Dozens of workers at Reagan National Airport may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus after attending services at an Alexandria church last month.
The delay meant church members who work at the airport may have continued going to their jobs because they were unaware they’d been exposed — potentially endangering co-workers and airport customers. It underscores the unknown risks people may face as they begin to venture out more.
Officials at the church, which serves the Ethiopian Orthodox community, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
32BJ SEIU, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, which represents many airport employees, said the workers who were potentially exposed include wheelchair attendants, food-service workers and baggage handlers. Union officials said they weren’t aware of any workers at Dulles International Airport who may have been exposed through the church case.
Officials with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which manages National and Dulles, said they were not aware of any positive cases among their employees affiliated with the church, nor were any MWAA employees self-quarantining because they had been at the church on those days.
But the authority’s information could be incomplete because the pool of potentially exposed workers includes those who work for airport contractors. While contractors are required to inform the airports authority and local public health officials of positive cases of the virus, they are not required by law to tell airport officials if employees are self-quarantining due to possible exposure to it, according to Christina Saull, an airport spokeswoman with the MWAA. She said airport officials continue to follow all federal, state and local coronavirus protocols for keeping employees and the public safe.
Two airport contractors, Paradies Lagardère and Eulen America, did not respond to inquiries about whether there were positive cases among their employees or whether any voluntarily self-quarantined because of possible exposure to the virus.
A third contractor, Huntleigh USA, which has 15 employees — down from 68 before the pandemic — said there were no positive cases among its employees at National, nor were any employees under voluntary quarantine.
“Huntleigh USA Corporation takes the COVID19 Pandemic very seriously, and has put measures in place to protect our employees and those they come in contact with,” spokeswoman Jacquelyn Hunt said in a statement. “[Personal protective equipment] is provided to all employees and we reinforce hand washing, social distancing, and CDC guidelines and recommendations.”
Alexandria health officials, citing privacy concerns, won’t say how many positive cases can be linked to the church.
Virginia is one of the few states that has rules governing how business must deal with the coronavirus in the workplace. Under emergency standards adopted by the state’s Department of Labor and Industry in late July, businesses are required to assess their operations for vulnerabilities related to coronavirus exposures and, depending on what they determine, develop plans for addressing the risks and provide training to employees. In the event an employee tests positive for the virus, the business must disclose that to other employees and employers who the worker may have come in contact with. If three or more employees test positive, the employer must report that to state officials.
State officials said they work closely with businesses to ensure compliance. Businesses that fail to comply face maximum fines of more than $10,000, and repeat offenders can be fined upward of $100,000.
Jaime Contreras, vice president of 32BJ SEIU, said once the church outbreak was made public, workers began calling the union seeking guidance.
“We told them nothing is worth risking your lives, so please quarantine and pray for the best,” Contreras said.
Even so, Contreras noted the advice may have been hard for some to follow because many of the workers don’t have paid sick leave. Others may not have been able to get tested because they don’t have health insurance and are unable to afford the cost of testing, he said.
Virginia has programs that provide those who are uninsured or underinsured the opportunity to get tested if they qualify, but Contreras said some workers are afraid to take advantage of the services. Costs for coronavirus testing vary depending on the health-care provider.
More than 7,000 people in the Washington region have died of the virus, and health officials continue to urge residents to take precautions, including wearing masks, practicing social distancing and avoiding large gatherings.
Current Virginia rules allow people to attend religious services, but the gatherings must not exceed 250 people. Those who attend must wear masks and follow physical distancing rules, while institutions must have protocols in place for cleaning and disinfection of spaces.
Stephen Haering, director of the Alexandria Health Department, said testing delays are frustrating, but once made aware of a positive case, health officials acted quickly to reach people.
The case at the church was even more challenging, he said, because even when working with church officials it was impossible to determine who had been at the church on those specific days. That’s part of the reason the city released information about the potential exposures to the public. The department urged people who had been at the church on the days in question to self-quarantine and monitor themselves for possible symptoms of the coronavirus. That quarantine period ended Aug. 31.
“We have worked collaboratively with the church, providing guidance for their next steps,” Natalie Talis, a health department spokeswoman, said in an email. “In general, we do provide cleaning recommendations and advise facilities with positive cases on when they should welcome people back inside following cleaning.”
Talis, citing privacy concerns, declined to say whether the department’s recommendations to the church included temporary closure.
Ian Duncan and Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.
Coronavirus news in D.C., Virginia and Maryland
The latest: More than two years into the pandemic, covid cases in the D.C. region are rising again, , while liberal Montgomery County asks who deserves credit for its robust covid response. Meanwhile, Black funeral directors still face a daunting amount of deaths from covid and the omicron wave has had an unequal toll in the DMV.
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Mapping the spread: Tens of thousands have died in the local region and nationwide cases number in the hundreds of thousands.
Omicron: Remaining covid restrictions in the D.C.-area, plus a breakdown of variant symptoms and mask recommendations.
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