COVID-19 Hits DISH With a Vengeance

DISH's Riverfront complex is located at 5701 South Santa Fe Drive in Littleton.
DISH's Riverfront complex is located at 5701 South Santa Fe Drive in Littleton. Google Maps
The astonishing 129 new COVID-19 outbreaks just announced by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment represents an unwanted new record for the fifth week in a row. But despite its size, this roster doesn't include every spread of the novel coronavirus. Some outbreaks, including many stemming from gatherings involving family and/or friends, go unreported, while others take a while to be fully investigated — and the delay can leave employees feeling confused, frustrated and frightened.

Such is the case at Dish, the satellite TV and communications giant chaired by Charlie Ergen, one of Colorado's richest people. According to a document obtained by Westword, 68 DISH employees nationwide tested positive for COVID-19 over the three-week period between October 5 and October 26; seven of those were staffers at the corporation's sprawling Riverfront office, at 5701 South Santa Fe Drive in Littleton, where four employees in the wireless department reportedly tested positive between October 15 and October 20.

The CDPHE considers an entity an outbreak after two or more COVID-19 cases among residents, staffers or other people connected to a specific location 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.

DISH would certainly seem to qualify under this standard, and there's a strong possibility that one or more of the company's Colorado properties will be designated as an outbreak down the line. Ashley Richter, communicable-disease epidemiology manager for the Tri-County Health Department, within whose jurisdiction Riverfront falls, notes via email: "I can confirm that we are working with Dish Network. However, since it is an active investigation I am unable to comment on any case specifics."

DISH conducts daily temperature screenings at Riverfront, and asks employees to answer a set of questions about contact tracing. But on October 14, word got out that a staffer had tested positive for COVID-19 — and rather than all employees in that particular space being put into quarantine, only four people in the same row of cubicles, plus two others, were sent home, according to a worker there who asked to remain anonymous.

The following Monday, October 19, word leaked out about a fresh positive reading from a rapid test, but it wasn't until the next day that the human-relations department revealed two more positives. On Thursday, October 22, the other workers in the area were finally told not to come into the office amid news of yet another positive case.

Here's a look at a screen capture showing COVID-19 positives at DISH over that three-week period in October. Three cases were also registered at DISH's Meridian office in Englewood, as well as one at a third site in Denver.

click to enlarge A screen capture from the October 5-26 report. - SPECIAL TO WESTWORD
A screen capture from the October 5-26 report.
Special to Westword
We sent a copy of this document to DISH, and spokesperson Edward Wietecha confirms its authenticity and cites its existence as an example of how the firm has kept its employees in the loop. "With respect to the report that you received and the cases that you mentioned — we have been transparent with our team members from the start of the pandemic, and we share confirmed information with our entire employee base in a timely manner," he writes via email. "The report that was given to you is one example of a measure that exceeds requirements and was put in place to provide increased transparency and visibility to our employees."

He continues, "Most of the country (including Denver and the state of Colorado) has been experiencing an increase in COVID-19 cases. Like many others, we have, too. As an essential business, we have a responsibility to provide our customers with critical news, information and entertainment, and therefore our facilities have remained open during the pandemic, with a subset of our critical employees onsite to perform necessary functions."

The Riverfront facility, he points out, is "a 200,000 square-foot building, and we’re only operating it at about 20 percent capacity. Nationwide more than half of all of our employees are currently working from home, and have been since early March." He adds that "the procedures we have in place at our facilities create safe, controlled environments that meet or exceed regulatory and health department guidance for preventing the spread of COVID-19."

That list of procedures includes:
• Safety training for every employee entering our facilities
• Daily health screening app and symptom tracker, and temperature checks upon entering our facilities
• Masks
• Social distancing (occupied work stations are at least six feet apart)
• Daily health screening app and symptom tracker, and temperature checks upon entering our facilities
• Single direction walkways and stairways
• One occupant per elevator (stairways preferred)
• Sanitizer stations throughout our facilities
• Regular reminders through signage and various employee communication channels to maintain a healthy and safe workplace, and reinforce safety expectations for everyone
Regarding the local cases, Wietecha maintains, "We performed detailed contact tracing interviews with each case, instituted quarantines for identified team members and departments, notified those working in the facility, reported them on our intranet site to the entire employee base, and followed strict cleaning protocols. In addition, we are working with Tri-County Health and we have shared all relevant information with them, including illness reporting data and all other information that they have requested."

DISH has "some of the best safety procedures, reporting, contact tracing and employee communications that are out there," Wietecha concludes. "We follow the best practices as outlined by state, local and federal health organizations. We take the safety of our employees and the community seriously and follow strict guidelines at all of our locations. We continue to monitor this evolving situation and all relevant guidance, and we will continue to make changes as needed to protect the safety of our employees and the communities we serve."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts