In a year when so many have stayed at home, Jackie Hairston did not. A 35-year U.S. Postal Service employee, she loved her job, deemed essential, inside the busy Ward Circle substation in Northwest D.C.
"Yes, she was dedicated," her brother Melvin told the News4 I-Team. "She was loved by her coworkers; anybody would have loved her."
Before her birthday in October, Melvin said he noticed something.
"At first I thought it was a cold. It was the flu," he said.
And then the symptoms started. Jackie would run a fever and had trouble breathing. On Oct. 5, Melvin said her coworkers had to call an ambulance for his sister.
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"They virtually had to grab her," he said. "And they say, you're going to, you know, you're going to the hospital."
Jackie was admitted to George Washington University Hospital and put on a ventilator. Two weeks later she was gone.
"I didn't believe it,'' said Melvin. "You see it on the news all the time, but you just don't feel like it's going to happen to you."
The I-Team found at least eight others at Ward Place had tested positive by mid-October, according to the Postal Service. But some insiders worry the numbers might be even higher at mail facilities around the D.C. region.
"We do not feel like we're getting good, accurate information on a timely basis," explained Arrion Brown with American Postal Workers, Local 140.
He said one of his concerns is the time it takes for the agency to reveal when a positive case surfaces.
"The contact tracing is, it can be slow at times," he said. "There's situations where there is this contact, there's a case and the contact tracing is done a week after the person is out of the building. My understanding is that they are kind of short staffed. They're overwhelmed with the contact tracing. There’s a backlog of it, I believe.”
Some of those delays could be due to a shortage of Postal Service nurses who conduct the contact tracing. There was a 21% vacancy rate last year, according to a November audit from the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Postal Service. The report said "there was no national hiring strategy for these critical roles."
“Being in the building a week after the person that was exposed in the building, that makes us vulnerable. We don't know who else that person had come in contact with and who they have come in contact with. So, it makes us feel anxious, vulnerable, angry, “ said Brown.
Unlike other federal agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Transportation Security Administration, the USPS does not publicly post how many cases of COVID-19 it’s had in each state or region. The News4 I-Team filed a Freedom of Information Act request and found the number of positive cases among postal employees has more than doubled since December, with almost 1,600 in D.C., Maryland and Virginia and at least seven deaths.
The Postal Service declined a request for an interview and did not answer specific questions, but said in a statement:
“We believe the risk of contracting COVID-19 is low for employees but we will keep our employees apprised as new information and guidance becomes available.
"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 name of an employee who tested positive for COVID-19 or further specifics of his or her medical condition.
"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).
"Coronaviruses are thought to be spread primarily through air-borne respiratory droplets resulting from a sneeze, cough or ordinary speech. Although the virus can survive for a short period of time on some surfaces, both CDC and the United States Surgeon General have indicated that it is unlikely to be spread from domestic or international mail, products or packaging.
"Out of an abundance of caution, we will enhance and supplement current cleaning protocols using disinfectants across our facilities.
"For information on the Postal Service’s efforts to deliver for our customers during COVID-19, please visit our website at https://about.usps.com/newsroom/covid-19/."
Before Congress last summer, the U.S. postmaster general acknowledged the virus had taken a toll and slowed mail delivery with 4% of its workers off the job.
“When the American people see two or three days without their carrier, that’s the issue," Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said.
That Inspector General report said the agency could take steps to improve safety for employees, including better goals for contact tracing, temperature checks for workers and stricter mask mandates.
"The last image that I saw my sister was on the Zoom camera down at GW Hospital," said Melvin.
He’s trying to adapt to life in this new year without his only sister. He’s focusing on the good times they shared, not the tragic ending unexpectedly delivered during this pandemic.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, shot by Steve Jones and Jeff Piper, and edited by Steve Jones.