Chief Health Officer: USC dining hall employee who tested positive for COVID-19 did not contract at workplace

USC official emphasized the existence of community spread and the importance of following health practices, including using face coverings in all public areas, practicing social distancing, washing hands properly and reporting illness.

Update on 5:30 p.m., April 17: In a press briefing via Zoom Friday, USC Chief Health Officer Sarah Van Orman said one EVK employee has developed symptoms but tested negative. Although there has been no secondary cases from the positive case, the university decided to close EVK and reopen Village dining hall for take-out meal service because the university wanted to be “100% conservative” to prevent spread within USC, according to Van Orman. The Village dining hall will be operated by a different set of staff.

USC sent out an email Monday to Everybody’s Kitchen’s customers notifying a confirmed case of COVID-19 from an employee who worked in the community kitchen. The university’s health official said the person did not contract the virus at the workplace.

Since the university moved courses online, EVK had been the only dining hall open on campus with take-out option only for 1,600 students who can not leave university housing until the university announced Thursday evening via Instagram that EVK would be closed for the semester after April 17. The USC Village Dining Hall will open on April 18.

“The last date the individual worked a shift was April 7. Employees with possible exposure have been contacted and received instructions for self-monitoring, the email reads,” the email read. “Patrons, who based on our records, visited the Community Kitchen on April 7, are being notified to reinforce awareness of the nature of community spread and the importance of the following health and safety practices.”

The Monday email, which was written by USC Chief Health Officer Sarah Van Orman and Assistant Vice President for Auxiliary Services Kris Klinger, said EVK follows strict cleaning guidelines on a daily basis and an enhanced cleaning was completed Sunday night.

In a press briefing via Zoom Tuesday, Van Orman said this individual did not contract the infection at work.

“In some cases, we don’t know where somebody got it, and in other cases, we actually do know. In this particular case, we do know,” she said. “We know where that person contracted it in this case. We know when they had symptoms. We know when they were at work. We’re fortunate with this case as we were able to really construct a pretty detailed timeline to make sure that we were reaching the right people.”

Van Orman did not provide more details about the timeline and infection source, citing privacy reasons. She added that before this confirmed case, the university had already enforced health precautions at EVK, such as redesigning workflow to let employees and customers maintain six feet distance between each other. The measurements, which will continue to be enforced, also include wearing face masks and sanitation of all areas every 15 minutes.

Only patrons who visited EVK on April 7 were notified because USC’s evaluation showed that they were the only customers with exposure risk, Van Orman said. She added that knowing when this became symptomatic and got tested helped the evaluation process, including looking at 48 hours from the onset of the considered symptomatic period. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed the period of exposure risk from the onset of symptoms to 48 hours before symptom onset.

“The only group of individuals we identified that could have any potential, even extremely low risk of exposure, would have been the patrons on the seventh. That’s why we made that decision,” she said.

Van Orman said USC used guidelines from USC Keck Medicine and the CDC for employees who have exposure risks.

“We are very conservative at this time. We do exclude people from the workplace who had what we consider a close contact until such time as we can monitor them and test them after a period of base,” she said.

Van Orman adds that essential employees who tested positive for COVID-19 are on paid leave and individuals who might be exposed at work are covered under workers’ compensation that includes salary protections.

USC’s “COVID-9-Employee FAQ” page lays out information regarding different health care plan coverage for employees who are diagnosed with COVID-19:

  • Employees enrolled in the USC Trojan Care EPO and USC PPO plans will have the care they receive covered if diagnosed as having COVID-19. Out-of-pocket expenses for the focused test used to diagnose COVID-19 will also be waived.
  • Employees enrolled in the Anthem HMO health plan will have the care and treatment they receive covered if diagnosed with COVID-19. Anthem will also waive out-of-pocket expenses for the focused test used to diagnose COVID-19 and for the care visit where the test takes place.
  • For employees enrolled in the Kaiser Permanente HMO, cost sharing (deductibles, copayments and coinsurance) will be reduced to zero ($0.00) for medically necessary screening and testing for COVID-19 including the visit, associated lab testing, and radiology services in a plan hospital, emergency or urgent care setting, or medical office. If a member is diagnosed with COVID-19, all treatment including but not limited to hospital, transportation and pharmacy services will be covered in accordance with the terms and conditions set forth in the coverage document for the member’s health plan.

All employees and their dependents enrolled in these health care plans through USC will receive the same coverage.

The Monday email sent to EVK patrons emphasized the existence of community spread and the importance of following health practices, including using face coverings in all public areas, practicing social distancing, washing hands properly and reporting illness.

“Having a student and employees that acquire COVID-19 through the community is going to be something we’re going to see over the coming days to weeks to a month. It’s just the reality of community transmission,” she said.

Van Orman said a challenge for the USC Student Health is to find the balance between being transparent in its notifications and not creating “overdue panic or a sense of fear.”

“We’re always going to err on the side of broader and more conservative notification than not so,” she said.

For people who have tested positive for COVID-19, Van Orman said USC Student Health is retesting them on a case-by-case basis.

“But we’re not retesting everybody routinely. We’re just advising them that they can stay infectious for a long period of time,” she said.

As of April 16, the Los Angeles County reported 10,854 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 455 deaths. The University Park area, which contains USC’s UPC campus and its northern neighborhood, has 28 confirmed cases.