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Four Pittsfield postal employees test positive for COVID; city laments 'lack of cooperation'

  • 3 min to read
Front of post office

At least four staffers at the post office in Pittsfield have tested positive for COVID-19 since Sept. 28, according to a notice from the city's Health Department, which cited a "lack of cooperation" from officials at the Fenn Street facility.

Citing a “lack of cooperation” from officials at the post office, Pittsfield officials alerted the public Friday afternoon that at least four employees of the Fenn Street United States Postal Service facility have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks.

In a statement released Friday and in interviews with The Eagle, the Pittsfield Health Department said the post office had hindered contact tracing and put the community at risk, which made it necessary for the city to notify the public about the cluster.

All four recent U.S. Postal Service cases have taken place since Sept. 28, according to the city.

“The risk of exposure from individuals present at the post office on these dates is no greater than the risk of contracting the virus in the general community,” the statement said. “However, it is important to be aware that the USPS location 212 Fenn St. is not providing requested information to the city’s contact tracing team. The lack of cooperation and information poses a risk to the community.”

Interim Health Director Andy Cambi told The Eagle that the city is investigating whether additional cases in the community can be linked back to the USPS cluster, and, if so, how many.

He said that the contact tracing process has been significantly more challenging because USPS has refused to work with city officials.

Pittsfield Postmaster Stefanie Curry and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday afternoon.

Health officials said they were made aware of cases at the post office and sought information from USPS as part of the typical contact tracing process. Cambi said the office refused to give information, such as work schedules and the names of coworkers, which would allow the city to figure out close contacts of the infected employees.

Cambi said he met with Curry on Tuesday but that she refused to provide any information about the positive cases to the city – including whether there are additional employee cases that local health officials do not know about.

“They stated that they have their own policies and that they are not required to collaborate with local boards of health,” said Cambi. “They did not want to cooperate with us. We let them know we’re not looking to change their policies, we’re just looking to make sure the community is aware of any positive cases in the organization, because their employees interact with the community and are members of the community.”

Cambi said that he believed, based on his conversation with the postmaster, that it was likely the Pittsfield post office had failed to report COVID-19 cases to public health officials throughout the entire pandemic.

“They stated that their policy is not to report to us,” he said.

According to Cambi, the city heard complaints that an employee claimed to have been told to go into work while exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. But he said that the city had no way to verify the allegation or get more information from USPS and cited again a “lack of cooperation”.

Russ Evans, president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 497 in Springfield, told The Eagle that the union was in the middle of a grievance process related to COVID-19 at the Pittsfield post office and could not comment.

Pittsfield officials said the city put out the release about the cluster after receiving guidance from the Department of Public Health.

“This was not a decision taken lightly,” said Pittsfield Public Nurse Manager Kayla Donnelly. “If we need someone’s help, especially an organization that has so much contact with the public, and they’re not willing to provide information that we need, we have to do something to protect the public.”

Donnelly said at least one USPS official cited HIPAA upon refusing to share information, despite the fact that HIPAA in fact allows disclosure to public health authorities when the situation involves communicable diseases such as COVID-19.

Cambi said the city will continue to seek USPS’ cooperation in the contact tracing process.

The city’s news release encouraged people to follow CDC COVID-19 guidelines when interacting with Pittsfield USPS employees. Cambi said city residents should continue normal precautions: social distancing, wearing masks, watching hands and checking themselves for symptoms.

Throughout the pandemic, reporting by the news organization ProPublica has shown repeated failures by the United States Postal Office to protect workers nationwide, including erratic or nonexistent contact tracing in some cases.

Francesca Paris can be reached at fparis@berkshireeagle.com and 413-447-7311, ext. 239.

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