Millions of U.S. workers at risk of exposure to COVID-19 every week, UW study concludes

Editor’s note: The writer is a 2018 graduate of Aberdeen High School and a sophomore at the University of Washington, majoring in journalism and sociology. This story was first published in the UW Daily.

By Patric Haerle

The UW Daily

A recent analysis done by a researcher from the UW School of Public Health estimates that 14.4 million workers are exposed to COVID-19 at least once a week.

Marissa Baker, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor for the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, also estimated 18.4% of American workers — or 26.7 million people — are exposed every month. The study does not include many types of service workers due to inadequate data.

An exposure occurs when an individual comes into close contact with someone who has an infectious disease or an object with an infected surface. An exposure does not mean that the person necessarily will be infected, but by estimating exposure, researchers can identify populations most at risk.

Baker based her findings on research she had published in The American Journal of Industrial Medicine in 2018. In that study, she and her co-authors used state data to estimate that 8% of workers in “Federal Region X” — an area that includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska — face weekly exposure to various forms of infection, including respiratory illnesses.

“When COVID started, we were like, ‘let’s use our same method but let’s look nationally, and look specifically at who is exposed to infection or disease at work,’” Baker said. “So if we know who is going to be exposed, then if we control the exposures, you control the disease.”

Using federal employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Baker calculated the frequency of exposure for various kinds of employees. For example, Baker’s study found that more than 75% of health care workers are exposed at least once a week, and over 50% of protective service workers — such as firefighters and police officers — face exposure every month.

Despite these alarming figures, Baker emphasized that the study is almost certainly an underestimate due to several factors. Chief among these is the large portion of jobs excluded from the potential exposure data, even though they obviously make up part of the total workforce.What this means is that countless service workers deemed essential, such as grocery store employees or Uber and Lyft drivers, are not being considered in the final figures projecting a 10% weekly exposure rate for workers.

“I believe it is definitely an underestimation,” Baker said. “There’s a whole bunch of workers that make up a fairly large chunk of our workforce that aren’t even considered, and a lot of those workers, are in jobs where, in my opinion, they would be exposed to infection or disease.”