Waynesville’s finance and billing office shut down this week after all 12 employees who worked in the building were sent home to quarantine following a positive COVID case by a coworker.

The other 11 employees were tested Tuesday and were still waiting results as of press time Friday, so it’s too soon to say whether the case will become a cluster. But it has emerged as a case study of how one positive case in an office can wreak havoc on workplace operations, even if no other cases materialize.

“What I learned the hard way is that the disease can come through the back door,” Waynesville Town Manager Rob Hites said. “Since March we have spent thousands of dollars protecting town employees from the public and protecting the public from the public, but it didn’t occur to me the disease would come through the employee entrance.”

The work place is one of the leading sources of COVID spread in Haywood County right now, spurred by the tendency of coworkers to let their guard down around each other.

“What we’ve seen too often is folks say ‘Well, we wear masks unless we are social distanced.’ Employees believe they are safe when they are spread out. But that’s when they get into trouble,” Haywood County Public Health Director Patrick Johnson said.

Before long, someone is leaning over someone else’s computer or making a quick trip to the bathroom without putting on their mask first.

“People end up going around the office without masks,” Johnson said.

That’s exactly what led the entire staff of Wayesville’s finance and billing office being forced to quarantine.

“Someone forgets to put their mask on because they are just going to the Xerox, but they talk to a meter reader in the hall and then that meter reader talks to the other two meter readers,” Hites said. “It only takes one day for someone to expose 11 people.”

While public disclosure of workplace cases is only required when reaching the cluster threshold of five cases, Waynesville voluntarily disclosed the situation to the public Wednesday. Those paying town utility bills do so through a drive-in window rather than coming inside, but it could still give some cause for concern, Hites said.

“They may wonder whether the employee who pushed their bill through the window put their fingers on a payment slip,” Hites said.

The positive employee began to experience symptoms over the weekend, was tested Saturday and learned of the results Tuesday afternoon, at which point the office was closed.

Employees of the building will remain home for two weeks, regardless of whether their tests come back negative.

“It is an abundance of caution to send everybody home,” Hites said.

In the meantime, three management level employees with the town who started their careers in billing or finance will staff the office starting Monday so the town can resume processing payments and critical finance operations.

“They very generously agreed to set aside their duties and open up the collection window and part of the finance department,” Hites said.

The Waynesville fire department, which is adjacent to the finance and billing office on Brown Avenue in Hazelwood, has decontaminated the building twice with backpack disinfecting sprayers, even though any lingering virus in the building would dissipate within a few days of the building being shut.

“We just want to make sure we have done everything we can,” Hites said.

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