COVID-19 cluster at Mass. Walmart reveals holes in contact tracing system

City officials shut down the store after 23 employees fell ill, but now they're trying to figure out how the virus spread

UPDATE: A total of 391 Worcester Walmart employees were tested for COVID-19 on Thursday; 81 have now tested positive for the virus.
By Melissa Hanson

WORCESTER, Mass. — After an outbreak of COVID-19 among more than 20 employees of a Walmart location in Worcester led the city to shut the store down, officials say they need more information to figure out how the respiratory illness spread.

A total of 23 employees of the Walmart on Tobias Boland Way have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Two cases were identified at the beginning of April, and the other 21 cases were reported more recently, city officials said Wednesday, announcing a cease-and-desist order.

Walmart Supercenter employees Friday enter the store on Tobias Boland Way to be tested for COVID-19. Image: T&G Staff/Gerard F. Russell
Walmart Supercenter employees Friday enter the store on Tobias Boland Way to be tested for COVID-19. Image: T&G Staff/Gerard F. Russell

We really have to dig down deep and find out how this all happened, where they worked in Walmart, did they work together, what shifts did they work in,” Michael Hirsh, a physician and the medical director of the city’s public health department, said Wednesday. “That’s, I think, how we would then determine whether customers at that store have been put at risk."

Hirsh said that contract tracing for people with coronavirus happens after a case has been entered into the Massachusetts Virtual Epidemiologic Network, the database system known as MAVEN.

“The problem with these outbreaks is that when people test positive they give their home address to the system. They don’t give their work address and they don’t give their occupation necessarily," Hirsh said.

In terms of the first two cases identified in early April, contact tracing may not have started until two weeks later, Hirsh said.

“Having two people at Walmart wouldn’t necessarily alarm us that there was a cluster," Hirsh said. “But this particular outbreak got flagged, I believe through social media to someone, and unfortunately it caught us, not napping, we were waiting for MAVEN to spit out the data but it hadn’t registered in MAVEN yet.”

On Thursday morning, a Walmart spokesman said the employees who have tested positive for coronavirus have not been to work at the store in several days.

Per the city’s cease-and-desist order, Walmart must be closed until it is cleaned, sanitized and inspected again. A third-party company has come in to clean and sanitize the store. Additionally, employees must be tested for the virus before returning to work.

Walmart is working with the city and UMass Memorial Health Care to arrange testing. The store has more than 300 employees, said spokesman Charles Crowson.

On April 20, Walmart made it mandatory for all employees nationwide to wear face masks, Crowson said.
The city health department conducted an inspection on April 28 that revealed staff and patrons were not wearing proper personal protective equipment inside the store, officials said. The city has issued an order, requiring employees and patrons to wear masks or face coverings while at essential businesses.

“We strongly encourage all of our customers to adhere to the executive decision made by their elective leaders toward wearing protective face coverings,” Crowson said.

It is not yet clear when the store may be able to reopen.

Other Walmarts in Massachusetts have been closed for deep cleanings during the pandemic.

(c)2020, Springfield, Mass.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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