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From the archives 2020

Pa. pursuing huge cleaning plan for Capitol Complex after custodial worker tests positive for the coronavirus

by Julia Shanahan for Spotlight PA |

The money will fund a pilot program in the Capitol Complex with “superior results in comparison with standard cleaning and disinfection methods.”
Kalim A. Bhatti / The Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania will spend up to $5 million on a new contract to ramp up cleaning in the Capitol Complex after a state custodial worker in Harrisburg tested positive for the coronavirus.

In a request for funding, the Department of General Services said there’s “an immediate need to provide our tenants and guests with greater confidence that our facilities are as safe as we can reasonably make them, especially as traffic in our facilities increases with the Capitol Complex reopened to the public and the General Assembly returning in September.”

According to a department spokesperson, the custodial employee works in a state office building in Harrisburg, not in the Capitol. The worker’s positive test was disclosed in an emergency request for six months of “cleaning and disinfecting” services for the Capitol Complex, which includes the main building and nearby offices.

Exactly what the funding will be used for is unclear. According to a brief description in the request document, the department is considering a pilot program with “frequent testing” and “superior results in comparison with standard cleaning and disinfection methods.”

Troy Thompson, a department spokesperson, declined to discuss the details of the contract until it is finalized, as did the selected company.

“We cannot speculate what the future will look like, however DGS is following [recommended] guidelines for enhanced cleaning of high-touch and high-traffic areas such as restrooms and fixtures, lobbies, elevator cabins, stairway handrails, and doorknobs,” Thompson said in an email.

The Capitol closed to visitors in March, as Gov. Tom Wolf shut down businesses and issued stay-at-home orders to contain the spread of COVID-19. While the building reopened to the public in June, it has been largely empty, with most lawmakers working remotely and on break for the summer.

Still, at least two lawmakers who had spent time in the Capitol have tested positive for the coronavirus since May.

State employees based in Harrisburg, meanwhile, were told to telework when possible this spring. Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said people who are able to work remotely are still doing so, though she could not provide specific numbers.

The state has been grappling with decisions about how to safely reopen as coronavirus cases tick up in Pennsylvania and across the country. Transmission is increased inside buildings with poor ventilation, even when following CDC guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting.

State custodial staff are supplied with standard protective equipment, such as plastic gloves and face masks, Thompson of DGS said.

Darrin Spann, assistant to the executive director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 13, said workers are given enough of these supplies. Still, Spann said the employees the union represents “are apprehensive about being in the Capitol during this pandemic,” but don’t have any other option except to take unpaid leave.

No other members of the custodial staff have tested positive for COVID-19, Spann said. Thompson said protocol requires an employee who tests positive to tell their supervisor, who then works with human resources to determine any close contacts to the employee.

The management teams then relay that information to the Office of Administration to coordinate next steps, including notifying other employees. Thompson said it is not protocol to make an announcement to the general public.

It’s unclear where the custodial worker contracted COVID-19, according to Spann. Three other members of the cleaning staff who had contact with the infected worker had to quarantine, but did not test positive.

Spann said custodial workers are going “above and beyond” the cleaning procedures recommended by the CDC, such as disinfecting common surfaces and practicing routine cleaning.

State custodial workers maintain common areas in the Capitol, though both the House and Senate use separate staff to clean lawmakers’ offices and the chambers. While the fall usually brings large rallies to Harrisburg, with crowds packed into the main rotunda, Wolf spokesperson Kensinger said the state is not issuing permits for events inside the building.

Spann said his union is focused on making sure workers have cleaning supplies and practice social distancing this fall, “because we know that a lot of times at the Capitol that does not happen.”

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