7 employees have virus, FEMA says

Agency’s refusal to say where prompts union to accuse it of recklessness

WASHINGTON -- The agency leading the nation's coronavirus response said that seven of its employees had tested positive for the virus with another four cases pending although, in a letter to its employees union, it declined a request to say where they were located.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's refusal prompted criticism from the union that the agency was jeopardizing public health.

Union leaders this month had asked FEMA how many employees had tested positive, and in which offices, so that workers who might have interacted with those people could decide whether to get tested. On Friday, FEMA turned down that request, saying the union did not need to know, according to a copy of the agency's letter to the union that was reviewed by The New York Times.

In response to inquiries from The Times, the agency Saturday said that seven employees had tested positive for the coronavirus. "Currently, FEMA has 11 total cases -- seven employees have tested positive and four potential cases are pending," Lizzie Litzow, a spokeswoman for FEMA, said in a statement. "Individuals who need to be aware of their names and locations have been made aware."

"FEMA has taken every precaution recommended by the CDC to protect all employees," Litzow added, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Steve Reaves, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 4060, which represents about 5,000 FEMA employees, said that by not sharing details about the staff infections with the union, the agency was endangering other employees as well as the safety of the people to whom the agency was providing aid. Overall, the agency has about 14,000 employees.

"If we're out there handing out masks and gloves, and we've got covid, then they're contaminated," said Reaves, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The concern over the health and safety of FEMA employees comes as the agency is already stretched thin by three years of major natural disasters.

As of Saturday, FEMA was responding to 54 major disasters around the country, according to agency documents. Thirteen states and territories have requested disaster assistance from FEMA for the coronavirus since March 23 alone.

Just one-third of FEMA's trained workforce is available to be deployed, agency data shows. The demand on those workers will most likely grow in the coming weeks and months: Federal scientists predicted this month that 23 states would get "major to moderate flooding" between now and the end of May. And hurricane season starts June 1.

The coronavirus has made FEMA's job more challenging in other ways. The traditional response to disasters usually entails gathering large numbers of people -- whether disaster victims in emergency shelters or relief managers in field offices -- in close quarters to dispense relief most efficiently.

The virus, however, is forcing the agency to rethink that approach. It has urged staff members to work from home when possible and distance themselves from their colleagues when it isn't. FEMA has also restricted the number of disaster victims who are allowed inside its field offices at once, and has made it easier for states to shelter victims in hotels or other settings where they don't have to be crammed together.

But those steps only go so far.

Reaves said he was aware of at least three people who worked with the agency and had tested positive. One is in Nashville, where the individual was helping people affected by a tornado. Another is in Atlanta, where FEMA has a regional office. Both people are self-isolating, he said.

The third person worked in FEMA's Washington headquarters and tested positive Tuesday. The official had been working at the coordination center the day before when Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the administration's federal virus task force, hosted a conference call with governors at the center.

The agency said the people leading the coronavirus task force were safe. "At no time did this individual or any others known to have contact with them come within 6 feet of the vice president or any other task force principal for any period of time," Litzow said by email.

A Section on 03/30/2020