Employers limping along, adapting as Omicron sends absences climbing

Local Coronavirus Coverage

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Whether it’s patient care staff unable to work at the bedside or line workers unable to staff production lines, work absences due to COVID-19’s Omicron variant are wreaking havoc at a host of area employers.

At Ballad Health, 545 staff members were absent due to COVID Tuesday and at various points during their minimum five-day isolation due to COVID quarantine.

“This Omicron variant is spreading like wildfire and that doesn’t mean everybody that catches it is going to get sick, but certainly they can spread it,” Levine told News Channel 11 Monday.

The variant is so transmissible that many vaccinated people are contracting breakthrough cases, though early data shows they’re still much less likely to become seriously ill from it than unvaccinated people. Levine said 79% of the currently quarantining positive staff are vaccinated.

“I’d say about two thirds are direct clinical and a third are support,” Levine said of the people out as of Monday. Tuesday, 337 of the 545 absentees — 62% — were clinical positions.

CDC guidance requires a five-day isolation for COVID-positive people followed by five more days wearing a mask if symptoms aren’t present.

Omicron arrived later in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia than it did in many other areas including more urban parts of Virginia and Tennessee, so it’s highly likely numbers will continue spiking higher for at least a week or more.

That’s evident in a recent letter from United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby. Kirby wrote that around 3,000 employees were COVID-positive and absent — and that in Newark, N.J., one of the earliest areas hit by Omicron, a third of the workforce was out sick on one day.

Kirby also noted that none of UAL’s vaccinated COVID-positive employees was hospitalized and that COVID deaths among employees had gone from about one a week prior to mid-November to zero the past eight weeks.

You can find Kirby’s full letter below:

Already stressed by a nursing shortage that preceded COVID and a staff wearied by nearly two years of pandemic, Ballad faces some tough sledding, Levine said.

“People still have other health care needs,” he said. “We’re trying really hard to make sure we don’t have to defer elective procedures again, making sure people can access care when they need it – nobody knows more than the people who have been in our emergency departments and have experienced the wait times how this staffing labor shortage is affecting their ability to get care as quickly as they deserve.”

The labor situation threatens to get dire enough that Levine said COVID’s outcomes for patients, especially the milder ones in many Omicron cases, are nearly being supplanted by the staffing issue as a top concern at Ballad.

“The way I would describe this, we’re pivoting from the virus being the biggest public health threat to the labor shortages being the biggest public health threat,” he said. “Because even once the virus peaks the tail effect of this labor shortage is going to be with us for quite some time.”

Meanwhile on the factory floor

Crown Laboratories in Johnson City has its own COVID-19 connection — and its own current issues as Omicron spreads in the area.

Crown got a major contract in early 2020 to produce hand sanitizer for a name-brand company, something that helped the local pharmaceutical firm continue its strong revenue and employee growth pattern. But CEO Jeff Bedard said the new variant is hampering production of numerous Crown products on the company’s manufacturing side.

“Yesterday we had 14 absent due to COVID, which sounds small,” Bedard said. “But when you run a lean operation and maybe you have 10 production lines running, if you lose one or two people off each line, then you’ve got to shut one entire line down, and that slows down production.”

Bedard said Crown leaders project they’ll face the issue for the next 60 days or so. Employees on the corporate side are working at home, and he said all the recent cases have been mild so some of those folks have even been able to continue working.

Crown is an FDA-regulated facility with HEPA filtration throughout its plants, and most floor workers also wear gowns and masks even when COVID isn’t a threat.

“That’s probably why we’re not seeing significant outbreaks, but that still doesn’t keep folks from contracting it when they go home, go grocery shopping, go wherever they may live their life,” Bedard said. “And people are back to living their lives.”

Despite the latest COVID curveball, Bedard seemed relatively sanguine about the next couple months.

“We feel right now that we’re going to be able to to weather this storm without any impact to our business or productivity,” he said. “Once again, we’re very good at pivoting in crisis mode. And we’ve been in that for two-plus years now. I think every business has, and you get pretty agile as you think about what’s around the next corner.”

Eastman Chemical Co. has also seen Omicron’s impacts and spokesperson Kristin Parker said the company made several operational changes over the past few weeks to adapt.

“In the last 14 days we have seen over 200 cases at our Kingsport site, a significantly higher rate of infection than in previous waves of the pandemic,” Parker said in a statement.

“(T)he actions we have taken to keep our team members healthy and to maintain the safe operation of our plants are working well,” she added.

Employees who can work remotely are working from home until Jan. 31, Parker said. Manufacturing staff are working overtime as needed, altering shift schedules and “implementing additional layers of protection to protect both their colleagues and our operational integrity.”

Parker said the company will continue adjusting its layers of protection as it tries to minimize impact on employees, Eastman operations and the community.

School dashboards show cases beginning to rise

Most area K-12 school systems continue reporting COVID-19 cases among staff and students on their dashboards at least several days a week, with some reporting daily.

A look at numbers since school resumed last week after Christmas break shows some rising case numbers, including among staff.

The Kingsport City Schools, for example, showed 10 combined new staff COVID cases on Jan. 5 and 6. Following the weekend, those totals were 30 on Jan. 10, with another 17 reported Jan. 11.

Johnson City saw its total staff cases climb from 16 Jan. 7 to 23 Jan. 10.

Bristol, Tenn. schools had four reported staff cases during a three-day week last week and 19 the first two days of this week. Sullivan County had eight new staff cases last week and 16 through the first three days of this week.

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