EPA HQ employee tests positive for COVID-19

By Kevin Bogardus | 12/03/2020 01:35 PM EST

The SARS-CoV-2 virus causes the coronavirus disease that has spread rapidly around the globe.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus causes the coronavirus disease that has spread rapidly around the globe. Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News (illustration); Francis Chung/E&E News (EPA photo); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (virus)

An EPA employee who was in agency headquarters earlier this week has tested positive for COVID-19.

The staffer was on the sixth floor of the William Jefferson Clinton South Building and on the third floor of the William Jefferson Clinton North Building, according to an internal email obtained by E&E News.

The North Building’s third floor is home to the administrator’s office and several of President Trump’s political appointees.

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Administrator Andrew Wheeler said yesterday that he had been exposed to a person with COVID-19 and would self-quarantine.

"Administrator Wheeler will be tested tomorrow and remains asymptomatic," EPA spokesperson James Hewitt told E&E News.

Hewitt didn’t address another question about whether the EPA headquarters employee who tested positive exposed Wheeler to the virus.

The agency employee was in the office on Monday, has shown no symptoms and was tested yesterday, according to an email sent to EPA staff yesterday evening.

"We have asked the employee to identify any persons they came in close contact with on Monday, November 30, 2020, two days prior to the positive test result," the email said.

EPA is reaching out to employees who have been in close contact with the person who tested positive, advising them to self-quarantine and telework for the next 14 days. In addition, the agency is "further restricting access" to a room in EPA headquarters and its adjacent pantry.

"Please, if you are sick, stay home and call your healthcare provider for medical advice," the email said.

News of a new COVID-19 case in EPA headquarters comes after staff were notified on Tuesday that an EPA contractor working in the William Jefferson Clinton East Building had symptoms consistent with the virus but had later tested negative, according to another internal email.

Wheeler hosted a celebration at headquarters yesterday afternoon honoring EPA’s 50th anniversary. A video recording of the event obtained by E&E News shows the administrator not wearing a mask speaking from a podium to attendees off-camera (Climatewire, Dec. 3).

"The event was socially distanced, and attendees wore masks," Hewitt, the agency spokesperson, said about yesterday’s celebration.

In a statement released after the event yesterday, Wheeler said he had "secondary exposure" to someone with COVID-19. He added, "After consulting my doctor and out of an abundance of caution, I will quarantine until I’ve gone through the proper testing protocols."

Hewitt said yesterday that Wheeler had been exposed to a person who had not yet tested positive, was wearing a mask and was asymptomatic.

EPA employees have been teleworking since March as the pandemic took hold in the United States, but Wheeler announced later in May a phased approach to reopen the agency.

EPA told staff last month it was pausing those reopening plans as COVID-19 cases surged again across the country. Staff and union officials at the agency are anxious about returning to the office, saying it could expose EPA employees to the virus in their offices or on their commutes.

Hewitt said as of today, the agency is aware of 89 EPA employees testing positive for COVID-19 and an additional 32 contractors testing positive. At least one EPA employee has died from the virus.

"It is important to note that not all of the individuals whom tested positive have entered an EPA facility during the pandemic or while they were experiencing symptoms of COVID-19," Hewitt said.

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