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RIC students, employees claim they were not told about COVID-19 case

Coronavirus
Rhode Island College RIC campus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Multiple employees of Rhode Island College, including maintenance personnel asked to clean a dorm where a student with coronavirus is quarantined, claim the school officials never notified them about the possibility of a positive COVID-19 case.

RIC President Frank Sanchez sent out an email Monday evening around, saying the R.I. Department of Health informed the college a student had tested positive.

“The resident, who resides on campus, is in self-isolation and following the protocols from RIDOH,” Sanchez said in the email.

RI Council 94 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) represents about 175 RIC employees, including police officers, janitors and maintenance personel.

Local 2878 President Anthony Peters said police officers and housekeeping employees have been in and out of the dorm where the student has been living, without being warned there was a possible case.

“One of my workers was face to face with the student on Monday, within maybe a foot of him,” Peters said. “Police respond there on a regular basis. Why not tell us? They left us in the dark. It’s unfair.”

Peters said the infected student has also been spotted outside his room, in the cafeteria and he suspects administrators and health care workers knew the student had coronavirus symptoms.

“The nurses, the president, vice president. They had to know because they’ve been treating him,” Peters said. “Will they go in that room and do it and not knowing about it? The administration? That upsets me a lot.”

A RIC maintenance employee who identified himself only as Ralph out of fear of retribution, said he and several other employees were told to clean Penfield Residence Hall Monday afternoon. Ralph said he was not informed by superiors about the positive test until Tuesday morning.

“They must have known they had a possible positive case,” Ralph said. “I think the college should have notified us before we went in to clean out the trash. Now, they tell us we can go home if we want, but we have to use our own sick time.”

Peters said he is requesting paid admnistrative leave for union members who are recommended to be self-quarantined.

Another RIC employee who also asked not to be identified told Target 12 he was among several RIC employees “told to go into [Penfield] and clean the building from top to bottom.”

“We were exposed to the virus without our knowledge,” he said. “At no time were we informed that there was a resident with the virus in that building. Workers later found out through the news why they were in there scrubbing the building.”

A RIC dorm resident who asked not to be identified echoed the employees’ concerns, saying several students claim they were not notified “of anyone on campus testing positive for the virus.”

“I saw the post on Facebook and that is how I am now aware of the current situation,” she said. “But we have not been notified of anything regarding this matter which is very worrisome.”

RIC spokesperson John Taraborelli said after the student who tested positive was notified, an email from President Sanchez was sent “to the entire campus community.”

“In all matters related to this case, the college is following RIDOH protocols and guidelines, as well as disclosing information consistent with students’ privacy rights ,” Taraborelli said.

Still, the student and employees insist they did not get the message and they said the college must have known there was a “possible” coronavirus infection days before Sanchez reported a case was confirmed.

“They should’ve told us that a case was being tested for the coronavirus,” one of the maintenance workers said.

According to Taraborelli, 65 or fewer students are being allowed to live on campus due to “extenuating circumstances that prevent them from returning to a safe or adequate home.”

“Those students who do remain are isolated in individual suites to facilitate proper social distancing,” Taraborelli said.

Rhode Island Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott seemed to side with the union’s concerns, saying the state is working closely with colleges and other entities that are evaluating whether someone’s illness is covid-19.

“We will always make sure the facility takes into account the actions and steps that are needed to keep everyone safe,” Alexander-Scott said. “We would not want to automatically say covid-19 is the problem but we always want to make sure the institution is implementing the infection control practices that are needed.”

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

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