7 Food Services Employees At OHSU Infected With COVID-19

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Seven people in the food services department at Oregon Health & Science University have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the university and union officials.

They account for 28% of all infected OHSU staff, which, according to an update on Wednesday, stood at 25 with more than 200 tests pending. In terms of patients, OHSU Hospital is treating 10 people who are not employees for COVID-19. 

The first food services employee got sick on March 27, about a week after OHSU adopted modified operations in response to the pandemic. The changes includings asking staff who could to work at home.

But managers of the Food and Nutrition Services department ignored OHSU policy, according to officials from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 328, which represents the infected workers. The department runs OHSU’s cafeterias and prepares and serves food to patients.

Union officials told The Lund Report that the food department closed all of the cafeterias except for one on the third floor of the main hospital, and encouraged employees to keep on working at the open cafeteria. They said that staff were forced to huddle for meetings and that cooks were crowded in the kitchen.

“Nothing was done to limit group size in the dining room,” Michael Stewart, vice president of the Local 328 told The Lund Report. “There was no extra cleaning for the cooks in the kitchen, either.”

OHSU said in a statement that it puts safety first: "The health and safety of our employees is our first priority. Since the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Oregon, OHSU has taken a number of unprecedented steps to ensure employees can safely and effectively respond to the pandemic, including directing thousands of noncritical employees to work from home; canceling all nonurgent procedures and surgeries; and establishing a twice daily Emergency Operations Center staffed by experts from across the institution who work around the clock."

Stewart, who works at OHSU as a medical assistant, blamed food department managers -- not OHSU leadership -- for the unsafe conditions.

“In my opinion this is an act of gross negligence resulting in a significant outbreak within the department that has sickened at least seven of our members, endangered those members' families (and) patients and increases the already significant risk to those front-line workers providing care to COVID-19  patients,” Stewart said. Managers’ “complete disregard for the welfare of those they supervise and serve is reprehensible and they should be held accountable."

Union officials said food services managers have fostered a culture in which it's frowned on to take sick leave. In December, they fired one woman who took three sick days within a 90-day period, the union said. It filed a grievance on her behalf. OHSU denied the grievance in February and it’s since gone to arbitration, the union said.

Since last month, food department workers have filed about a half a dozen complaints with the union about their managers, Stewart and other officials said. They said workers reported that managers downplayed the danger of the pandemic, saying the 1918 influenza pandemic was much worse, and that hospital workers didn’t need to stay six feet apart because the hospital setting was much safer than being in a grocery store or at home.

The department, which has about 300 employees, is responsible for running OHSU’s cafeterias and making and serving food to patients.

“If you think about the possible spread with how many people they come into contact with in a given day - it’s staggering,” Stewart said.

OHSU said it knew of no viral transmission between an infected food services employee and a patient.

It said the first food services employee to test positive had a family member who was infected.

“The employee did not work while symptomatic,” OHSU said in its statement. “As soon as the employee experienced symptoms, the employee self-isolated at home.”

But two of that person’s coworkers also got sick. After tests showed they were infected, they were sent home, OHSU said.

Then four other employees tested positive and were sent home.

Union officials said that they’ve been complaining to food services managers since the end of March about unsafe conditions in the department. When that didn’t have an impact, the union filed PDF icona complaint on April 3 with the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division. Finally, the union went to the head of human resources and Dr. Danny Jacobs, OHSU’s president.

Now something is being done, the union said.

“It took seven cases for them to finally do something,” one union official said. “They are now taking it seriously.”

OHSU taken several steps to protect staff, including reducing the number of employees in the cafeteria at any one time, checking staff temperatures before they start work, deep cleaning work areas, training staff in infection control, requiring staff to wear masks when they’re within six feet of a coworker or patient, testing all staff and requiring anyone with symptoms to go home.

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected] or on Twitter @LynnePDX.

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