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'Our people are doing amazing work, but they need to have all of the information. I don't know who else may have been exposed.'

PMGIn early April, word began to circulate among some staffers in the Oregon Office of Emergency Management: One of the agency's managers was out sick and was believed to have COVID-19.

The manager, Clint Fella, told his supervisor on April 4 he was very ill — feverish, achy and unable to move much without running out of breath. "I couldn't stand long enough to take a shower," he said recently.

The good news was that Fella had self-quarantined as soon as symptoms set in, likely decreasing his risk of spreading the disease if that's what he had. Still, there was a chance the virus might have passed on to his coworkers, many of whom are frontline staffers in the state's rush to respond to COVID-19.

But instead of communicating that risk to staff, interviews and emails show that OEM leaders tamped down the information, refusing to confirm the possible exposure for weeks despite pressure. That delay has confounded employees, who wonder why the state's emergency response agency — tasked with such vital tasks as acquiring and distributing personal protective gear to combat the pandemic — appears to have responded so poorly.

"Our agency is responsible for the response here in Oregon, so it's pretty important," said Sidra Metzger-Hines, president of the union that represents OEM employees, AFSCME Local 3241. "Our people are doing amazing work, but they need to have all of the information. I don't know who else may have been exposed."

Not only does OEM's silence appear to violate an agreement between the state agency and the union, it runs contrary to guidance on addressing the virus from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and health experts.

Perhaps more concerning, the agency's silence raises questions about safeguards to COVID-19 exposure within Oregon's Emergency Coordination Center. The center, which was shoehorned into OEM's Salem headquarters until this week, is the state's central management hub for responding to the pandemic.

This OPB story is shared as part of a local media project to increase COVID-19 news coverage.

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