coronavirus illinois

Should You Be Told Where Coronavirus Outbreaks Are Happening?

It turns out the answer is more complicated than you might think.

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For weeks now, Los Angeles County has been posting locations online which have seen five cases or more of coronavirus -- everything from a Domino's Pizza with four cases, to a Ralph's grocery with 22 and a sheriff's station where 13 people have tested positive for the virus.

Wyandotte County in Kansas, which includes Kansas City, has been doing the same. On an interactive map on that county's website, you learn that one El Torito supermarket has 22 cases, a National Beef Packaging facility has seen 42 and Kellogg's Bakery has had another 21.

You won't find data like that here.

"We have to rely upon employers to inform us when they have employees that have tested positive for COVID," said Dr. Rachel Rubin, the senior medical officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health. "They are required to do that. Many do not know that."

That said, Dr. Rubin indicated there are a number of reasons Cook County is not publicizing outbreak locations. First and foremost, she notes that with 400 to 700 new cases a day, the agency has had to prioritize which individuals are getting case investigations and contact tracing.

But a larger reason may be that right now, in the opinion of many in the health community, with the virus so widespread, telling the public where outbreaks have happened doesn't really serve a larger public health purpose.

"I'm not sure posting that there's been five or more tested positive means much if you have a hundred employees," Rubin told NBC 5. "I'm not surprised that there would be five out of a hundred that would be positive."

Rubin said that in large settings like grocery stores, the county does do followup, to make certain managers are doing proper cleaning and sanitation procedures when employees are found to have tested positive. But right now, she suggested public announcements of locations where the virus has occurred are not especially important, because the illness is so pervasive everywhere.

"As we go down the curve and there are less people turning out positive each day, then that might be more important," she said. "Because right now, most of us have probably been exposed to COVID. It doesn't mean most of us have gotten sick."

The DuPage County Health Department does post a chart showing the types of establishments where outbreaks of two or more have occurred. That chart indicates 50% of such cases are in long-term care facilities. Only 2% are in grocery stores, and another 26% are in areas described only as "workplace."

Will County told NBC 5 that while the information is tracked, they believe it is up to the Illinois Department of Public Health to determine whether it should be released to the general public.

Steve Powell sees the information first-hand. He is the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 881 and in that role has about 34,000 members working the front lines in grocery stores and other retail and service establishments.

"I can tell you that once there is a case in one of our locations, the company notifies us," Powell told NBC 5. "They also notify the employees in that store."

UFCW says about 247 individual cases have been reported in 140 stores where they represent employees in Illinois and northwest Indiana.

Powell gives high marks to the chains where his members are employed, mostly Mariano's and Jewel-Osco food stores in Illinois, and Strack and Van Til stores in Indiana. But he is not as complimentary to some of the shoppers his workers encounter on the job.

"I think the biggest problem we're facing in different localities is the general public has to use a little more common sense and realize that grocery workers really are on the front lines," Powell said. "We need more cooperation from the general public -- period."

The union says it has been especially surprised to see large family groups coming into stores, when a single shopper per family would make more sense during the current pandemic.

"This virus is everywhere, it's invisible, it doesn't stop at the grocery store, it doesn't stop at the hardware stores that are still open," Powell said. "That's why they have to wear the masks and have to follow social distancing."

Cook County's Dr. Rubin emphasized that shoppers should not be concerned about whether employees have tested positive in a given establishment as long as proper cleaning procedures have been followed.

"First of all, there's a lot of rumors going on," she said. "If you stay six feet away, you wash your hands, you wear your mask, your risk is really fairly low -- much lower than being an employee in that workplace."

As far as public notifications, the Illinois Department of Public Health told NBC 5 they hope to start publishing information about outbreaks by week's end. But a spokesman said they would not identify specific locations.

IDPH is currently tracking more than 900 outbreaks statewide.

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