Health district: Walmart failed to report staff COVID-19 cases

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WENATCHEE — The Wenatchee Walmart Supercenter apparently did not comply with a requirement in Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency orders, which demands that all employers report two or more COVID-19 infections among workers within 24 hours. 

The store, at 2000 N. Wenatchee Avenue, closed to customers Thursday afternoon after 21 infections among staff became public. Walmart officials said it would reopen Saturday after extensive cleaning.

But while rising COVID-19 cases were common knowledge among store employees for more than a week, the Chelan-Douglas Health District said today the store did not step forward to report the infections, as required under Gov. Jay Inslee’s public health orders relating to the pandemic.

“The only way we discovered it is we reached out to Walmart after your inquiries about it,” health district public information officer Veronica Farias told NCWLIFE.

Business operations in Washington have been regulated since March by a series of executive orders signed by Inslee, deemed “Safe Start,” aimed at suppressing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Walmart stores in Washington have remained open throughout the pandemic as essential businesses, providing food and other necessities.

One Safe Start order, signed July 7, demands businesses notify their local health departments “within 24 hours if the employer suspects COVID-19 is spreading in the employer’s workplace, or if the employer is aware of 2 or more employees who develop confirmed or suspected COVID-19 within a 14-day period.”

The first on-staff cases of COVID-19 became known among Walmart Supercenter workers about July 12, employees said. At least 10 cases were common knowledge by July 17, and seven more cases by Monday, employees told NCWLIFE earlier this week.

On Tuesday, Walmart’s local store managers referred NCWLIFE’s calls to corporate spokespeople, who refused to confirm the outbreak. NCWLIFE also sought confirmation from the health district, which in turn contacted Walmart. The company then turned over a list of 21 associates who’d tested positive for the virus, Farias said.

Individually, the district was already aware of each case, Farias said. But their employment at the same facility was not yet locally recorded, because contact tracing of COVID-19 cases in Chelan and Douglas counties is conducted by the state Department of Health. That slowed the local process of recognizing a “cluster” — defined as multiple COVID-19 diagnoses, including at least two symptomatic cases, that appear to show transmission in a shared, non-household location such as a workplace.

“Once we got the names, we put them in the database,” Farias said. “We had all the positive reports, but did not know each of the individuals worked at Walmart until we got the list from Walmart.”

Walmart director of global communications Anne Hatfield and senior manager for national media relations Casey Staheli, both of whom provided statements to NCWLIFE earlier in the week, did not respond to an email request for comment Friday.

Multiple employees told NCWLIFE that store management had not consistently enforced requirements for facial masking among some associate teams, and did not tell workers the extent of on-staff COVID-19 infections, even as the numbers climbed between July 12 and July 21.

Most of the known cases appeared on Walmart’s overnight teams, responsible for receiving new shipments of goods and stocking shelves for the start of each business day. Employees who spoke with NCWLIFE said managers at the store seldom enforced rules on mask-wearing, required by Safe Start and by the company’s own policies, among the after-hours workers.