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COVID-19 sidelines multiple New London Public Works employees

New London — Another COVID-19 outbreak among city employees has left officials scrambling to cover daily recycling and trash pickup routes.

Six of 11 available employees in the Public Works Department’s solid waste division are out due to positive COVID-19 tests, Public Works Director Brian Sear said. The solid waste division manages the daily pickup of trash and recycling material from 10,000 households — five routes a day, five days a week.

Additionally, employees from the division regularly haul compacted trash and recycled material in large trucks to Lisbon and Willimantic and perform a variety of other tasks, such as manning the scale at the city’s transfer station.

There are currently 11 employees citywide on leave for either a COVID-19 positive diagnosis or who are quarantining as a result of contact tracing, according to the latest available data from the city’s personnel office.

The solution to covering tasks of the lost personnel in Public Works has been pulling employees in from other areas, such as parks, highway and maintenance divisions. Sear said like a coach making game time decisions on personnel, Public Works Superintendent Dave Denoia has been instrumental in helping to find the right people for the jobs. It’s been a challenge considering some of the positions can only be covered by employees with proper experience or who have a commercial driver's license.

The alternative, however, is that garbage continues to build up until it becomes a public health crisis.

“It’s been a real challenge. We can’t shut down and (garbage pickup) is not really something that can be postponed,” Sear said. “The material is not going to stop. Even if we stop for one day, we’re just going to have to face that much more the next day.”

Sear said the employees have so far been able to cover the routes with just a few delays. Thankfully, he said, there has not been a snowstorm that would place pressure on the entire public Works Department of 42 employees.

Public Works first got word of five positive tests among employees on Jan. 5 and another later that week. Sear said the reason for the post-holiday spike is not yet known but safety policies and procedures put in place at the beginning of the pandemic have not changed. Employees are practicing social distancing, wearing masks and using hand sanitizer.

All of the city’s various buildings remain closed to the general public, limiting interactions. Most of the normal city business is done by phone or by appointment.

The newest outbreak follows a rash of positive COVID-19 cases in the fire department that led to more than a dozen firefighters sidelined in November. Mayor Michael Passero himself tested positive with two others in an outbreak on the third floor of City Hall in December. Passero and others previously affected have since recovered.

Passero said he thinks the city’s Public Works Department is beyond the worst of it, since no positive cases have been reported since last week. He and Sear are hoping for employees' quick recovery after a period of quarantine.

“There was a point last week when we thought we were going to have a problem continuing operations,” Passero said. “We don’t have a lot of people (in Public Works) to begin with.”

With COVID-19 so prevalent in the community, Passero said he and other municipal leaders are finding it harder and harder to protect employees who interact with the public. He said he has already started advocating in Hartford to have Public Works employees among the first to receive vaccinations.

In Connecticut, heath care personnel, long-term care facility residents and medical first responders are included in what is known as Phase 1a. Phase 1b is expected to include front-line essential workers, individuals and staff at congregate settings and individuals age 65 or older.

City Personnel Administrator Tina Collins said that in the event of a contact tracing circumstance or there is an employee with COVID-19 symptoms, the employee is allowed to get tested during work hours.

g.smith@theday.com

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