DCF workers test positive for COVID-19, others exposed


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) — Nine workers with the state Department of Children and Families have tested positive for COVID-19, and 16 others are self-isolating after being exposed to the novel coronavirus, officials confirmed to The News Service of Florida.

An employee of Florida State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Chattahoochee, is among the nine workers who have tested positive, Aly Coleman, an agency spokeswoman, told the News Service on Friday.

Agency officials, however, have not disclosed the positions held by the other eight workers who have tested positive for COVID-19, the deadly respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. They also have not provided details about the 16 employees who had been exposed as of Thursday evening.

The cases give a glimpse of how the agency’s workforce of roughly 10,000 employees has been impacted by the virus as the number of statewide positive cases soared past 17,500 on Friday morning.

“We are actively tracking this information and working closely with the Department of Health to ensure we provide an appropriate response to maintain the health and safety of both our staff and those in our care,” Coleman told the News Service in an email Thursday.

Coleman said the agency has directed staff members to notify supervisors if they have come into contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 or if they become symptomatic themselves.

“As of April 9, 2020, we recorded that 24 employees are voluntarily self-isolating and one has been instructed by DOH (the Department of Health) to self-isolate,” Coleman said.

Seeking to limit the virus’ spread, agency officials have temporarily shut down all storefront offices and lobbies across the state and asked employees who oversee federal-cash and food-assistance programs to continue those services online.

“With more than 90 percent of our customers filing for benefits online or by phone, closing our storefronts to protect our employees and the public is the right thing to do,” DCF Secretary Chad Poppell said in a prepared statement March 18, when the changes were made.

When agency officials learned that a worker at Florida State Hospital had tested positive, they placed a temporary hold on admissions through April 30 to clean and sanitize the mental-health treatment facility and are establishing quarantine areas for all incoming patients after admissions resume. 

Meanwhile, child protective investigators, whose jobs include conducting inspections at homes of children considered at risk of abuse and neglect, continue to “fulfill their responsibilities in a timely and effective manner,” Coleman told the News Service.

In March, workers who were interacting with people only had access to gloves, masks and protective equipment that regional offices had in stock prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Coleman said. The agency was scheduled to receive a shipment of 14,500 surgical masks and 120,000 surgical gloves during the week of March 30, she added. 

DCF did not immediately respond to questions about whether the shipment had arrived.

As child protective workers continue to do their jobs, some child welfare officials worry the pandemic and a worsening economy is increasing stress on already-fragile families and fueling a rise in child abuse and neglect. 

“We know for a fact, based on statistics, that unemployment is a driving force to child abuse, neglect and abuse. We know that. We can look at the data over time,” Alan Abramowitz, the state Guardian ad Litem Program’s executive director, told the News Service last month.

By March 28, there had been 34,163 calls to Florida’s child-abuse hotline, a 30 percent uptick from February, Coleman said.

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