A public health official was denied entry to a Nike warehouse after a worker died of COVID-19

A public health official was denied entry to a Nike warehouse after a worker died of COVID-19
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A public health inspector was denied entry into a Nike warehouse in Memphis, Tenn. following the death of one of its workers from COVID-19.

The inspector, whose formal title is environmentalist from the Shelby County Health Department, responded to complaints of unsanitary conditions at the Nike distribution center on April 16 when she was denied access to the building by a security guard, ProPublica reported.

Five days before she arrived, company officials learned one temporary worker died after testing positive for the coronavirus.

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On April 17, the day after the environmentalist was prohibited from entering the warehouse, she received a call from a Nike administrator who told her over the phone that the facility had installed markers in the plant to reinforce social distancing among workers.

The health department subsequently dropped the investigation without further proof from Nike, with the environmentalist saying she "felt at that time there was nothing else that needed to be done," according to reports.

But as of May 18, 21 workers at five Nike warehouses in Memphis had tested positive for the virus, up from nine reported cases less than three weeks before.

Bruce Randolph, Shelby County Health Department's health director, said the department has the authority to call law enforcement to access a facility immediately if its inspectors are denied entry. However, he defended the decision not to escalate the situation with Nike.

"We don't just automatically get law enforcement involved simply because the first time we show up, some security and management person refuses to allow us access," Randolph said.

A spokesperson from Nike told ProPublica the company had taken additional safety measures in its facilities, including the expansion of social distancing in the warehouses and imposing temperature checks for workers.

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Still, a former federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) official said it was "absolutely inappropriate" that the health department did not push further to use law enforcement to make Nike show its facility to department inspectors.

"The state and county officials are responsible for protecting the health of the public," said David Michaels, who worked for OSHA during the Obama administration. "The Health Department should know that this virus doesn't stop at the warehouse gate. By this action, they're putting all of Memphis at risk."

According to the report, between March 26 and May 12, the department received 201 COVID-19 related complaints for different businesses. Of that number, the Nike facility the inspector tried to visit is the only business that turned the department away.

The Shelby County Health Department did not immediately respond to The Hill's request for comment.