Virus testing

Public health officials have had to balance patient privacy with transparency during the coronavirus pandemic.

While most people on the North Coast were preparing for the Fourth of July weekend, staff at the Clatsop County Public Health Department were scrambling to prevent another coronavirus outbreak at a seafood processing plant.

A worker from Moldova who just arrived at Pacific Seafood in Warrenton tested positive for the virus. While the company sent him to Portland to quarantine, other workers from Moldova who traveled with him under the federal H-2B visa program remained.

According to emails between the county and Pacific Seafood shared with The Astorian, the county wanted the workers to quarantine at a rental house where they were staying until an investigation into potential exposure to the virus was complete.

The workers, though, just got their first paychecks and wanted to go to Walmart for food and supplies. A company executive said ordering the workers to quarantine and miss work, even though they had no symptoms and had tested negative for the virus, was contrary to federal, state and county guidelines.

The dispute — similar to a standoff between the county and Pacific Seafood after an outbreak at the plant in May — reached the chief of staff at the Oregon Health Authority. Ultimately, the state took over contact tracing.

All of it could have been kept secret from the public.

In Oregon, suspected workplace disease outbreaks are required to be reported to public health agencies, which have discretion over what information to tell the public.

Clatsop County defers to businesses when it comes to publicly disclosing workplace coronavirus cases.

We’re thankful that Pacific Seafood — twice now — has confirmed virus cases when contacted by the newspaper. The Georgia-Pacific Wauna Mill, the county’s largest employer, also confirmed a virus case that involved a worker living outside the county.

But private interests answer to investors and shareholders. The county answers to the public.

We believe the Public Health Department should alert people about workplace virus cases that pose significant risk for outbreaks.

Fifty-nine percent of the county’s 64 virus cases through Friday are tied to outbreaks at Pacific Seafood and Bornstein Seafoods. Across Oregon, workplace outbreaks have rippled through communities. An outbreak at Pacific Seafood plants in Newport, for example, is tied to 181 cases.

Recognizing the critical need for transparency during a pandemic, the Oregon Health Authority in late May started to publicly report workplace outbreaks that involve five or more cases. For patient privacy reasons, the state set the threshold at workplaces where there are at least 30 employees.

The weekly reports from the state provide some comfort that the public would eventually learn of a workplace outbreak in Clatsop County.

But we don’t see any fundamental privacy protection in keeping secret one case, or two, or three, or four at a workplace that suddenly evaporates at five cases. County public health departments are the lead agencies responsible for investigating local outbreaks and have discretion over what details to release.

We understand the Public Health Department is under pressure to balance patient privacy and transparency.

Our view is that our county has been better than many others in Oregon at informing the public about coronavirus cases. But given the extraordinary disruption that government restrictions to contain the virus have had on people’s lives, the possible threat to health and safety, and the knowledge that one or two serious outbreaks could overwhelm our hospitals, that standard isn’t enough.

Everyone should know when there is the potential risk for a workplace outbreak that could lead to dozens or hundreds of new virus cases. We shouldn’t have to rely on the openness of businesses. We shouldn’t have to pry the information out through the state’s public records law. We shouldn’t have to hope someone might share emails.

The county should tell us.

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