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ADHS essential workers claim state failed to keep them safe from COVID-19

“They are providing the guidelines for reopening of all these different things, but they can’t seem to get it together for their own agency.”

PHOENIX — Essential workers in the Arizona Department of Health Services are raising a red flag after they say employees in the Office of Vital Records began testing positive for COVID-19 in June.

Four Vital Records employees speaking on the condition of anonymity told the 12 News I-Team that they and their coworkers were unable to work from home and put their own health on the line as the virus spread through their workplace.

Credit: 12 News

The I-Team reviewed emails showing the Office of Vital Records, which includes medical marijuana licensing and birth and death certificates, had at least 37 employees out sick – many for multiple days or even weeks – from June 16 to July 7.

"My issue is that they didn't protect us from the beginning," one anonymous employee told 12 News.

Credit: 12 News

‘Teleworking will not apply to all staff’

At the beginning of the pandemic, ADHS planned to have most employees work from home, according to an email dated March 19 from Dr. Cara Christ. However, Dr. Christ wrote “teleworking will not apply to all staff.”

“Their response is we are not able to do that because of the documents we have,” one vital records employee said.

“You’re expected to be here. This is a public sector job and we serve the public and that’s most important,” another said.

As the weeks continued, the virus slowly spread throughout Arizona – until the first week of June, when cases jumped over 25,000, and continued increasing at a concerning rate throughout the summer.

Credit: 12 News
Arizona Covid Cases and Deaths reported by the Arizona Department of Health Services as of August 27, 2020.

One email obtained by 12 News shows Bureau Chief and Assistant State Registrar Krystal Colburn confirmed in an all-staff meeting with BVR employees that a staff member tested positive for COVID-19 on June 12. 

At that time, the department did make changes to the office - including cleaning and disinfecting of the entire vital records building as well as future scheduled cleanings. At the time masks were provided to each staff member and hand sanitizer was placed throughout the building.

On June 18 – ADHS required workers to wear masks while in the office, one email shows.

But as the weeks continued, employees saw more coworkers missing work, and received more department emails confirming more staffers had tested positive.

‘We have had cases of COVID’

In a June 28 email from Assistant Director for Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs with ADHS, Colby Bower to staff he states: "We wanted to let you know we have had a couple of team members in our offices test positive for COVID-19 at the end of last week. This was expected as the spread of COVID-19 is widespread in the community."

Credit: 12 News

Still, ADHS Director Dr. Cara Christ and an attorney representing ADHS, Robert Lane, refused to confirm to 12 News how many sick employees tested positive for COVID-19.

In a July press conference Dr. Cara Christ confirmed that ADHS experienced cases of COVID-19 in the department.

“Just like any other business we’re not immune to COVID,” Christ said. “We have had cases of COVID.”

Credit: 12 News

“That really scares me, that I’m being put in a position to choose my job or my life,” one worker said.

A July 20 email from the ADHS's Department of Human Resources gives a timeline for how the department implemented safety guidelines.

  • In February, the email stated, the department implemented CDC guidance for cleaning and disinfecting public spaces within the ADHS buildings.
  • In March, the department explored telecommute options if a job was not deemed essential. Hand sanitizer was placed in high traffic areas and available for work areas and conference rooms. The State Lab began screening all visitors.
  • In April, sanitizer stands and dispensers were installed in the buildings. CDC guidelines pertaining to wearing a mask of using a cloth face covering was communicated to team members. Physical distancing markers were place in the Receiving Lab. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and training was provided for team members in certain programs for field work.
  • In May, the email continued, the department tested 1,456 ADHS and State team members and their families. Additional PPE and training provided to essential services team members requiring field work once Governor Ducey re-opened the State on May 15, 2020.
  • In June, masks were made available to staff throughout the buildings, and a mandatory mask requirement for team members and visitors was implemented while in public spaces in our downtown buildings. The Bureau of Vital Records installed glass partitions for all low rise cubicles.

BVR workers tell 12 News the glass partitions were not installed until after workers began getting sick with COVID-19.

More than 200,000 cases

On Thursday, Aug. 27, ADHS reported 200,139 people had tested positive for the coronavirus since the state began testing. Still, many businesses will begin reopening on Thursday as multiple counties, including Maricopa County, met some state benchmarks for “moderate” reopening guidelines.

But the vital records workers who spoke to 12 News stated they were concerned that the guidelines and safety measures may not be enough.

Credit: 12 News

“They are providing the guidelines for reopening of all these different things, but they can’t seem to get it together for their own agency,” a worker said.

And employees question department’s policies they say don’t make sense. One employee claimed they continued to work in the office while waiting for their test results even though they believed they had been exposed to the virus.

Josh Sanders: "You were working in the office while waiting for your test results?

Vital Record Worker: "Yes, they told me because I didn't show any symptoms I needed to come back in until I got my test results."

Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Dr. Amesh Adalja, told 12 News it’s well documented that asymptomatic people can still spread the virus.

“So we do know that people who are asymptomatic that are just about to develop symptoms or may never develop symptoms do have the ability to transmit in certain circumstances," Dr. Adalja said. "That’s why if you have a test result pending you really have to take care until you get that result back to try and limit your exposure to others because you may be contagious to them."

Dr. Christ declined to comment on ADHS policy or sit down for an interview for this story.

Credit: 12 News