Coronavirus: Employees slam FEMA for hiding details of its 7 positive cases, say it's risky for public health

Coronavirus: Employees slam FEMA for hiding details of its 7 positive cases, say it's risky for public health
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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has said that seven of its employees have tested positive for coronavirus with four more cases pending, The New York Times has reported. The agency that is currently leading the country's response to COVID-19 has refused to disclose where the infected employees are located, sparking criticism from its employees' union, which has accused it of endangering public health. 

“Currently, FEMA has 11 total cases — seven employees have tested positive and four potential cases are pending,” Lizzie Litzow, a spokeswoman for FEMA, said in a statement. “Individuals who need to be aware of their names and locations have been made aware.”

“FEMA has taken every precaution recommended by the CDC to protect all employees,” Litzow added in reference to the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US.

Union leaders had urged the agency to share the details of how many employees had tested positive so they could take the appropriate measures to get those that had interacted with the infected individuals tested as well. On March 27, FEMA declined the request saying the union did not need to know, in a letter addressed to the employees' union.

Steve Reaves, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 4060, a body that represents about 5,000 FEMA employees stated that FEMA was, in fact, jeopardizing the health of other employees by not disclosing the relevant information on infections within the agency. He also asserted that it was risking the safety of all those people that currently receive aid from the agency. FEMA has roughly 14,000 employees in total.

“If we’re out there handing out masks and gloves, and we’ve got COVID, then they’re contaminated,” said Mr Reaves.

The agency is already strained by three years of major natural disasters adding to the health and safety concerns of FEMA employees. It was responding to 54 major disasters around the country as of Saturday, say agency reports. Since Monday, 13 states and territories have requested disaster assistance for coronavirus via FEMA. Data also illustrates that barely one-third of the agency's trained personnel is available to be deployed, and their demand will possibly grow in the upcoming weeks as Federal scientists have predicted 'major to moderate' floods in at least 23 states, and hurricane season sets in on June 1.

The coronavirus is forcing FEMA to re-examine its approach towards the coronavirus pandemic. The agency's traditional response to disasters is to gather large number of people in the close quarters to allocate relief most effectively. But the alternate has urged personnel to work from home whenever possible and distance themselves from their colleagues. In  addition, FEMA has limited the number of disaster victims allowed inside its field offices at one time and has uncomplicated the sheltering of victim in hotels or other settings in various states, so they are not packed close together.

Reaves said that he has learned of three people having tested positive in the agency. One in Nashville, where the individual was sorting out the aftermath of a tornado. Another at FEMA's regional office in Atlanta. Reaves assured both infected people are isolating themselves. The third person tested positive on March 24 and hailed from the Washington headquarters of FEMA. The official was also working at the center the previous day when Vice President Mike Pence hosted a conference call with governors at the coordination center in the building.

 “At no time did this individual or any others known to have contact with them come within six feet of the vice president or any other task force principal for any period of time,” Litzow iterated in her statement. The agency confirmed that officials leading the coronavirus taskforce were safe.

Reaves, however, said two other people who worked at the Washington office have told him they were self-isolation out of concern of having been exposed to the infected individual
Some FEMA officials had grown concerned over the headquarters being crowded after President Trump turned to the disaster agency to lead the administration response to COVID-19.

A senior administration official told the New York Times that the agency was having a hard time keeping track of employees who had self-isolated out of concern for the virus and many have been asked to work from home.

In the letter addressed to the employees' union, the agency said it declined from sharing information since it could violate employee privacy. Noting some FEMA offices, the agency said, “the number of employees is sufficiently low that affirmatively associating those locations with an employee who tested positive for Covid-19 may allow those familiar with the matter to discern the person’s identity.”

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