COVID workplace standard revoked

Published 3:55 pm Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Coronavirus cases are trending upward in the Piedmont Health District for the second week in a row as the Virginia Worker Safety Board makes its vote to remove COVID-19 workplace restrictions. Meanwhile, a new variant may be circulating in the community.

According to the latest available data obtained from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), from the period of Sunday, March 20, to Saturday, March 26, Prince Edward saw 26 new reported COVID-19 cases. Buckingham saw six new cases this week, and Cumberland County reported two new cases of the virus.

Charlotte County saw seven new reported COVID-19 cases over the last week, and Lunenburg reported three new cases.

While all counties in the health district have been trending upward in cases for at least two weeks, the number of reported cases is considerably smaller than just last month. In the second week of February, counties in the Piedmont Health District reported anywhere from 32 to 164 new cases of COVID-19.

The state saw a jump in cases at the beginning of the week. On Monday, March 28, VDH reported 1,340 new reported COVID-19 cases across Virginia, up considerably from 414 cases reported the previous Monday. The commonwealth’s seven-day moving average in cases, however, was down slightly on Monday from an average of 942 cases on March 21 to 833 cases as of March 28.

Deaths and hospitalizations appeared lower this week across the health district. As of the latest available data through VDH, from the period of Saturday, March 19, to Friday, March 25, Prince Edward County saw three new COVID-related deaths and eight new hospitalizations. Buckingham had zero new virus-related deaths this week and two hospitalizations. Cumberland County reported one new death and five COVID-related hospitalizations.

In Charlotte County, one new COVID-related death was reported this week in addition to five hospitalizations. Lunenburg also reported one new death this week as well as four hospitalizations.

Centra Health cut its COVID patient census by more than half this week. On Monday, the health care provider was reporting 13 virus patients out of its Lynchburg, Bedford and Southside Hospitals, two of which were being treated in the ICU. A rare and welcome sight, Centra reported no COVID patients actively being vented as of Monday.

The area’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 Community Levels remained stable this week.

A county’s ranking on the community level scale tells officials if it is likely safe for residents to go mask-free in those areas, with masking specifically recommended at a high (red) community level.

On Monday, all local counties were in the mask-optional zone, with Prince Edward and Charlotte County ranked as medium (yellow) and Buckingham, Cumberland and Lunenburg counties ranked as low (green).

With lowered masking recommendations and the drop in reported COVID-19 cases over the last two months, the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry’s (DOLI’s) Virginia Worker Safety Board voted last week to remove COVID-19 workplace restrictions.

According to DOLI, on Monday, March 21, the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board adopted the final revocation of the Virginia Standard 16VAC25-220 for Infectious Disease Prevention of the SARS-CoV-2 Virus That Causes COVID-19 (“Virginia Standard”). The revocation became effective Wednesday, March 23.

A Tuesday, March 22 release from the Office of Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin praised the Worker Safety Board for its vote to remove the restrictions, noting the appointees evaluated the current COVID-19 infections in the commonwealth as well as mitigation strategies before asserting that the virus no longer poses a grave danger to Virginians.

“Businesses asked us for updated workplace guidance to reflect our current COVID-19 situation in Virginia,” Youngkin said Tuesday. “We are pleased with the board’s move, and this vote signals that a return to normalcy in Virginia is not a partisan issue. We’re going to continue providing greater certainty and decision making power to businesses and workers in the commonwealth as we move beyond the pandemic. With the removal of these regulations, it is undeniable that Virginia is open for business.”

A DOLI guidance document for Virginia employers entitled “Guidance for Employers to Mitigate the Risk of COVID-19 to Workers” was set to be published in the Virginia Register on March 28 for a 30-day comment period beginning March 28 and ending April 27. On its website, the department noted that even if the guidance document changes after the public comment period, employers can still rely upon the draft guidance document in the interim.

Guidance highlights include:

Under the OSH Act and Va. Code §40.1-51.1.A, employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm. Employers should engage with workers to mitigate COVID-19 transmission and the impact of contracting the virus, including:

• Facilitate employees getting vaccinated and boosted;

• Encourage any workers with COVID-19 symptoms to stay home from work and seek advice on testing and treatment from their physician;

• Require all workers infected with COVID-19 virus to stay home;

• Provide workers with face coverings or surgical masks, as appropriate;

• Encourage good sanitary work habits such as frequent hand washing;

• Educate workers on your COVID-19 policies and procedures using accessible formats and in languages they understand;

• Operate and maintain ventilation systems in accordance to manufacturers specifications to achieve optimal performance;

• Record and report COVID-19 infections and deaths which are mandatory under VOSH regulations part 1904; and,

• Follow other applicable mandatory VOSH standards. All of VOSH’s standards that apply to protecting workers from infection remain in place.

In discussing masking, workplace policies and CDC COVID-19 Community Levels, Piedmont Health District Director Dr. Maria Almond noted the health district currently recommends monitoring community health changes while also taking into consideration long term trends when changing policy related to any protective behaviors.

“With small populations, it is possible to leap from low to high community levels based off small changes in case counts,” Almond said. “So we are recommending watching community levels for two-three weeks and considering consultation with the local health district prior to a business or organization making COVID-related policy changes.”

As local businesses and organizations reevaluate their COVID-19 policies, the health district is watching carefully for signs of a new variant of the virus.

The variant, referred to as BA.2, is a subvariant of omicron, BA.1.

According to Almond, initial data appears to indicate that those previously infected with omicron likely have a relatively good immunity against BA.2. Almond added there have been no recorded infections of the BA.2 subvariant in the Piedmont Health District as of Monday, March 28.

However, she highlighted it is likely the variant is now circulating in the community, given that whole genome sequencing is only done in small proportions of those infected, and a lag of 2-3 weeks typically exists between the time samples are submitted and results returned.

“The most vulnerable in our population remain those people that have not yet been vaccinated or recently infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 and at-risk populations that have not yet been boosted,” Almond stated on Monday. “If you have any chronic medical conditions, if you are older than 50, if you live or work with vulnerable populations, you absolutely should get vaccinated and boosted. This single act saves lives.”

Almond emphasized vaccination remains recommended for everyone eligible.

“We don’t always know our own vulnerabilities,” she stated, “and as COVID has continued to demonstrate, we are all intertwined, and unknown challenges from COVID continue to surprise us. Be prepared. Be safe. Get vaccinated.”

Virginia’s uninsured may soon face some of those unknown challenges from the pandemic. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) announced it will soon stop accepting claims for its COVID-19 Uninsured Program (UIP) due to a lack of sufficient funds. The program will continue to accept claims for testing and treatment until 11:59 p.m. March 22. Claims for vaccine administration will be accepted until 11:59 p.m. April 5.

Uninsured Virginians can continue to access up to eight at-home rapid antigen tests from the federal government which can be mailed to their home. To learn more, visit https://www.covidtests.gov

The uninsured can continue to obtain vaccination from local health departments and VDH mobile vaccination units. No insurance is needed.

Vaccination rates in each county of the health district, as of Monday, were as follows:

Prince Edward: population fully vaccinated: 45.9%, population with booster shot: 24.1%

Buckingham: population fully vaccinated: 55.1%, population with booster shot: 27.5%

Cumberland: population fully vaccinated: 50.6%, population with booster shot: 22.8%

Charlotte: population fully vaccinated: 54.8%, population with booster shot: 26%

Lunenburg: population fully vaccinated: 56.2%, population with booster shot: 27.2%

Upcoming VDH Mobile Vaccination Events:

Free and open to the public. Walk-ins welcome.

May pre-register at vase.vdh.virginia.gov

 

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