Milwaukee workers notified of co-worker's quarantine 8 days after it started

MILWAUKEE -- A Milwaukee sewer worker was placed on a two-week quarantine after his wife tested positive for COVID-19 --so why did the city wait eight days to tell his co-workers?

FOX6 News on Thursday, March 26 obtained a memo sent to "all sewer employees" by the sewer service manager indicating a member of the department had direct contact with a confirmed case of the novel coronavirus.

The memo said the employee was experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever, cough and shortness of breath.

According to the memo, immediate steps were taken "to minimize the impact in our workplace and keep all employees healthy and safe."

Among those steps, the employee was placed in quarantine per CDC guidelines -- on an approved leave of absence. The City of Milwaukee Department of Public Works' DPW Field Headquarters facility is being cleaned and disinfected on a daily basis by commercial cleaning agencies. Additionally, officials with the Milwaukee Health Department were making contact with any employees or business contacts believed to have had direct contact with the employee -- asking them to work remotely, or stay home for a two-week quarantine period.

The memo included several recommendations for employees to minimize the risk of infection, including avoiding face-to-face meetings, staying home when sick, frequent handwashing, etc.

The memo came out on March 26, but the department was notified on March 18. Why the eight-day delay? FOX6 News asked Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalilk.

Jeanette Kowalik

"Sometimes there's a lag because they're doing an investigation," she said. "This is any health department, you're trying to get an investigation to see who all they've had contact with. That's why sometimes there is a delay in notification.

"I can't say as to why that was so long, but I do know that sometimes that adds to it if there is incomplete information with a case."

A DPW spokesman issued this statement to FOX6 News:

"DPW continues to address questions and concerns from employees regarding COVID-19 in accordance with the City’s Policy and MHD guidance. As the situation evolves, we continue to balance the need to provide essential services for City of Milwaukee residents and the obligation to keep our employees healthy and safe. We are committed to working with our employees and other partners to address all concerns as this situation continues to evolve."

The FOX6 Investigators spoke with one official in city government who said the Milwaukee Health Department is the point agency on this. That official said that because of privacy concerns, DPW did not act on this last week. That same official said new guidance this week indicated they should notify co-workers, which prompted Thursday's memo.