitizer and partnering with the city to deliver thousands of masks for workers and their families,” Thoden said.
Escott said health officials also have concerns about workers without paid leave in other industries where clusters have been identified, and said he expects the issue to be a significant barrier to controlling the outbreak of the virus as more businesses open.
“This is something we should all be concerned about. We’ve been talking about this for weeks and weeks now, the importance of removing these disincentives for people getting tested, people getting diagnosed (and) people getting treated,” Escott said. “We really do have to work hard on breaking down these barriers and these disincentives if we’re going to maintain control and keep businesses open.”
Eight clusters were identified in people working in building cleaning and maintenance services, or in health services including dental, medical labs and outpatient services. There were six among retail workers, including those in food service, merchandising and grocery.
Two clusters have been found in the financial, insurance and real estate industries, and one in manufacturing.
As of Monday evening, there have been 2,537 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Travis County, including 79 deaths and 892 recoveries. A total of 92 people are currently hospitalized, with 35 in intensive care and 21 on ventilators.