Officials Investigate COVID Cluster At North Chatham Post Office

By: Tim Wood

The North Chatham Post Office. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Health Board To Meet In Emergency Session

CHATHAM The emergence of a cluster of four COVID-19 cases at the North Chatham Post Office has some people concerned not only about the spread of the disease but about how the cases apparently almost passed under the radar of public health officials.

In a news release issued Saturday and an automated phone call to residents Tuesday, town officials urged anyone who has visited the post office since Dec. 28 to watch for symptoms, speak with their doctor, and consider getting tested.

On Friday afternoon, several residents called the town health department to report a rumor that several employees of the post office had fallen ill. “We took that information, we reached out to the [Visiting Nurse Association] and the state to see if they were aware of anything going on,” Chatham Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson told the health board Monday. “Neither of them were aware of anything specific involving employees at the post office,” he said.

Town officials talked to employees there, but “they were not able to provide us with any definitive information,” Duncanson said. On Saturday, town health officials were contacted by the Occupational Health Nurse Administrator for the New England Region of the Postal Service and learned that four staff members had tested positive for the disease. Two of the employees are Chatham residents, one lives in Orleans and the other in Mashpee.

Duncanson said the town is still seeking more detailed information from the U.S. Postal Service about whether the infected employees were in public-facing jobs and exactly when they learned they were infected, “to get a better sense of exactly what dates were involved with the positive test results. That information is still coming in,” he said.

On Tuesday, Duncanson confirmed that Town Manager Jill Goldsmith has sent a letter to regional officials a the U.S. Postal Service asking for better communication about any COVID cases among their staff where the public may have been exposed. Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said she had been in contact with staff from the office of Congressman William Keating to express those concerns.

Absent more specific information, the town issued guidance advising “anyone who has been to the North Chatham Post Office since Dec. 28 to monitor for symptoms of COVID-19, consult with their personal physician, and consider utilization of the testing available in Barnstable County.” For testing locations, visit www.BarnstableCountyHealth.org/covid-19.

Duncanson said that, to have an appreciable risk of contracting the virus, visitors to the post office would need to have been there for 15 minutes or longer and been within six feet of any infected employee. For most people, post office visits are much shorter. “That would not be considered a close contact,” he said.

Members of the board of health seemed unconvinced. In that small building, “you cannot be more than six feet away from anybody,” board member Ron Broman said. Throughout the holidays, Broman was in that post office frequently to get packages. He called his physician, who wanted to know the dates of any potential exposure, information the town does not have. “He’s watching out for me,” Broman said.

While many people – potentially 55 percent of those who are COVID-positive – show no symptoms at all, those who do typically experience fever, chills, a cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, aches, congestion, a runny nose, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea within two to 14 days after exposure. “It’s a substantial list, but not everybody experiences every symptom,” Duncanson said. Those who experience a loss of taste or smell are particularly likely to be infected. “You can pretty well be guaranteed it’s COVID,” he said.

Health board member Noble Hansen said cases linked to the post office, as well as a reported outbreak at a local real estate office, point to the need for additional regulations. When restaurants report COVID-positive employees, they must close for a period of time, conduct a deep cleaning, take part in contact tracing, and post a notice at the door informing potential customers of the test results. Hansen said it seems reasonable to extend those requirements to other businesses in town that are open to the public, including post offices. The health board was expected to convene an emergency meeting next week to discuss the possibility of adopting such a rule.

“We are in an alarming surge in COVID, and I think it’s a reasonable thing to do,” Hansen said.

“I’m not saying this is an impossible thing, but the post office is part of the federal government,” Duncanson replied. Should the town impose such a requirement, the town attorney opines that the postal service would not be bound to comply. “Basically, town counsel said they’re a federal entity, and it’s federal property, and they are not necessarily bound by state or local regulations,” he said. While individual postmasters may opt to comply, they must still be compliant with the post office’s own rules.

Stephen Doherty, a spokesman for the Postal Service in Boston, said post offices encourage employees to stay home when ill and to take precautions against spreading the vaccine. There are new cleaning protocols, barriers and signs in place to reinforce social distancing, he said.

“We’ve taken extensive steps to insure that our employees and customers are safe in our facilities. But, like the rest of the world, our employees are susceptible to COVID,” he said.

Doherty declined to provide detailed information about the infected employees’ duties or other details that might be used to identify them, citing health care privacy laws. He declined to provide more detail about when the workers in question were infectious while at work.

“Citizens with concerns for their personal well being should contact their local board of health for advice,” he said.

Resident Gloria Freeman, who said she was one of the people who reported the cluster to town officials on Friday, told the health board Monday that the information should have been disseminated more quickly. “A robo-call should have gone out, and still should go out as soon as possible,” she said.

The health board agreed, and the automated message was sent Tuesday morning.

Resident Elaine Gibbs, who said she spent 15 minutes in line at the North Chatham Post Office one day, said the cluster should have been identified earlier. “I think that people were in jeopardy,” she said.

“There was no delay in acting on this information when it was brought to our attention,” Duncanson said. Town officials learned of the rumor Friday afternoon, pursued several avenues to confirm the information, and issued a news release Saturday at 6 p.m. The news was reported by The Chronicle by 7:45. The town and the VNA acted on information as soon as they were alerted to it, he said. The delay may ultimately be related to the receipt of test results, Duncanson said. Results from PCR tests can take several days to receive, and then are received by the state and communicated to local health boards. In one of the North Chatham Post Office cases, the test result hadn’t yet been recorded in the system, Duncanson said Monday.

“Nobody can act necessarily on information until there’s something to act on,” he said.

Doherty said the testing labs are responsible for notifying local health officials of positive results.

“When an employee shares medical data with an employer, [HIPAA] privacy laws prevent the employer from sharing that information externally,” he said. “We work closely with state and local health officials on contact tracing efforts.”

Doherty would not say whether the post office took any measures to notify the public about the cluster of cases, like posting notices at the North Chatham Post Office.