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Postal workers see sudden surge of COVID in recent weeks

Updated October 3, 2020 - 11:21 am

Las Vegas postal workers are seeing a surge of COVID-19 cases at the valley’s central processing plant, which sorts all of Southern Nevada’s outgoing mail.

About 24 cases within the last four weeks had been confirmed among workers at the plant as of Friday, according to Chris Washington, president of the local American Postal Workers Union. The plant is located at 1001 E. Sunset Road.

Seven of those positive cases were announced among workers Wednesday. Two were announced Friday. The workers affected include clerks and mail handlers as well as management and maintenance staff but do not include letter carriers.

The entire second floor of the building was shut down Friday. Administrative staff cleared from their offices were instructed to work from home.

“We’re trying to understand what is going on,” Washington told the Review-Journal. “Is it outside coming in, or inside coming out?”

About two dozen cases within four weeks could be considered a “COVID-19 cluster,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The term is used to define two or more COVID-19 cases among workers within a 14-day period with a discernible work-site connection. It is unclear if cases reported at the plant have a discernible work-site connection.

State and local health officials for months have not identified any specific spreading events or case clusters in Southern Nevada beyond those at nursing homes and other state-licensed facilities.

Preventative measures

Washington said cleaning crews conducted a deep clean of the entire building Thursday evening. He said workers wear face masks and gloves throughout the day, and announcements over the building’s intercom system remind workers to maintain distance from each other.

A regional spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service did not provide comment on the Las Vegas plant. But the spokesperson, Carl Fondelheit IV, said the agency is sharing information with workers through video calls, email, newsletters and employee conversations.

“We are encouraging healthy behaviors and protocols including frequent hand-washing, use of sanitizers, and mandating consistent cleaning of work spaces,” Fondelheit wrote in an email.

Stephanie Bethel, with the Southern Nevada Health District, said she could not confirm specifics about cases at the Las Vegas plant.

In general, she wrote in an email: “If there are workplaces where transmission is occurring or potential clusters, we work with employers to identify individuals who are to be quarantined or isolated, and implement contact tracing and case investigations.”

A regional spokesperson for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was not able to answer Friday whether any workers within the plant had recently filed safety complaints or whether federal OSHA investigators had recently conducted inspections or observations of the building.

It’s unclear how many employees work at the valley’s central processing plant. Washington said about 75 people work a morning shift, more than 100 work an evening shift and about 15 work overnight each day. But that does not include management or maintenance workers.

It’s also unclear if any of the employees who have tested positive have been hospitalized or have died.

‘Hazardous place’

Glenn Norton, president of the local National Association of Letter Carriers branch, said about 30 letter carriers work at the plant. He is not aware of any who have tested positive. He noted letter carriers are in the building only for a short time each day and spend the bulk of their shifts delivering mail.

“That is a hazardous place to work right now,” Norton said of the plant, noting that he has urged all letter carriers to continue wearing masks, use hand sanitizer often and keep their distance from others.

Washington said administrative postal nurses are conducting contact tracing among employees. When an employee tests positive, any employees who may have been exposed to that worker are then instructed to self-isolate until they receive a subsequent negative test result.

He said a few positive cases have cropped up in the past several months. But now?

“As far as why we’re seeing such an uptick, it’s crazy,” Washington said. “It’s just this spike all of a sudden.”

With an expanded mail-in election already underway in parts of the state, the sudden surge in COVID-19 cases has not resulted in significant mail-processing delays, Washington said. Part of that is because a handful of sorting machines that had been shut down have since been brought back online.

Another factor is the plant is operating with “peak season” help, which means more people are working at the plant, similar to when additional seasonal employees are brought on during the holiday season.

But moving forward, if cases continue to rise, staffing is “definitely a concern,” Washington said.

“We’re just hoping that it doesn’t keep going up,” he said of the case count.

What you need to know about mail and COVID-19:

A lot is still unknown about how COVID-19 spreads, the CDC advises, though coronaviruses in general are thought to mostly spread through respiratory droplets.

“Although the virus can survive for a short period on some surfaces, it is unlikely to be spread from domestic or international mail, products or packaging,” according to the agency’s website.

The CDC advises that people wash their hands after accepting deliveries or collecting mail.

Rachel Crosby is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing. Contact her at rcrosby@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3801. Follow @rachelacrosby on Twitter. Subscribe here to support our work.

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