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UM study shows high COVID-19 exposure rate at work

The University of Michigan released a survey this week that shows the workplace is a significant source of COVID-19 transmission. Researchers examined public health surveillance records of 3,000 people who contracted COVID-19 prior to June 1, 2020. Of the 3,000 individuals, about 870 completed and returned the UM survey.

The study focused on early cases of COVID-19 among Michigan residents. Of the respondents, 73% (635) worked at the time of their coronavirus diagnosis. Of the employed respondents, 72% (457) said they were required to report in-person to work. The remaining 28% (177) worked remotely. Most respondents (56%) were female.

The survey also found that of the respondents who knew the source of their exposure to COVID-19, 61% reported that they contracted the virus at work. Among health care support workers who contracted the virus, 82% said they caught the virus while at work. According to the survey, COVID-19 most impacted health care and social assistance workers.

The UM survey found that essential workers – those who reported physically to their place of employment – contracted the virus more than two-and-a-half times the rate of remote workers. And workers incurred most of those infections while at work.

COVID-19 makes workplaces unsafe

Employers can make a lot of demands of their workers but catching a potentially deadly disease shouldn’t be one of them. While this survey focused on early COVID-19 infections, there is no reason to think that ill-conceived or ill-executed return-to-work plans will produce any different result among in-person workers, regardless of their vaccination status.

A community college can have hundreds of people on the payroll, but no one should limit the term “work environment” only to people who draw a paycheck there. Thousands of students – particularly those who attend classes full-time – also “work” at the College. They didn’t sign up for COVID-19 exposure when they registered for classes.

Maintaining a safe workplace does not just demonstrate authentic leadership on the part of the College administration. Maintaining a safe workplace is the minimum bar the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) established for opening one’s doors. If you can’t operate safely, don’t operate.

Congregating in large numbers in small spaces is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, that happens every day in every classroom and conference room on campus. In the age of COVID-19, it is not possible to operate a safe work environment without strict vaccination requirements for all employees. In the same way, it is not possible to operate the college safely without strict vaccination requirements for everyone who reports to work in-person. (On a community college campus, that includes the students.)

Photo Credit: Daphne Depasse , via Flickr