COVID-19: Why Denver Declared War on the U.S. Postal Service

Part of the massive U.S. Postal Service facility at 7550 East 53rd Place in Denver.
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Part of the massive U.S. Postal Service facility at 7550 East 53rd Place in Denver.
At the unusual time of 9:26 p.m. last night, May 21, Denver declared war on the U.S. Postal Service.

The blast from the Joint Information Center, which is handling communications on the city's efforts to fight COVID-19, followed reports a few hours earlier that Denver was aiming to temporarily shut down a massive USPS facility at 7550 East 53rd Place that processes all mail for Colorado and Wyoming, after five employees tested positive for the novel coronavirus, only to be met by a lack of cooperation from the feds.

A U.S. Postal Service spokesperson responded to that move with this statement: "We strongly disagree with the Denver Public Health order, which was made without a visual verification, without advanced coordination with the team of postal employees working on these issues with Denver Public Health, and without the understanding of the Postal Service’s substantial, ongoing efforts to protect its employees and the public. We have provided Denver Public Health the necessary documentation to satisfy their inquiry and are confident the order will be rescinded."

Not so much. Instead of rolling over, Denver officials fired back with a response implying that the USPS problems go beyond a single site, noting that "the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment has responded to clusters of COVID-19 cases involving multiple employees at several USPS locations over the last week."

The Denver release asserts that "as part of any outbreak investigation, we work with facility management to obtain information about ill employees, identify common exposures, and implement practices to prevent disease transmission and ensure the safety of employees and the public. In this case, however, the USPS not only failed to provide the necessary information, but they have not allowed inspections to support complete outbreak investigations."

Denver officials don't intend "to halt the delivery of mail or shut down an essential federal facility," the city's statement continues. "This was a measure of last resort, and the only remaining tool we have to get the facility management’s attention and secure public health compliance during a pandemic. DDPHE and the City Attorney are committed to resolving these concerns with federal authorities quickly."

The U.S. Postal Service is under attack on many fronts. President Donald Trump, who's portrayed advocacy for a mail-in election this November as a partisan plot against him, has dubbed the agency "a joke"  amid reports of red-ink flows and calls for privatization. Meanwhile, positive COVID-19 diagnoses among postal workers began popping up nationally in March, and last month, a Greenwood Village postal worker filed a formal complaint accusing the USPS of negligence when it comes to protecting employees.

Meanwhile, health officials throughout Colorado are grappling with an increasing number of outbreaks; the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment counted 249 such sites through May 20.

Most sites receiving this designation are allowed to remain open as long as management has adequate safety measures in place, updates local health officials about employee monitoring and new cases, and otherwise demonstrates a devotion to tackling the problem head on. Only in extreme instances, as with an Aurora Walmart linked to three deaths that had failed to maintain proper social distancing and mask use among employees and customers, are temporary closures mandated to allow time for the implementation of improved procedures, and officials try to keep them as brief as possible.

The CDPHE considers a facility an outbreak after two or more COVID-19 cases among residents, staffers or the like are confirmed within a fourteen-day period, or two or more cases of respiratory illness with an onset of symptoms within a fourteen-day period are paired with at least one additional COVID-19 diagnosis. Under that definition, the USPS processing center would seem to qualify. But right now, its administrators are primarily delivering defiance.