GENEVA (AP) – The World Health Organization has registered 65 cases of coronavirus among employees based at its headquarters, including at least one cluster of infections, according to an internal email received from the Associated Press, despite past claims by the agency that there was no transmission. in Geneva.
The revelation comes amid a large number of cases in Europe, the host country of Switzerland and in particular the city of Geneva, and the email said that about half of the infections were in people who worked from home. But 32 were employees who worked on premises in the headquarters building, indicating that the hygiene agency̵
Fara Dahlala, a WHO spokesman, confirmed the accuracy of the information on the number of cases in an email to the PA and that officials are still investigating.
“We have not yet established whether the broadcast took place on campus, but we are investigating the matter,” Dahlala said.
Raoul Thomas, who heads the WHO’s business operations, sent an email to staff on Friday, noting that five people – four from the same team and one who had contact with them – tested positive for COVID-19. Although email does not use the term ‘cluster’, one is usually defined as two or more cases in the same area, and five cases indicate that basic infection control and social exclusion procedures were likely to have been violated.
A previous email sent on October 16 stated that no clusters were found on the site.
“According to standard protocols, these colleagues receive the necessary medical care and are recovering at home,” the email said Friday. “These last five cases increase the total number of reported members of the Geneva workforce to 65 since the beginning of the pandemic.”
The email did not say who was infected, but a WHO official with direct knowledge of the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the press, said the cluster included a member of the WHO Director-General’s management team. who is also an infection control specialist.
Thomas’ email was sent after other WHO officials expressed concerns that people who had been in contact with the cluster were still working in the Geneva building and potentially exposing others to COVID-19, the official said.
The senior manager reportedly held several personal meetings at the WHO in early November, before being positive last week. The person contacted by the PA forwarded all comments to the WHO media service.
The WHO has faced repeated criticism of the fight against the pandemic. US President Donald Trump has accused the UN agency of “negotiating” with China to hide the extent of the initial outbreak. In June, the AP found that the WHO publicly praised China for its speed and transparency, although private meetings have shown that WHO officials are disappointed that the country is involved in disseminating critical information about the outbreak.
According to Thomas’ email, 49 of the total cases have occurred in the last eight weeks, “in a way that is very much in line with the situation reported in Geneva and the surrounding area.” He added that “more cases among those working in telecommuting may not have been reported.”
Enhanced measures to “reduce our risk profile” are being considered, the email said.
“Finally, members of the workforce are reminded that physical meetings, including gatherings in public areas or cafes, are highly discouraged and should only be held when absolutely necessary,” he added.
Elsewhere in Geneva, restaurants are among many public places that are closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Last month, Thomas told WHO officials that the agency restricts access to its Geneva headquarters to critical officials, including senior directors, their assistants and executives. “All members of the workforce are reminded to always maintain proper hand hygiene, observe physical distance standards (at least one meter) and wear masks when distance is not possible,” he wrote.
In normal times, about 2,400 people regularly work at the seven-story WHO headquarters overlooking Geneva. As the pandemic swelled in the area, staff were encouraged to work from home whenever possible. Visitors without staff must wear masks and access to the building is restricted.
Even before its Member States’ weekly WHO meeting last week – which was largely virtual – officials were told in an internal email to take additional precautions, including wearing masks in public.
On Monday, from a large meeting room at headquarters, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Gebreesus and other officials attended a session of the agency’s last meeting of the executive board, which was largely by videoconference. He was returning home from a two-week self-quarantine after coming into contact with a person with a positive test. As Tedros himself did not show any symptoms, he was not tested for COVID-19, but remained at home out of plenty of caution.
On November 2, WHO Technical Manager for COVID-19 Response, Maria Van Kerhove, told reporters that there were no broadcasts or clusters at the plant before adding, “But this is something we see every day.”
The WHO press service did not respond to two emails from the AP – on November 2 and November 10 – asking how many staff based at the WHO headquarters tested positive for COVID-19.
Cheng reports from London.
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