Bath Iron Works will allow close contacts of employees who test positive for COVID-19 to remain at work, with additional safety precautions, as long as they don’t develop symptoms. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

Bath Iron Works is now allowing employees who come in close contact with co-workers infected by the coronavirus to remain at work.

Under the company’s previous policy, which changed Monday, such employees would automatically be sent home to self-quarantine, a practice recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent the spread of COVID-19

Now, workers who have close contact with an employee who has tested positive for COVID-19 will “automatically be enrolled in the Occupational Health Monitoring Program” and be allowed to remain at work, as long as they don’t display symptoms, according to the company’s website.

The CDC defines a “close contact” as someone who has spent 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period with an infected person. Someone can spread COVID-19 starting two days before they have any symptoms, according to the CDC, though some people infected with the virus might never show any symptoms.

The CDC broadly recommends close contacts quarantine unless they’re fully vaccinated or had COVID-19 within the past three months. However, there is an exception for critical infrastructure, which includes shipyards like BIW that produce warships for the Navy.

For critical infrastructure, the CDC states employees exposed to COVID-19 can continue working if they remain asymptomatic and additional safety measures are put in place. The CDC warns this exception “should not be misinterpreted as always being the first or most appropriate option to pursue in managing critical work tasks.”

“Staying home may still be the most preferred and protective option for exposed employees,” the CDC wrote in guidance last updated on Feb 11. “Critical infrastructure businesses have an obligation to limit, to the extent possible, the reintegration of in-person employees who have experienced an exposure to COVID-19 but remain symptom-free in ways that best protect the health of the employee, their co-employees, and the general public.”

The shipyard — one of Maine’s largest employers — changed its policy because of the increasing number of people getting vaccinated.

According to BIW spokesman David Hench, “a significant percentage of our employees have already been vaccinated” but the company doesn’t know how many because offering information about vaccination status is voluntary.

The shipyard is holding COVID-19 vaccine clinics offered by the Maine National Guard for its employees. The first clinic took place Thursday, but Hench could not confirm how many workers received a vaccine during the clinic.

Previously, BIW required close contacts of an infected coworker remain home until the close contact tested negative for COVID-19.

“Having those people out of work had a direct and significant impact on our ability to meet our U.S. Navy customer’s needs,” Hench wrote in an email to The Times Record Thursday.

Maine CDC guidelines state that close contacts “must remain in quarantine until 10 days after the positive case leaves isolation” to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19.

Hench said the Maine CDC is “supportive” of the policy change because it falls in line with guidelines for critical infrastructure and matches what other shipyards are doing.

In an email to The Times Record Thursday, Maine CDC Spokesman Robert Long wrote, “Maine CDC continues to work with Bath Iron Works’ management, primarily by facilitating COVID-19 testing and vaccination, to help limit potential transmission of the virus among shipyard employees.” Long declined to say whether the Maine CDC believes BIW’s policy change is safe for employees.

BIW employees in the Occupational Health Monitoring Program will be “monitored closely for any symptoms of the virus” and “will be screened for symptoms at the start of their shift, either at a designated screening location or by a supervisor,” the company states on its website. If an employee displays symptoms at work, they must go home.

“The company is finalizing a contract with a vendor to provide rapid COVID-19 tests on site which will provide results in 15 minutes,” Hench said. “The rapid testing will more quickly ensure that individuals who are returning to work under the OHMP are not infected.”

Employees enrolled in the program must wear a face mask and “avoid all unnecessary contact with others in the shipyard,” the company states. They’ll also be assigned work that “minimizes contact with their co-workers.” Employees can opt out of the monitoring program and stay home as a precaution, but they will “cover their time away from work with their available benefits.”

Some BIW workers said Thursday that they were skeptical of the shipyard’s new policy.

“I think this is short-sighted,” BIW marine electrician John Decoteau said. “I understand it’s difficult for them to do business, but we have some older, vulnerable people here. This is a bad idea.”

Decoteau — who is waiting to receive his second vaccine shot —said he has noticed “entire crews out” because one or more crew member tested positive, hindering production.

Likewise, pipefitter Alberto Dacruz said he believes BIW’s policy change is “risky” because someone can transmit COVID-19 without displaying symptoms.

BIW has reported 570 COVID-19 cases as of Thursday, according to the company website. Of those, 85 were employees who were either working from home or in quarantine. The company could not confirm how many of those cases were employees in quarantine after being identified as close contacts.

Most recently, the shipyard announced 19 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday. The day before,  the company stated 35 new cases had been confirmed since April 30.

The shipyard, with a workforce of roughly 6,900, reported 149 COVID-19 cases among employees in April, according to the company website. The company had reported 37 new cases in March, 64 in February and 137 in January.

63,175 people across the state have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday and 793 have died, the Maine CDC reported.

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