“The current practice of allowing staff (doctors, clinicians, law enforcement, etc.) at the CSB Emergency Services (ES) to see patients, public, etc. in tiny interview rooms over and over, and with no protective masks of any kind, is HIGHLY problematic, dangerous, and contributing to the asymptomatic transmission of the virus that causes the disease known as COVID-19,” Williams said in a letter to county officials, a copy of which he provided to The Washington Post.
“At ES, we sometimes have multiple people using these small rooms at the same time, all two or three feet away from each other,” the letter said.
Workers in a host of jobs increasingly express worry about unwittingly taking home the virus to their families, particularly after recent reports of positive tests for District firefighters, a District police detective, a Fairfax County teacher and several health-care workers in the region.
Local government officials have tried to balance those concerns with the need to keep essential operations running while the rest of the region is at a virtual standstill.
In Fairfax — which on Saturday morning had reported a total of 22 cases of coronavirus infection — county officials said they’ve taken several measures to ensure safety for its 12,000 employees.
Among them: screening people who enter the Merrifield Center for coronavirus symptoms, encouraging employees who can telework to do so and working to supply workers with hand sanitizer, which has been on short supply.
The county is also granting up to two weeks of paid administrative leave to employees who miss work for coronavirus-related reasons, officials said in a statement.
“Fairfax County is committed to providing essential services to our community while maintaining employee safety,” the statement said. “Departments are instructed to make every effort to maximize telework, including identifying tasks that may be completed from home for employees who do not otherwise perform work that lends itself to being done remotely.”
But those measures have done little to ease the concerns of some workers in jobs that require contact with the public or working in close quarters with colleagues.
Dave Lyons, a director at the Fairfax Workers Coalition, said county sanitation workers are anxious about poring through discarded tissues and other refuse from residents who may or may not be infected. Those workers have so far not been issued hand sanitizer or protective masks, he said.
Supervisors in the county’s Department of Public Works have been telling workers to show up anyway, Lyons said.
“You have 60-year-old-plus guys down there with heart conditions, diabetes, and they’re making them work,” Lyons said.
In a statement, the county denied the claims and said time off is given to “anyone with a compromised immune system, older adults, employees with serious health conditions, or lack of work for nonessential employees when a facility is closed.”
Owen Kyver, 45, stopped reporting to work last week, though he was not granted paid leave, he said.
After asking about safety, one of his supervisors dismissed his concerns about potential infection, said Kyver, who has worked for the county for 18 years.
“He states to me: ‘Well, you know, we’re in the trash business. We’re susceptible to chickenpox, the measles, as well as this corona thing,’” Kyver recalled. “I’m like: ‘How are you going to categorize this with the measles and the chickenpox, which have been solved?’ It’s not the same. The world is not the same.”
At the Merrifield Center, several workers said they’ve been worried about being infected by patients, because some of their history of exposure to the virus has been made difficult to determine by their mental condition.
“Some people come in with a crisis, where they’re talking and they’re animated and it’s hard to remain seated,” said one employee who interacts with those patients and who, like several others, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing employment.
“It is a challenge to minimize various forms of contact with someone who could have been exposed to this pathogen,” that employee said.
Williams said the county health department has been unresponsive to his concerns and ignored his suggestion that a bulk of the in-person assessments with patients meant to determine their well-being take place outdoors.
He formally quit on Friday, telling county health director Gloria Addo-Ayensu in his farewell email that, “If along with the other doctors working under these conditions, we get the virus and fall ill, we will not be able to help those who need help.”
“We are on the front line of defense, and we are given nothing to protect ourselves from airborne droplets,” he wrote.
Williams said he stopped reporting to work last weekend after, during a 16-hour Sunday shift, he noticed that none of the patients who entered the building had been screened, even though the county issued a protocol a few days earlier for that to happen.
The county disputed his assertion, saying screening does take place.
Williams said he wants to be “on the front line” helping patients who either have contracted the virus or who are experiencing mental trauma because of it.
“I just want to make sure I’m safe and stay safe so I can help as many people as possible and not be part of the problem,” he said.