TARGET 8: State agency tells staff to keep working even with possible COVID-19 exposure

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COLUMBIA - Missouri Department of Mental Health employees should report to work even if they live with someone who's been exposed to or tested for COVID-19.

That was the directive included in an email Mark Stringer, director of the Department of Mental Health, sent to department employees Thursday. The email stated the employees should continue reporting to work unless they develop a fever and other COVID-19 symptoms. The guidance applies to all of the department's more than 7,000 employees.

The decision was part of new limitations on the use of employee leave in light of the spread of the virus. Stringer said the leave limitations are to "minimize the risk of diminished care" for individuals whom the department serves.

After the Missourian and Target 8 reached out to the department, however, Director of Public and Legislative Affairs Debra Walker said it will be issuing revised guidance to employees. The guidance was always intended for those who are asymptomatic, she said, and guidelines will be updated as the department receives further recommendations from state and federal health authorities.

"The revision...will indicate that employees who are asymptomatic who live with an asymptomatic household member who was exposed to COVID-19 or is on a self-monitoring status for COVID-19 should still report to work unless symptoms are exhibited," Walker wrote in an email.

An employee with the department, whom the Missourian is not identifying to protect the individual's job, said the decision could endanger employees who have preexisting health conditions. That individual said the initial email gave the impression the department doesn't care about its employees.

"There's individuals that work in my building that have autoimmune disorders, have recently been through chemo treatments…and they still have to come into work," the employee said.

The leave policy specifies that employees who are not approved for leave will be terminated after missing three days of scheduled work. 

The employee said this leaves the staff without a choice, particularly if they don't have very much vacation or sick time to use to stay away from work.

The Division of Behavioral Health within the department operates six adult inpatient facilities and one children’s psychiatric hospital. The department employee suggested that the leave policy could put patients in those facilities in danger of contracting the virus.

Walker said that employees working in the 24/7 facilities are screened in order to prevent possible spread of the virus, and regional, satellite and the central office are also putting tools in place to screen all staff. However, the CDC specifies that there have been reports of asymptomatic cases of the virus

Employees are not allowed to telecommute due to anticipated staffing shortages. The shortages are anticipated to come from employees with children they need to care for due to school closures. If both parents work within the department, only one will be approved to take leave.

"Without you, we cannot fulfill our mission," Stringer wrote to employees. "This additional guidance allows us to continue to provide critical services while ensuring that an unsafe burden does not fall on already-stressed team members."

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