Health official warned staff about Utah County businesses tied to COVID-19 hot spots as county refused to identify them
Records ordered released by judge name Utah County businesses connected to outbreaks
PROVO — The Utah County businesses at the center of two COVID-19 hot spots that broke out in April have been identified as Built Bar, a food manufacturer based in American Fork, and Wasatch Truss, a construction company in Spanish Fork, according to county documents released Wednesday.
Built Bar is being sued by an employee, who alleges the company ignored her plea for safety measures and did not take the necessary precautions to prevent the virus’ spread.
Her lawsuit also alleges the company ignored public health orders by not offering employees protective supplies and “refusing to suspend operations” to sanitize its facilities, and employees “were issued threats of termination if they discussed anything related to a COVID-19 infection” at the facility.
Emails show Built Bar employees told health department investigators that managers were discouraging employees from discussing being diagnosed with COVID-19. Another official wrote in an email he believed “some of the stories about employees being pressured to work while having active symptoms of COVID.”
A Built Bar representative declined comment Wednesday. But in May, Built Bar co-founder and CEO Nick Greer told the Deseret News the company “shut down our facilities, changed our entire process, put tape on the ground and implemented temperature checks for all employees.” He said the company paid employees while aggressive cleaning, including fumigation, was done at the facility, and there hasn’t been a single positive case since reopening.
A general manager for Wasatch Truss declined to comment to the Deseret News when reached Wednesday evening, saying he needed to call Utah County officials first.
“I don’t know what the heck is going on here,” he said.
But earlier Wednesday, Turner told a KSL-TV reporter his company took the outbreak seriously from the very beginning, and “never asked an employee to come back to work without approval.”
“In the beginning, there was a lot of confusion,” Turner said about proper prevention steps, but they have since “spent hundreds of thousands of dollars” to regularly disinfect, provide personal protective equipment, do temperature checks and enforce social distancing. Since then, he said his company has not seen any more COVID-19 cases.
The naming of the companies comes after a 4th District Court judge Monday ordered the information be released, siding with KSL-TV in a court battle over whether the county was obligated to release the names of two businesses tied to outbreaks of the novel coronavirus. A coalition of other Utah new organizations, including the Deseret News, joined KSL-TV in the legal fight, arguing the public had the right to know about how and where COVID-19 has spread.
While Utah County officials refused to release the records to the public, emails obtained through an open records request show a Utah County health staffer thought the information was important enough to circulate to other health department employees to keep them safe.
“This is sensitive information so please keep it within the office,” wrote Tyler Plewe, bureau director for the county health department’s food safety and emergency response. “I wanted to let you know of these locations so that you feel safe if you are heading out into the public.”
But it took months — and a judge’s order — for county officials to release the names of the businesses to the public.
Plewe’s email named the “hot spot” previously reported in news reports to be in Payson as the construction company Wasatch Truss in Spanish Fork. “Most of the infected people that work at the company live in Payson,” he explained.
His email also noted Built Bar was investigated by the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food — as well as a Lindon-based company called Better Body. “The spread in both of these facilities has been contained,” Plewe wrote.
What health officials could tell the public, Plewe wrote, is “these hotspots are centered around close exposure in work and care center environments. These hot spots are not linked to community transmission.”
The county emails don’t mention any more details about an outbreak at Better Body, but they do detail email exchanges expressing concerns about Built Bar and Wasatch Truss due to the number of cases that were surfacing from both companies.
In an April 17 email to Plewe, Richard Beckstrand, manufactured food program manager for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, raised alarms about the outbreak in Built Bar.
Beckstrand wrote there were “19 cases and around 50 more with illness symptoms looks like a potentially BIG problem to me.”
Beckstrand said as of that date “the facility is immaculate as they have done a good job of cleaning and disinfecting the facility,” but “my concern going forward is the number of potential illnesses and their continued efforts to ensure that sick employees are immediately excluded and potential close contacts are also excluded.”
“They could be looking at a situation where they run out of employees who are able to meet the definition of no illness and no exposure and at that point do they still do the right things to prevent more illness?” Beckstrand wrote. “That’s why I tend to believe some of the stories about employees being pressured to work while having active symptoms of COVID.”
As for Wasatch Truss, emails show county health officials were concerned about the “troubling cluster” of COVID-19 cases breaking out at the construction company. Emails show health officials estimated about 25 COVID-19 cases came from Wasatch Truss, about a fourth of the company’s workforce.
Emails also show the company’s manager cooperated with health officials for contact tracing, and the business closed the construction site for a day for deep cleaning. It also required masks to be worn and began checking temperatures of all employees.
County officials had linked two businesses to at least 68 COVID-19 infections, initially reporting at least one of those businesses forced employees to work while sick.
But county officials later tried to walk back those claims. In May, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt held a news conference to tell reporters that Utah County Health Department officials who interviewed those businesses’ employees while conducting contact tracing were wrong when they reported to the Utah County Commission those businesses forced employees to work even after they tested positive for COVID-19.
Leavitt said his office, in a review of the health investigation, determined “those assertions weren’t true,” but he did not offer specific information about how the breakdown occurred and acknowledged the lack of clarity raised more questions than answers. It also wasn’t clear how county officials determined those claims weren’t true.
However, Leavitt did not dispute the health department’s findings that 68 people were infected in hot spots around those two particular businesses. When asked whether those businesses violated any COVID-19 guidelines at all, he also did not have answers.
But emails show Utah county health officials, in interviews with concerned Built Bar employees, were being told managers at the factory were telling employees who had tested positive for COVID-19 not to talk about it.
“The patient did indicate that there have been a lot of people who have been positive at his workplace but have been told by the manager to not say anything and to return to work as soon as they feel better,” wrote Susana Vega in an April 13 email. “The manager is encouraging those who have tested positive to not identify contacts and not to ‘alarm people.’ Patient feels that he wouldn’t have gotten sick if the manager wasn’t allowing sick people to come to work.”
Fourth District Judge Christine Johnson on Monday rejected Utah County’s arguments that releasing the names of the businesses would also result in a “de facto identification” of their employees who participated in contact tracing investigations and those who may have contracted COVID-19, which would be private, personal health information.
The judge sided with the media’s arguments that the public interest outweighs the county’s aim to keep the names of the businesses protected because of a risk of possible “backlash” against the businesses — a scenario the judge called a “hypothetical.”
While the county’s attorney argued the bulk of records KSL-TV sought were made up of contact tracing documents — and types of medical information that could come from a doctor’s office — KSL-TV’s attorneys argued the news outlets didn’t want personal information, but rather any documents such as perhaps email exchanges between county officials related to those two businesses.
“Utah County’s only interest in this matter has been to follow the law,” County Commission Chairman Tanner Ainge said in a statement. “We had real concerns that releasing information connected with an epidemiological investigation would violate the strict confidentiality requirement attached to such information.”
County officials are “more than happy to comply” with the judge’s ruling, Ainge said, “which makes it clear we can and should disclose.”
“As the records are released from the health department and/or county attorney’s office, the county commissioners will be seeing this information for the first time along with the media,” Ainge said. “That’s how serious our health department has taken their responsibility for strict confidentiality.”
Contributing: Matt Gephardt