As COVID-19 encroaches on Upshur County, city council tightens preventive measures for employees

BUCKHANNON – The City of Buckhannon is bolstering its testing and mask-wearing policy as more cases of COVID-19 begin to plague Buckhannon and Upshur County.

City attorney Tom O’Neill said at council’s Thursday, July 2, meeting that he had drafted a stricter policy surrounding measures to keep COVID-19 at bay, all of which are designed to keep city employees, and in turn, community members safe. Council ultimately adopted the policy at Thursday’s meeting.

“The recent uptick in positive cases in Upshur County as well as the instance of a number of positive tests that are getting closer and closer to city personnel have prompted an evaluation of a testing policy and a mask policy with regard to our employees,” O’Neill said.

According to W.Va. DHHR data, as of Sunday, July 5, there have been 20 confirmed positive tests in Upshur County, with about half of those individuals having recovered.

The policy requires city employees to undergo COVID-19 tests for the active virus before returning to work in certain circumstances, including:

  • If an employee’s work is interrupted due to contracting coronavirus or being exposed, or potentially exposed to virus, that employee must test negative before returning to work.
  • In the event that an employee tests positive for coronavirus, she or he must subsequently undergo two consecutive negative tests at least 72 hours apart prior to returning to work.

O’Neill said the policy gives supervisors the freedom to deem tests necessary in certain instances.

“This is particularly important with our public safety employees and other employees who work within close proximity to the public and can either transmit the virus to members of the public or be exposed to it by members of the public,” he said.

The new protocols additionally mandate that if an employee is away from work for more than three consecutive days – with the exclusion of Saturdays, Sundays and holiday – she or he must test negative for COVID-19 and wear a mask or approved facial covering for three days after returning to work.

“The concern related to that has to do with people traveling to hotspots on vacation, and we don’t want what’s happening in Preston County to happen here,” O’Neill said. “There are 40 active cases in Preston County related to Myrtle Beach vacations.”

O’Neill explained the reasoning behind the strengthened policy, saying all city employees are essential workers who provide essential services.

“We don’t want [an outbreak] to happen more broadly in the community, but also specifically in a city department,” he said. “All of our city’s employees are deemed essential workers because of the critical public services that our employees provide to members of the public every day — waste collection, water, sewer, public safety and all the support staff that go along with that.”

“If the virus was to run rampant in a city department, it would have drastic ramifications for the community,” O’Neill added. “Imagine having the entire water department shut down for two weeks. It’s inconceivable; it would be a disaster, so we are doing everything we can to try to mitigate the spread of the virus in these critical public service areas.”

The City of Buckhannon is partnering with St. Joseph’s Hospital/WVU Medicine and Dr. Robert Romano to enable employees to have access to free COVID-19 testing, if necessary.

While first prong of the new policy involves testing, the second involves mask-wearing, O’Neill said.

Under the new rule, employees who have been directly exposed to an individual who has tested positive or who has been subject to an isolation or quarantine order must wear facemask while at work within proximity to other for 14 days, O’Neill said.

“We know the subject of masks is touchy,” he said. “However, I think if we look at it as, wearing a mask is a matter of courtesy the same way that covering your mouth when you sneeze is a matter of courtesy, and we have to do what we can to [stop the spread].”

O’Neill said that by approving the policy, any employee who refuses to comply with it could be subject to disciplinary action.

Mayor Robbie Skinner said he believed the policy was excellent.

“I think we’re being proactive,” Skinner said. “As Tom very correctly noted, all of our departments are small but do very important work and need to be protected as much as possible.”

City recorder Randy Sanders asked if there had been any pushback against the new policy by supervisors or employees, and city finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins said most all employees understood the rationale.

“Ninety-nine percent of them are on board with it, and some of them you just have to explain a little further, that this is not about the person but about the entire working staff and their families,” Jenkins said. “I, for one, would never want to bring this into [another person’s] family who has a family member who’s health is compromised. I would feel horrible.”

O’Neill added, “All reports are that this is a very gruesome way to go, and we want to do everything possible to prevent that.”

Councilwoman Mary Albaugh made a motion to approve the policy, which was seconded by councilman Jack Reger prior to passing unanimously.

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