Murky standards for reporting workplace illness in Illinois colleges’ COVID cases

A cursory look at how COVID has been publicly reported by Illinois public colleges reveals a variety of online dashboards all with different formats varying specifically. 

For the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC)  campus, online visitors can pour over a series of refreshable data tools and interactive charts that display things like COVID positive tests since the beginning of the pandemic, broken into categories like “student,” “grad,” or “faculty/staff.” 

At Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIU), most of the same information is available, but reformatted from a spreadsheet and laid out plainly. 

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The University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) campus has far less detail. COVID data is aggregated, so there’s no way for the public to easily see what groups are primarily being impacted. 

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) records showed smaller colleges, with less resources and staff, often logged significantly less incidents of illness from COVID-19 exposure at work. The Daily Egyptian obtained these records through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests,

Campus administrators at UIUC logged 124 incidents of workplace illness due to COVID-19 exposure between January 1, 2020 and December 31, 2021.

Incidents are logged in Form 300, which state and city public institutions are required to send to Illinois OSHA every year.

Campus administrators at University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) logged 67 incidents in the same time frame. SIU logged one incident in those two years. SIUE and UIS logged zero.

Staff at these colleges, aided by local departments and state officials, recorded hundreds, in some cases thousands, of positive COVID cases among university employees since the start of the pandemic.

UIC campus recorded 3,643 employees tested positive for COVID through by the end of January 2022. UIUC recorded 2686 COVID-positive employees in the same time period. SIUE recorded 416, SIU 314 and UIS 168. 

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The variance is, at least in part, certainly a reflection of staff size. UIUC, which is the largest college in the state, had an average of 22,234 employees in 2020. UIC is the third largest, and had an average of 16,294 employees the same year. 

SIU, SIUE, and UIS combined don’t have a staff the size of UIC. 

Yet, even given the differences, it’s unclear how university administrators at SIUE and UIS determined there were no incidents of illness that resulted from COVID exposure in the workplace. It’s unclear how SIU administrators determined there was just one in the same time period.

The Daily Egyptian reached out to the SIU administrators successfully, but did not receive a comment by publication time.

Erik Kambarian, the acting director of Illinois OSHA, said recording workplace illness incidents due to COVID isn’t a totally black and white proposition.

Employers are required to report incidents that meet certain criteria, such as those that require medical attention, “beyond first aid,” Kambarian said. 

Incidents where employees have to quarantine after coming into contact with a coworker that’s tested positive for COVID don’t need to be recorded on OSHA injury and illness logs. 

Incidents where an employee tested positive for COVID after exposure in the workplace, but was asymptomatic or had mild symptoms, are a bit of a gray area because many people don’t seek medical treatment for mild cases. 

The clearest cases would be one where an employee is hospitalized. 

“State and local government employers in Illinois must report in-patient hospitalizations for work-related cases of COVID-19 within 24 hours by phone at 217-782-7860,” Kambarian said in an email.

But, even then, contact tracing generally doesn’t produce results precise enough to determine where, exactly, someone who contracted COVID was exposed. 

Division Director Paula Clark, of the Jackson County Health Department (JCHD), said contact tracing in Jackson County is near the best in the state, but in many cases there isn’t always just one place a COVID-positive person was obviously exposed.

The advice given by Illinois OSHA officials is to record incidents that, “most likely,” occurred due to workplace exposure since there may be no way to be 100% sure. 

DE reporters have documented a variety of workplace COVID incidents at SIU.

At least one dining hall employee and a group of students were told to quarantine in 2020 after being exposed to COVID in Trueblood Hall, according to a Daily Egyptian (DE) article from Sept. 9 of that year.

The Daily Egyptian newsroom had to close for two weeks following a staff member’s positive test, according to a DE article from Sept. 12, 2020.

Two classes, including a graduate assistant and professor, were exposed to a COVID positive student, according to a DE article from Aug. 25, 2021. The graduate assistant reportedly heard about a dozen similar cases.

To the best of our knowledge, none of those incidents resulted in staff requiring additional medical attention.

Clay Awsumb, the president of Graduate Assistants United, said in an email that, of graduate assistant claims that have been filed with SIU, “GAU has not encountered nor heard about any denied or otherwise challenged COVID-related workplace claims from graduate assistants.”

The only recorded workplace illness COVID reported to OSHA from SIU Carbondale was from October 4, 2020, when a campus police officer needed 22 days off work after being exposed to COVID at Trueblood Hall.

Jason Flynn can be reached at [email protected], by phone at 872-222-7821 or on Twitter at @dejasonflynn. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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