Austin Public Health's Preliminary Data Shows Construction One Of Top Industries For COVID-19 Cases

May 13, 2020

Austin Public Health officials say they’re still crunching the numbers, but their investigations so far show construction joins long-term care facilities, health care and grocery stores as the industries hit hardest locally by COVID-19. The officials say they are still working to determine exactly how many cases have originated and spread from construction sites.

But they claim that number may be hard to pin down.

Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden likens a construction site to a "moving target" when it comes to trying to determine a specific case count because subcontractors will travel from site to site. 

APH has set up guidelines to help track any potential spread of disease, like having site managers keep a log of all employees. APH is also conducting pilot testing for potential construction industry clusters, Hayden said.

To try and slow the spread of COVID-19, construction sites in Austin are supposed to adhere to rules including:

  • ensuring all workers wear a fabric face covering
  • scheduling staggered shifts for sites with more than 10 active workers
  • mandating handwashing
  • sanitizing commonly-touched areas
  • conducting twice daily temperature checks

How is compliance with that going?

Hayden says that process is based on complaints called in or sent in rather than on proactive monitoring of sites. She said people have been reaching out to complain about potential violations at construction sites and about other violations of stay-at-home orders. 

New data from Austin Code shows the department has received 3,425 complaints of violations related to COVID-19 since March 19. Of those complaints, 246 were about construction sites and resulted in two citations — one for social distancing and one for sanitation hygiene.

Listen to the interview below or read the transcript to hear more about construction and COVID-19 in Austin, including what is being done to address some construction workers’ reluctance to speak up about being ill due to concerns over job security or immigration status.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden: Many times, the location of the site itself is a moving target because so many subcontractors travel from site to site. And so we are working to analyze our data, but from our initial investigation, we know that this is affecting this industry (construction) and their families.

KUT: Do you have a sense of the size or the spread of that in relation to, say, other areas such as nursing homes? Do you have a sense of how many cases in Austin of COVID-19 may be coming from construction sites?  

Hayden: Our initial case investigations show that the top industries are long-term care living facilities, health care, construction and grocery stores. We’ll continue to analyze and see how the positive cases correspond with the workplaces. The construction industry is just one of those areas that we are looking into.

KUT: How many construction sites has Austin Public Health done testing at — understanding, as you say, that there are workers who are working at different sites or at multiple sites? What is the construction site testing capacity from Austin Public Health right now?

Hayden: We are conducting pilot testing for potential clusters in the construction industry. As we think about the particular locations in the industry, it is a moving target because of the many subcontractors that are traveling from site to site. And so it's important for us to share information about testing with construction and contracting firms to share with their employees. We want to make sure that we are doing our due diligence to provide education material to them and encourage employees to take the self-assessment for our testing enrollment regardless of whether the clusters have been found at their worksite or their company.

KUT: That sounds like a pretty dangerous scenario, though, if there are workers going from site to site. It sounds like it's extra hard then to keep track of where there might be a cluster and then where there might be a potential spread of cases if it's not always known exactly where certain workers were working.

Hayden: As a part of the guidance early on, what we put in place for the construction sites is that the site manager has to keep a log of all employees. So even if they are doing a particular trade at that site, they have to keep a log of all employees. And so that safety person works very closely with us. It's important for us to coordinate and communicate across all industries. But we always make sure with that site manager that we are working collaboratively with them.

KUT:  Is there a sense from Austin Public Health of how many people associated with the construction industry in Austin have tested positive for COVID-19?

Hayden: Right now, our staff are continuing to conduct our interviews and compile our data. A part of our case investigation asks the occupation of that individual. So it asks your occupation; it asks if you are a student, or if you're unemployed. And currently, our staff are compiling that data to pull out specifically with all of the cases we have that are positive where each of those fall as far as their occupation. We are working on that right now.

KUT:  What are the current health and safety rules in place for the construction industry in Austin to try and slow the spread of COVID-19?  

Hayden: The City is requiring every employee at a construction site to wear a mask along with a screening tool. Twice a day they are required to do temperature checks. They keep a log at the site, and they're sanitizing commonly touched areas. In addition to that, hygiene procedures such as proper hand-washing and cough etiquette. One of the things that is very important is that if an individual does have a temperature, they have to be sent home.

KUT: And how is compliance with that confirmed? How do you all monitor that the sites are doing all that they're required and that they're sending folks home who are running a temperature?

Hayden: It is based upon reports that we receive. So if the City receives a complaint about a construction site — most folks are calling 311 — about the construction site that is not in compliance, then our Austin Code Department will send an officer out to observe the compliance at the site. And so it includes all of the compliance, so whether it's temperature checks, sanitizing commonly touched areas and looking at their screening tools.

KUT: So is that compliance then only complaint-based? There's no proactive reaching out or monitoring? It's only if a complaint comes in?

Hayden: We are developing our process to be able to do more targeted testing at sites and so that is in the process. But the majority of it is complaint-driven.

KUT:  It would need to be observation-based, but with many fewer folks out and about, I'm wondering if complaints about that, actually complaints about any compliance across the city in general, might be a little hard to get if people aren't out and about as much and may be less likely to see a potential violation.

Hayden: I don't have the number in front of me of the number of complaints that we have received. But we do receive complaints not just about construction sites. We receive complaints about folks being out on the trails — just across the board. People are definitely calling in and they are sending email and they are being heard and they are filing their complaints about individuals that they see that are not adhering to good safety practices.

KUT: Are there any concerns that any folks who work in the construction industry might be afraid to speak up about symptoms or might be reluctant to stay home from work if they are feeling ill because they're concerned about being able to keep their job and being able to keep their paycheck, or they may be concerned about their immigration status?  

Hayden: That is a concern for all working class. We've seen that across the board for all industries. The concern is as an individual, whether they're calling 311, whether they're emailing different elected officials or even us, but they're concerned about not being able to take off from work or if they don't go to work, they don't get paid. But our testing does not ask for immigration status, and we are working with our outreach team to inform this specific population of that.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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