The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Sunday shut down an entire wing of its Washington headquarters after an employee tested positive for coronavirus, according to documents and officials.

The sixth wing on the second floor of the “South Building” — attached by walkways to the Whitten Building where Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue’s office is — has been evacuated while it is being scrubbed down, according to a department-wide memo distributed to employees late Sunday night.

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“An employee in the South Building informed us that on Sunday … the employee received a positive test result for coronavirus,” according to the emailed statement signed by USDA Deputy Secretary Steve Censky. “We have requested that the office suite and affected bathrooms be closed and deep-cleaned in accordance with CDC guidance.”

An armed guard sits at the end of the wing to make sure no one goes past a barricade erected to keep employees out.

A USDA spokesperson confirmed the notification of the test result and said that “USDA notified employees who work in close proximity to the employee that they should begin teleworking immediately to help ensure the safety and health of our employees.”

An employee who works near the employee who contracted the virus — and who is now working at home — said he was “frustrated” by the department’s response to the outbreak.

“I believe this is an important public health issue,” Peyton Ferrier, an economist with the Agricultural Marketing Service, told Agri-Pulse.

Ferrier said he sent an email to his boss on March 5 asking to telework because he had “been experiencing cold symptoms (sore throat, sinus headache, sneezing) this week” and he uses the metro to get to work.

“I think the public health experts would say people should avoid the Metro,” Ferrier said, adding he is taking the outbreak very seriously in part because his wife is an emergency room doctor.

Ultimately, he was able to telework three days last week — Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. His co-worker was on sick leave Thursday, diagnosed Friday and got test results Sunday.

Because of the outbreak, Ferrier said he thought anyone who wanted to telework should have been allowed to do so two weeks ago. He could not offer an opinion on whether USDA as a whole should be shut down, but did say he thought USDA’s top management had “missed a lot of signs early on” that could have led to a faster response.

Asked for comment, a USDA spokesperson responded by saying that after receiving the news of the employee’s positive test, the department took immediate action to shut down the affected wing. 

USDA also announced Sunday that “maximized telework is available for [National Capital Region] employees beginning on Tuesday, March 17,” the spokesperson said. “Supervisors at facilities in locations with documented community spread of COVID-19 may begin maximizing telework for telework-eligible employees beginning on Tuesday, March 17, through Friday, April 3,” an all-employee memo Sunday from Deputy Secretary Steve Censky said.

Those areas include the National Capital Region, Washington State, the California Bay area, and the New York City area “where all USDA offices will remain open and operational even as we move to maximize the use of telework,” Censky said.

An email from Censky on Monday says “all employees in telework-eligible positions should start getting telework ready. This means working with your supervisor to finalize telework agreements, getting in the practice of bringing all necessary materials — including your laptop — home with you each night, and testing network and telework capabilities.”

In his memo, Censky said “USDA is working to enhance telework without interrupting customer service.” The memo outlines medical conditions that put employees at higher risk of COVID-19 and says managers are authorized to grant Weather and Safety Leave to them even if they are not eligible for telework.

Censky’s memo, which updates USDA telework guidance, outlined flexibility for employees with school-aged children or those caring for dependents at home.

In addition, Censky said, “While supervisors are authorized to maximize telework …, any changes that would impact the operational status of a facility or impact the services delivered (e.g., complete closure of a USDA facility or reduction in services provided) must be requested and approved before implementation following the Playbook” that was issued by USDA March 10.

That Playbook says, “Before any alteration of operational status (e.g., closure, limiting operations, COVID-19 related or influenced teleworking for three or more people, etc.) at a USDA facility, the facility must submit a request” that includes information such as “the number of employees in the facility; whether any of the employees at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19; [and] whether any of the employees at the facility have been directly exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.”

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue “will make a determination regarding the request promptly upon receipt by the USDA Pandemic Coordinator,” the Playbook says.

Ferrier said he found it “weird that they are telling people to just prepare to telework, rather than saying you can do it immediately. To be fair, most anyone who is telework ready can probably do it with the current exemptions.”

(Story updated at 2:53 to include additional reaction and information.) 

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