EPA faces possible coronavirus outbreaks at multiple offices

EPA faces possible coronavirus outbreaks at multiple offices
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An employee who works at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regional office in Helena, Mont., tested “presumed positive” for COVID-19, according to the agency and an internal email obtained by The Hill. 

In the email, which was sent to employees on Sunday and signed by Region 8 Administrator Greg Sopkin and Assistant Administrator Susan Parker Bodine, said the person, who works on the second floor, had an initial test for the coronavirus come back positive. 

Employees who work on that floor were asked to self-quarantine for two weeks, the email said. 

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“After that we are providing the option of unscheduled leave and unscheduled telework until Friday, April 3, 2020,” it added.

Effective Monday, all employees who work on the third floor were given the options of unscheduled leave and unscheduled telework, although the email said that “a few employees may be required to report to the office to maintain facilities and equipment.”

EPA Region 8 spokeswoman Laura Jenkins confirmed to The Hill in an email that the agency learned on Saturday that someone working at the federal building in Montana received the “presumed positive” diagnosis. 

"EPA is coordinating closely with federal, state and local officials in response to this case," Jenkins said. "The individual had minimal contact outside of their immediate workspace, and all areas the individual may have contacted are currently being disinfected in accordance with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines."

"Out of an abundance of caution, EPA has asked all employees who work on the second floor of the building to self-quarantine for two weeks," she continued. "In addition, all EPA Helena office employees will have the option to voluntarily telework through April 3."

She did not answer The Hill’s questions regarding how many employees were being asked to self-quarantine and how many might be required to go into the office.  

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In recent days, the federal government has taken actions such as allowing many employees to work from home in an attempt to lessen the spread of the deadly virus. 

An EPA spokesperson told The Hill in an email earlier this week that it has "authorized voluntary unscheduled leave and telework for all EPA employees across the nation" and that it is encouraging those who can work remotely to not go into the office. 

Cathie McQuiston, deputy general counsel at the American Federation of Government Employees union, however, told The Hill on Wednesday that the timing of the agency’s coronavirus safety measures differed across the country, which she called “frustrating.”

"At the beginning especially, they were sort of beholden to what was happening locally, like if a local government or state was doing something, they would react to it, but they wouldn’t institute those kinds of things nationwide," McQuiston said, referring specifically to telework policies. "Employees and workers feel they’re being treated inequitably."

An EPA national spokesperson stressed in an email to The Hill that “the health and safety of our employees is our top priority.”

“During this pandemic, EPA has taken swift and prudent action to protect all of our employees,” the spokesperson said, adding that telework decisions “have been made consistent with guidance” from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local and state health advisories.

“The Agency was also consistent and evidence based in its determination on granting optional telework [and] we followed the recommendations of state and local public health experts. If they made a determination that employers should offer telework, we immediately adopted that recommendation,” the spokesperson said. “In this case, the union is not second guessing our decisions; they are second guessing public health officials across the country.”

McQuiston wrote to EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy: Smoke from wildfires has reached Europe | EPA postpones environmental justice training | UN report: Countries have failed to meet a single target to protect wildlife in last decade EPA postpones environmental justice training after White House memo OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats tee up vote on climate-focused energy bill next week | EPA reappoints controversial leader to air quality advisory committee | Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' MORE on March 6 asking for “broad use and approval of situational telework."

The White House, on Sunday, March 15, urged federal agencies to provide maximum possible telework opportunities. 

McQuiston said she believes such issues pertain to the entire federal government rather than just the EPA. 

“They have been among the most responsive among agencies, although not so responsive that we’re completely satisfied with their response,” she said of the EPA. 

The Helena office is apparently not the only EPA office that has received notifications regarding coronavirus; Other news outlets previously reported on Wednesday that three employees in a Region 5 office had potential exposure to COVID-19. 

The national EPA spokesperson confirmed to The Hill that the region had three reported incidents of potential exposure and said that the employees have not returned to the office since reporting their situations.

“We don’t have confirmation that any employee, contractor, or enrollee in the Chicago Regional Office has been diagnosed with COVID-19, and we continue to encourage everyone to telework,” the spokesperson said. 

The agency’s Region 5 covers Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and 35 native tribes. Its Region 8 covers Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming and 28 tribal nations.