When Oceana County became a hot spot for coronavirus in June, public health officials pointed to the big reason: Outbreaks at five area farm and manufacturing facilities.
Health officials declined to name the businesses, a stance that got push back at a June 29 online town hall. Residents noted the Grand Traverse Health Department had just publicized the names of eight bars and vineyards visited by a group whose members later tested positive for COVID-19.
The Traverse City exposures was a “a unique situation,” responded Dr. Jennifer Morse, medical director for District Health Department #10, which covers Oceana and nine other counties in northern Michigan. “There was a large party of people; they spent a lot of time in different bars” and had prolonged contact with a number of strangers in those establishments.
Because the group couldn’t identify all the people they were mingling with during the three-day trip, the Grand Traverse Health Department put out a press release to alert the public and help track down people who were potentially exposed, Morse explained.
By comparison, the Oceana County outbreaks involved private businesses not open to the public, and officials were able to identify those with high-risk exposure, defined as face-to-face interaction with a COVID-positive person for at least 10 minutes and within six feet without masking.
“If I were a COVID-positive person and I went grocery shopping, unless I stopped to have a lot of face-to-face conversation with someone, it’s not considered a high-risk situation” in terms of exposing others to the virus, Morse said.
There’s no point of notifying people about low-risk exposures because people should always assume those type of exposure are possible, said Jeannine Taylor, public information officer for District Health Department
“It’s very possible that the individual right before you at the gas station was asymptomatic, and nobody knows it,” Taylor said. “So it’s important that we all follow that guidelines of masking and washing our hands, all those necessary steps to prevent getting it.”
That June 29 conversation in Oceana County is one happening around the state, a public health departments weigh concerns about coronavirus exposure vs. the potential damage to businesses identified as potential exposure sites.
Vail made national headlines when she publicized an outbreak at Harper’s Bar in East Lansing, one that was eventually linked to more than 180 cases of coronavirus, making it one of the biggest superspreader events in the country.
Vail also publicized an outbreak at a Lansing veterinary clinic. “There were multiple days of exposure, so that got a public announcement,” she said.
But for the most part, Vail said, she’s resisting calls to put out a list of places linked to coronavirus cases.
“If we can do appropriate contact tracing and reach the individuals we need to reach, there’s no need for a public announcement,” she said.
That’s particularly true because often by the time the coronavirus case has been confirmed, the danger to others has passed — those infected have been isolated and the business has undergone a deep cleaning, so there’s no need for public concern going forward.
“We’re not going to get in scarlet letter mode” of putting out names of businesses linked to coronavirus when there is no necessity to do so, Vail said.
The top priority is to identify people whose exposure puts them at higher risk of contracting the virus, agreed Lisa Peacock, public health officer for the the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department and the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, which includes Otsego, Emmet, Charlevoix and Antrim counties.
She put out a press release about a July 4 party at Torch Lake that drew hundreds because “those who tested positive couldn’t identify all those they had close contact with.”
“So there’s really no other choice in that situation but to put out a public announcement,” Peacock said.
In some cases, she said, businesses are putting out public announcements about an outbreak to explain why they’re temporarily shutting down and the steps they’re taking to address the situation.
In those cases, “we’re happy to support them,” Peacock. “But we don’t want to do any unnecessary damage to their business when it’s not necessary for public health reasons.”
Adam London, health officer for the Kent County Health Department, says his agency doesn’t have a policy, but — like other counties — “we’ll share information if we think there is public health value in doing so.”
“We ask ourselves, does this information give the people actionable information that would reduce their risk of illness?” London said in an email. “In our present situation, the level of community-wide transmission greatly dilutes the value of identifying possible exposure sites. People should assume that if they are going out into public and gathering around other people, they stand a good chance of being exposed.”
Gillian Conrad, spokeswoman for the Berrien County Health Department, said her agency has a similar policy — they’ll publicly name businesses only if they can’t identify those at high risk of exposure.
“We got to the point of community transmission quickly,” which meant people who tested positive for coronavirus had been in public places such as stores and restaurants, Conrad said.
To publicly list those businesses “would not only be stigmatizing for that particular establishment and very detrimental to their ongoing business operations, it also gives people a false sense of security,” Conrad said.
“We want to shape the narrative that the risk is everywhere in our community,” she said. “Any time you leave your house and interact with other human beings, you have a risk of getting this virus. It doesn’t matter whether you avoid Meijer or Wendy’s or wherever the latest case was identified.
“To call out a particular place, that just doesn’t make sense,” particularly when any business could have employees or customers who are asymptomatic carriers and never identified, Conrad said. “It doesn’t adequately portray the risk in both directions — where there is heightened risk and where there may be less risk.”
COVID-19 PREVENTION TIPS
In addition to washing hands regularly and not touching your face, officials recommend practicing social distancing, assuming anyone may be carrying the virus.
Use disinfecting wipes or disinfecting spray cleaners on frequently-touched surfaces in your home (door handles, faucets, countertops) and carry hand sanitizer with you when you go into places like stores.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has also issued an executive order requiring people to wear face coverings over their mouth and nose while inside enclosed, public spaces.
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