Wheeler urges telework as 2nd staffer tests positive

By Corbin Hiar | 03/20/2020 01:20 PM EDT

The new coronavirus has spread rapidly around the globe.

The new coronavirus has spread rapidly around the globe. FDA

Administrator Andrew Wheeler is urging all EPA employees to work from home as reports mount of confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 in the agency’s regional offices.

"My expectation is that most everyone on the EPA team across the country is working at home, unless there is a compelling mission critical reason for you to be in the office," Wheeler said yesterday in a video that appears to have been recorded in his office at EPA headquarters. "COVID-19 is a fast-moving and rapidly changing situation, and I understand that this is a difficult and scary time for all of us.

"I want to thank you for your dedication and commitment, and please take good care of yourselves and your families," the EPA chief added in his address to agency staff.


Wheeler’s message came the same day that a second EPA employee tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. The positive test was first reported by The Hill.

The affected employee works on the same floor of the agency’s New England Regional Office as another staffer who "is symptomatic after being in close contact with someone that did test positive," Arthur Johnson, the director of Region 1’s Mission Support Division, said in an email. They were both last in the office on March 11, the last day before Wheeler relaxed telework restrictions for the Boston-based office (Greenwire, March 12).

Johnson ordered a partial evacuation of the Boston office "effective immediately" and said the agency has begun an investigation of the employee’s contacts. Potentially affected employees will be contacted, and the office will receive "appropriate cleaning," he added.

The agency reported its first confirmed COVID-19 case on Wednesday in its Montana office (Greenwire, March 19). Corry Schiermeyer, an EPA spokeswoman, said at noon today that the agency hasn’t confirmed any cases beyond those two.

But in EPA’s New York-based Region 2, a couple of employees came into close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 and another reported indirect contact with someone infected by the coronavirus, according to internal emails obtained by E&E News. It’s unclear if those employees have been tested for COVID-19. They are all now in self-quarantine, the emails said.

And in EPA’s Cincinnati office, two employees reported potential COVID-19 infections. One has tested negative; the other test was still pending as of Wednesday, Vique Caro, the office’s director of administration and resources management, said in an email.

Earlier this week, the agency also moved to give employees working from home more discretion about when they do their jobs. Donna Vizian, the head of the agency’s Office of Mission Support, said in an all-staff email that employees could work anytime between 5 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. and "take unpaid breaks during the day, to account for individual needs" such as taking care of children who are out of school.

Still, Vizian encouraged employees to coordinate their hours with supervisors.

"The objective is that employees are available during normal business hours, unless otherwise prevented from working during those hours," she wrote.

Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.