NYC Health Department ‘not collecting’ agency coronavirus numbers

Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot speaks about the spread of the coronavirus, March 2, 2020. (Photo: Ben Fractenberg//THE CITY)

By Greg B. Smith and Reuven Blau

This story was originally published on March 9, 2020 by THE CITY.

Days after mandating coronavirus testing for frontline workers who recently returned from hot zones or displayed coronavirus symptoms, the city instructed agencies not to tell health officials about employees who fit the bill.

Last Thursday, Department of Health & Mental Hygiene Commissioner Oxiris Barbot declared any city “educators, health care workers or first responders” that her agency determines “presents a danger of infection to others” must submit to testing for coronavirus.

That includes workers who recently visited China, Iran, South Korea, Japan or Italy, and those showing coronavirus symptoms, such as shortness of breath, headaches and fever.

On Sunday, the mayor’s Office of Labor Relations sent a memo to city agencies advising them on how to deal with Barbot’s order.

The FAQ-style note, obtained by THE CITY, included the question: “Should my agency report information to DOHMH about employees, including employees who have traveled, have been sick or had exposure to COVID-19?”

The response presented is: “No. DOHMH is not collecting information from agencies about city employees.”

The Way Forward

Instead, the Health Department will work backwards from known cases of coronavirus — checking to see if the person, anyone who’s had close contact with them or “any other person who presents an imminent threat to the public health” is a city employee, according to the memo.

If the person is a city employee, they will be required to present written proof within 24 hours that they’ve been tested for coronavirus or indicate they’ve declined to be tested.

If they decline, they’re required to home quarantine until DOHMH finds they’re no longer a threat to public health, the memo states.

Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at the Office of Emergency Management in Downtown Brooklyn about the city’s response to the Coronavirus, March 2, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Barbot issued the order after THE CITY reported on the case of Erin McCarthy, 44, a public school teacher who’d returned from a coronavirus hot spot in Italy and soon after displayed symptoms.

She’d been turned down when she tried to get tested. After Barbot’s order was issued, McCarthy was tested and declared negative for the virus.

Stephanie Buhle, a Department of Health spokeswoman, did not answer THE CITY’s questions Monday about how many city employees are currently in mandatory isolation.

She described efforts to track potentially infected city workers, saying, “We would identify an employee through contact tracing of a positive test.”

Numbers Keep Rising

One of the employees affected by that order — an emergency medical technician working out of Coney Island — tested positive for coronavirus and was in mandatory quarantine, officials said on Monday.

City Hall said 20 people in New York City had tested positive for COVID-19, while 24 New York City residents were under mandatory quarantine and 2,019 more were under voluntary home isolation. As of mid-day Monday, 86 virus tests were pending.

During a news conference Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio did not specify how many of those in mandatory quarantine are city workers.

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.