COVID-19 Research Series

Health of Critical Infrastructure Workers in the US

Critical infrastructure forms the backbone of functioning society. The workers employed in critical infrastructure sectors provide products and services that are essential to ensuring public health, safety, and community well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic has both increased the demand for these services while exacerbating the shortage for critical workers, placing real pressure on these individuals – in a range of evident and less-obvious roles – to function effectively.

On March 28, 2020, the United States Department of Homeland Security issued a list of 17 critical infrastructure sectors that are deemed essential to continued critical infrastructure viability. Y Analytics mapped these sectors to 2019 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and found that approximately 50 to 65 million Americans (approximately 35-45% of US employment) work in critical infrastructure sectors.  While this mapping may overestimate the total number somewhat due to inexact matching to DHS’s categories, its direction points to the importance of maintaining worker health and increasing resilience of critical infrastructure operations.

US Critical Infrastructure Sector Workers by Industry

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to create disruptions to all facets of society, demand for services like healthcare is surging (see COVID-19 Research Series Newsletter #2). At the same time, and somewhat less obviously, climbing infection rates threaten the health of all workers, including those in other critical infrastructure sectors. We are already seeing the impacts of the current pandemic on critical infrastructure workers today. Below are some snapshots of critical infrastructure workers who have been affected by COVID-19.

Caregivers

Formal caregivers can be at high risk of contracting COVID-19 as they provide care to multiple patients in a day. At the same time, caregivers are more likely to expose older patients to illnesses. According to a 2015 report by AARP, 39% of care recipients are between 50 and 74 years old, and 47% of care recipients are older than 75. For these reasons, it is imperative for formal caregivers to receive adequate protection from viral infections. A recent survey by the Home Care Association of New York, released on March 18, found that 67% of home care and hospice agencies in New York did not have a sufficient amount of personal protective equipment. 82% of agencies were found to be in high need of hand sanitizer, 79% were found to be in high need of regular face masks or loop masks, and 58% were found to be in high need of N95 masks. Caregivers around the country are exploring new modes of care delivery, such as telemedicine. According to one article, hospices have called on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to certify patients for telemedicine rather than face-to-face encounters.

Power utility workers

Power utility workers ensure that households and businesses across the country have adequate and reliable access to electricity. Given the importance of the services provided by workers in this industry, special protocols are being established for employees who operate control rooms. According to one article, a facility in Niagara evacuates its control room staff twice a day to send in a cleaning crew that disinfects computer monitors and switch panels, while employees are tested and monitored by medical workers outside the facility. In some cases, power utility operators are considering new protocols that enforce critical workers to live at work in order to reduce risk of exposure.

Law enforcement and public safety employees

Workers who keep Americans safe are facing massive disruptions to their work as a result of COVID-19. One article reports that the average call volume handled by a 911 operator in New York has increased from 4,000 to 7,000 per day. More than 1,400 NYPD officers have tested positive for COVID19; elsewhere in the country, 16 firefighters were tested positive in Illinois, and more than 100 were under quarantine. Within the prison system, 105 New York State prison employees were tested positive, and infections have already spread to inmates. Local bodies have taken action to curb infections; in Harris County, for example, 1,000 non-violent inmates are expected to be released to stop the spread of the disease within jails and to reduce the risk of infection to its critical workers.

Example Critical Infrastruture Workers

Sources

Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020)

Department of Homeland Security (2020)

 

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