This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Credit: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM

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OREGON - On April 10, with the COVID-19 stay-at-home workplace order still in effect in 43 of the nation’s 50 states, including Oregon, the White House quietly rolled back requirements for employers to report coronavirus cases of their workers to their respective state, federal, or local health care officials.

Aaron Corvin, public information officer for Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), told the Banks Post the state agency will be taking that same position -- not requiring employers outside the healthcare industry to report when one of their workers contracts the coronavirus -- and that the directive will take effect immediately. 

“In general, Oregon OSHA will rely on the guidance of (the federal) OSHA (agency) as it relates to recordkeeping because most of our rules mirror the federal standard,” Corvin said. 

Gov. Kate Brown issued a statement on April 16, saying that the state could “re-open” and “begin the process of lifting restrictions, get back to work and return to a more, normal life as quickly as possible.”

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Gov. Brown’s statement goes on to say that the White House’s guidance makes it clear that some areas of Oregon are experiencing declining cases of COVID-19, and that the best path to reopening the state’s economy is still a cautious one that proceeds carefully and incrementally. 

“We are still in dire need of critical resources from the federal government, including sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) and increased testing capacity,” Gov. Brown’s statement says. “We have current, large, unfulfilled order requests with the federal government for both PPE and testing materials; these are vital components to reopening Oregon and remain necessary to prevent a resurgence of the disease.”

Oregon OSHA’s action plan

Oregon OSHA, following federal guidelines, is only requiring employers to notify health officials if “a number of cases” -- although it does not define how many people with COVID-19 makes it worthy to report -- develop among employees who physically work closely together, or if evidence of an employee being positive for COVID-19 “was reasonably available to the employer,” meaning that information was given to the employer by another employee, not a health care professional.

On the surface, subjectively, it sounds alarming. Counting on employees to out their peers as possibly being ill with COVID-19 based on hearing them coughing, sniffling, or wheezing are all symptoms that could result from a number of causes, including those common with seasonal allergies, the common cold, or those who regularly smoke cigarettes.

OSHA spokesman Corvin said the state agency is taxed with recording the content of workplace exposures and also is required to regulate and educate people on those issues as well.

Corvin said Oregon OSHA has received about 2,800 complaints from employees who are still required to go into work rather than telecommuting; the complaints come from workers who say it is more than possible for their employer to allow them to work remotely, from home.

“Broadly speaking, one of the categories of complaints is that an employer is not facilitating teleworking to the extent possible,” Corvin said. “We’ve also seen complaints from folks saying that their place of business should be closed under the governor’s executive order. And we’ve seen a mix of complaints about (an individual’s) workplace not practicing social distancing.”

Having said all that, Corvin pointed to an OSHA webpage that answers many questions the public, workers, and employers may have about the agency’s plans to enforce the new regulations handed down by the White House and adopted by the federal OSHA. 

For one, it states that OSHA will not be taking complaints about individuals who do not stay in their homes. “Our authority and involvement is [sic] limited to businesses and to the workplace,” the webpage says. “In fact, no state agencies will be questioning whether drivers have a valid reason to remain at home.”

The Oregon State Police (OSP) posted a document online here that answers what the OSP says are frequently asked questions relating to the enforcement of the governor’s stay-at-home order.

Corvin alluded to the fact that these are challenging times for all Oregon residents, and that decisions made by OSHA and other government agencies or officials are not easily arrived at by any stretch of the imagination.

“Overall, the message is if an Oregon business is still doing things the same way -- likely doing it the wrong way in a way that’s putting people in harm’s way, they need to be making changes,” Corvin said. “That is our expectation in line with the governor’s order.”