Questions raised about how outbreaks are reported

NEWPORT — The Oregon Health Authority listed two new workplace outbreaks in its weekly COVID-19 report that raise questions about how it connects clusters of positive cases to a given business for the purposes of disclosure.

On Wednesday, June 24, the health authority added two Newport restaurants to its weekly log of workplace outbreak locations as having five or more workers who tested positive for the novel coronavirus — McDonald’s and Clearwater Restaurant on the Bayfront. McDonald’s closed its doors June 18, and its owner said in a statement Monday that four employees had tested positive for COVID-19. However, it was included in Wednesday’s report as having five cases — the minimum number to be reported by the health authority — presumably because a close contact was added to the count. The OHA report specifies that its data includes “all cases associated with the outbreak (e.g., staff, residents, close contacts).”

Clearwater owner Janell Goplen said four of her restaurant’s employees have household members who worked at Pacific Seafood. They were quarantined when the outbreak there was first announced and subsequently tested positive, and because three of their close contacts later tested positive, the health authority this week reported her business as having an outbreak of seven cases.

She said three of the employees of her restaurant who tested positive did not have contact with clientele and had not been to work since May 31, and one staff member who had limited contact with customers was last at work on May 29. The restaurant closed June 5, when the Pacific Seafood outbreak was first announced, and arranged testing for all employees, the rest of whom tested negative.

The restaurant was closed for two weeks, with a third party-contractor professionally sanitizing the facility, and they added an air purification system. “We safely reopened our doors last Thursday (June 19), and all employees working at the restaurant have tested negative for COVID,” Goplen said, “We continue to conduct regular cleanings inside our restaurant, and our employees are required to wear face coverings at all times. We reduced capacity, removed tables and increased ventilation systems. The four employees who had positive tests in early June have either recovered or remain in quarantine because someone in their household has tested positive.” With three weeks having gone by, she said she certainly didn’t expect her business to appear as having had an outbreak.

“We have not had any positive COVID tests since the beginning of June, so when we learned that the Oregon Health Authority was planning to report seven cases associated with our restaurant, we were incredibly surprised. According to the OHA, these additional cases are not employees but people in the same household or close contacts with those who tested positive. Therefore, these cases become associated with our restaurant,” Goplen said.

Clearwater’s inclusion on the OHA list reveals a confusing element of its approach reporting — while cases aren’t counted twice for the purposes of the state’s overall positives, it seems close contacts counted in one outbreak, such as Pacific Seafood’s, can also be counted toward an outbreak at a business where those contacts are employed. The Pacific Seafood outbreak involved 124 employees but now is listed as including 163 cases with close contacts’ employees.

It also raises questions about how effective the health authority’s five-person threshold is at protecting individual identity, which it says is its purpose, if multiple positive cases not associated with a business can trigger the disclosure of an outbreak there.

Goplen said she’d contacted Gov. Kate Brown and state Sen. Arnie Roblan with concerns that the state’s approach to reporting could lead to misinformation about, and undue harm to businesses like hers.

“Our hearts go out to everyone who has been affected by this pandemic. Please know that we will continue to do everything we can to provide you with a safe, enjoyable experience when you come to Clearwater. COVID has been an unprecedented challenge for our community — for those who live and work here and for local businesses. We are indebted to you for your continued support, and we look forward to seeing you again soon,” Goplen said.


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