GENEVA (AP) – The World Health Organization has recorded 65 cases of coronavirus among staff based at its headquarters, including at least one cluster of infections, an internal email obtained by the Associated Press shows, despite past claims by the agency that there was no transmission at the Geneva site.
The revelation comes amid a wave of cases in Europe, the host country Switzerland, and the city of Geneva in particular, and the email said about half of the infections were in people who worked at home. But 32 people were among the staff who worked in the premises of the headquarters building, indicating that the health agency’s strict hygiene, screening and other preventive measures were not sufficient for the save from the pandemic.
Farah Dakhlallah, a WHO spokesperson, confirmed the accuracy of the case count information in an email to the PA and which officials were still investigating.
“We have not yet established whether the transmission has occurred on campus, but we are investigating the issue,” Dakhlallah said.
Raul Thomas, who heads business operations at WHO, sent an email to staff on Friday indicating that five people – four on the same team and one who was in contact with them – had tested positive for COVID-19. Although the email does not use the term “cluster,” one is generally defined as two or more cases in the same area, and all five cases indicate that basic infection control and social distancing procedures were probably broken.
A previous email he sent on October 16 indicated that no groups had been found on the site.
“In accordance with standard protocols, these colleagues are receiving the necessary medical care and recovering at home,” the Friday email said. “These latest five cases bring the total reported number of affected members of the Geneva-based workforce to 65 since the start of the pandemic.”
The email did not specify who was infected, but a WHO staff member with first-hand knowledge of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the press said that the group included a member of the WHO Director-General’s leadership team who is also an infection control specialist.
Thomas’ email was sent after other WHO officials expressed concern that people who had been in contact with the cluster were still working in the Geneva building and potentially exposing others to COVID -19, said the staff member.
The senior official reportedly held several face-to-face meetings at the WHO in early November before testing positive last week. The person, contacted by the PA, referred all comments to the WHO media office.
The WHO has been criticized repeatedly for its handling of the pandemic. US President Donald Trump has accused the UN agency of “collusion” with China to hide the extent of the initial epidemic. In June, the PA found that the WHO publicly praised China for its speed and transparency, even as private meetings showed frustrated WHO officials the country was sitting down to release critical information on the issues. outbreaks.
According to Thomas’ email, 49 of the global cases had occurred in the past eight weeks, “so very much in line with the situation reported in and around Geneva.” He added that “a greater number of cases among those who telecommute may not be reported.”
Improved measures to “reduce our risk profile” were being considered, the email said.
“Finally, staff are reminded that physical meetings, including meetings in common areas or in the cafeteria, are strongly discouraged and should only take place when absolutely necessary,” he added. .
Elsewhere in Geneva, restaurants are among many public places that have been closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
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Last month, Thomas told WHO staff that the agency was limiting access to its Geneva headquarters to critical staff, including senior directors, their assistants and managers. “All staff are reminded to always maintain good hand hygiene, adhere to physical distance standards (at least one meter) and wear masks, when distance is not possible,” writes he.
Normally, around 2,400 people work regularly at WHO’s seven-story headquarters overlooking Geneva. As the pandemic gained momentum in the region, staff members were encouraged to work from home when possible. Non-staff visitors had to wear masks and access to the building was restricted.
And ahead of WHO’s week-long meeting of its Member States last week – which was mostly virtual – staff were urged in an internal email to take extra precautions, including wearing masks in public places.
On Monday, from a large meeting room at headquarters, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and other officials attended a session of the agency’s latest executive board meeting, which largely took place. conducted by videoconference. He was returning from a two week home self-quarantine after coming into contact with someone who tested positive. Because Tedros did not show any symptoms himself, he was not tested for COVID-19 but stayed home out of caution.
On November 2, WHO’s technical officer for the COVID-19 response, Maria Van Kerkhove, told reporters that there had been no transmission or clusters at headquarters, before adding: ” But it’s something that we watch every day. ”
The WHO press office did not respond to two emails from the PA – on November 2 and 10 – asking how many staff based at WHO headquarters had tested positive for COVID-19.
Cheng reported from London.
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