In early April, word began to circulate among some staffers in the Oregon Office of Emergency Management: One of the agency’s managers was out sick and was believed to have COVID-19.
The manager, Clint Fella, told his supervisor on April 4 he was very ill — feverish, achy and unable to move much without running out of breath. “I couldn’t stand long enough to take a shower,” he said recently.
The good news was that Fella had self-quarantined as soon as symptoms set in, likely decreasing his risk of spreading the disease if that’s what he had. Still, there was a chance the virus might have passed on to his coworkers, many of whom are frontline staffers in the state’s rush to respond to COVID-19.
But instead of communicating that risk to staff, interviews and emails show that OEM leaders tamped down the information, refusing to confirm the possible exposure for weeks despite pressure. That delay has confounded employees, who wonder why the state’s emergency response agency — tasked with such vital tasks as acquiring and distributing personal protective gear to combat the pandemic — appears to have responded so poorly.
“Our agency is responsible for the response here in Oregon, so it’s pretty important,” said Sidra Metzger-Hines, president of the union that represents OEM employees, AFSCME Local 3241. “Our people are doing amazing work, but they need to have all of the information. I don’t know who else may have been exposed.”
Not only does OEM’s silence appear to violate an agreement between the state agency and the union, it runs contrary to guidance on addressing the virus from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and health experts.
Perhaps more concerning, the agency's silence raises questions about safeguards to COVID-19 exposure within Oregon's Emergency Coordination Center. The center, which was shoehorned into OEM's Salem headquarters until this week, is the state's central management hub for responding to the pandemic.
“You need to notify people who’ve been in contact with an infected person,” said Dr. Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. “There might be people who are pregnant. There might be people in high-risk groups or living with their grandmother.”
In response to questions about the situation, OEM offered only a general statement.
“Our agency, along with all state agencies and many other essential services, is striving to balance the protection of employee privacy while ensuring the health and safety of all employees,” agency spokeswoman Bobbi Doan wrote in an email. “As a lead agency in the state’s response to COVID-19, our office is in constant contact with Governor Brown’s office during this evolving situation, prioritizing the health and safety of all personnel as we work together to support Oregonians through this event.”
The agency offered no concrete explanation for why it had delayed notifying employees of a potential exposure. A request to interview OEM’s deputy director was not granted.
Not tested, but very sick
As Fella tells it, he first fell ill in the early hours of April 3. He’d felt tired the day before but not necessarily abnormal. But when he woke up that Friday, Fella said, he was extremely sick.
“I knew right away I wasn’t in good shape,” he said.
Fella, who oversees a portion of the agency’s roughly 40 employees, stayed home from work. When he didn’t feel better by Saturday, April 4, he called a health care provider in Salem. That conversation, combined with the severity of his symptoms, made him certain he had COVID-19.
He didn’t get tested — he didn’t have anyone to drive him and wasn’t sure he would have been eligible for a test anyway — but he said he immediately emailed his supervisor, OEM Deputy Director Matt Marheine.
“I said, ‘Here’s what’s going on,’” Fella, who has since recovered, recalled Wednesday. “My manager responded four minutes later and said, ‘I got it.’”
Fella also communicated his condition to his employees. But he assumed the agency would notify its entire staff of their possible exposure.
Instead, as Fella struggled with even basic functions at home, OEM managers didn’t confirm his illness to people who might have been exposed. Marheine sent staff an email on April 10, acknowledging they’d received questions but declining to answer them.
“We have received several comments and inquiries related to staff out of the office and looking for additional details,” he wrote. But according to state guidance, he said, “we are not to share medical information about employees.”
Marheine added that staff had the ability to telework or take leave, and that hand sanitizing and disinfecting wipes were available.
For staffers who knew about Fella’s illness, the situation was frustrating. After all, OEM had been forthright in March when two employees worried they might have been exposed to the virus and proactively self-quarantined without exhibiting symptoms. Employees who OPB spoke to said managers immediately disclosed those situations to staffers.
“They sent out a message to everybody and said, ‘Everybody here might have been exposed,’” Fella said. “It was weird to me that they took action then, and then did literally nothing.”
Another OEM staffer, who requested anonymity because of possible professional repercussions, concurred. “They’ve told us with no hesitation about possible exposures,” the person said. “They did it when it was background information, but not lifesaving information.”
Not what the experts recommend
The lack of warning runs afoul of advice from officials and experts.
According to guidance from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “employers should inform and encourage employees to self-monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 if they suspect possible exposure.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is slightly more strict with its advice, recommending employers inform workers about a potential exposure if another employee is “confirmed to have a COVID-19 infection.”
While employers frequently worry about releasing private health information, Caplan, the NYU medical professor, said organizations should err on the side of transparency.
“When you’re in an epidemic — a plague — you have to shift your orientation to protecting others," he said. "There’s not much excuse for not doing it.”
Employees OPB spoke with told of how workers from OEM and other state agencies had been in close proximity since the state’s Emergency Coordination Center was activated in March. “Packed like sardines,” one employee recalled.
OEM’s silence also appears to run afoul of a
regarding workplace policies during the coronavirus pandemic. The agreement reads in part: “If management has knowledge that an employee may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus, the employees manager shall notify the employee within one business day.”
Eventually, that clause appears to have forced OEM’s hand. On Tuesday, AFSCME Local 3241 filed an official grievance with the agency, demanding that employees be alerted to the possible exposure by the end of the day.
“On April 4th and again on April 10th management was notified that an employee was home sick of a presumed case of novel coronavirus and no notifications went out to employees who may have come in contact with novel coronavirus,” the grievance read.
Just before 3 p.m. on April 21, a full two weeks after Fella says he first alerted supervisors, Marheine sent out a notice:
“In this critical time of the COVID19 incident we must continue working together to ensure all steps are taken to limit the exposure of OEM staff to potential sources of COVID,” the message began, before laying out the agency’s agreement with the union. “Management has been informed that an employee, which you may have had contact with, reported they had symptoms associated with COVID. This employee was not tested nor received a COVID confirmation or a diagnosis. As of this message, this is the only symptomatic case reported.”
Going forward, Marheine continued, OEM employees are being asked to report any symptoms associated with COVID-19, regardless of test results. Those symptoms, it noted, could appear two to 14 days after exposure.