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This story was updated Jan. 27 with a statement from a USPS official.
SILER CITY — Following weeks of mail delays related to the holidays, a COVID-19 outbreak at the Siler City Post Office is causing major staffing shortages and mailing delays, according to employees and customers.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service declined to comment on specific COVID-19 case counts at the office, citing privacy law, but sources — including employees of the Siler City office — told the News + Record that 75% of staff have tested positive with COVID-19.
USPS Strategic Communication Specialist Philip Bogenberger, of the mid-Carolinas and Greensboro districts, told the News + Record in an email on Tuesday that the Siler City office “remains open” and that though it’s unlikely for COVID-19 to spread from domestic or international mail, the office “will enhance and supplement current cleaning protocols using disinfectants across the facility.”
“As you may know, under the Rehabilitation Act and the Privacy Act, specific employee medical information must be kept confidential and may only be shared in very limited circumstances. Therefore, the Postal Service cannot share the names of the employees who tested positive for COVID-19 or further specifics of their medical condition,” Bogenberger said. “The safety and well-being of our employees is our highest priority. To ensure the health of our employees, we are continuing to follow recommended guidance and strategies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”
When asked for clarification on case counts and a timeline of the outbreak by the News + Record, Bogenberger declined to comment, and copy and pasted his previous answer about the Rehabilitation Act and Privacy Act.
Bogenberger was the first USPS official who’s commented publicly about the situation. Multiple calls made to the Siler City office during working hours by The News + Record were unanswered; emails sent to Siler City Postmaster Darin Shamberger regarding the alleged outbreak weren’t returned by the time of publication Tuesday. After being unable to reach any USPS officials, the News + Record went to the office on Monday and was given Bogenberger’s contact information by an employee.
Postal customers told the News + Record in recent days about mail collection boxes slammed full with uncollected mail and routes not being delivered, or deliveries occurring after 5 p.m. On Friday night, a Siler City postal carrier posted in a Chatham Facebook group about the outbreak, asking residents to not take their frustrations with delays out on postal workers still working.
“There has been a Covid outbreak so please be patient with whomever is working,” the post, which was later deleted, said. “We know everyone isn’t getting their mail, but people from other (post offices) are trying their best to help out.”
Before the post was deleted, it was shared widely among various Chatham community pages on Facebook. In the comments on that post, the poster said they would likely be out for another week. The author of the post declined to speak with the News + Record and then deleted the post.
“I think we all just had minor symptoms,” the poster said. “Most will start returning to work on Monday or Tuesday.”
Several commenters said it would be another week before most employees were able to return. The News + Record received multiple tips from employees or family of employees saying the entire staff either tested positive or was quarantining. Customers and workers told the News + Record and posted on Facebook that the post office was currently being staffed by workers coming in from Fayetteville and elsewhere in the state.
One employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there was no shutdown of operations to clean or sanitize the office, and that carriers working within a 40-mile radius of their home office were staffing the Siler City office. The employee expressed concern with this, saying not all employees were notified why they were being sent to the office and that they could face consequences for refusing.
A few days after first reaching out to the News + Record, this employee said Sunday that the outbreak had “gotten worse,” and that they were concerned by the “lack of public health infection control practices within the USPS.”
“Most carriers won’t talk to you for fear of termination or retribution. We have been told repeatedly NOT to speak with the media by our supervisors and union representatives,” the employee said in an email. “The USPS is more concerned about ‘bad’ media and focusing on distribution and operations.”
Communications Specialist Zachary Horner, with the Chatham County Public Health Department, said Sunday that the department does not track cases by employer, and referred all questions about those reports to the post office. The NC Department of Health and Human Services tracks workplace clusters in the state, but does not break down clusters into specific workplaces in its Clusters in NC report, unlike how clusters among schools or nursing homes are reported. Updated every Monday by 4 p.m., that report currently lists 93 reported COVID-19 clusters for government services, or 698 cases (up by 2 since last week), and three deaths.