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Union president said Baltimore health department worker’s death can be traced back to job

The president of a union representing community health nurses in the Baltimore City Department of Health attributed a school health aide’s death earlier this month to poor working conditions exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Wendy Smith, president of Local 558 of AFSCME Council 67, said Marchiel McDuffie had expressed fears about reporting to work. The veteran health department employee died Oct. 8 of COVID-19.

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The union filed a class action grievance with the city Sept. 8, before McDuffie’s sickness, related to workplace safety concerns expressed by members, Smith said, including a shortage of protective equipment, insufficient HVAC systems and poor air circulation inside the buildings. Those elements created a breeding ground for the coronavirus to spread, Smith said.

“We don’t have what we need,” Smith said. “Marchiel McDuffie did not have what she needed.”

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In a response to the grievance dated Oct. 11, the city said the union’s grievance “did not directly correlate the employee’s suggested solutions with the specific articles violated,” but management would attempt to address the concerns as submitted, according to a copy of the decision.

Smith declined to provide a copy of the full grievance.

The Baltimore City Health Department confirmed McDuffie’s death on Oct. 9 but did not answer questions about where the Baltimore resident may have contracted it.

A department representative said it does not comment on union grievances.

“All staff are provided PPE in accordance with [Centers for Disease Control] guidelines as needed to complete their duties,” a Baltimore City Health Department employee said in a statement. “The Health Department takes its commitment to keeping its employees safe very seriously, and continues to proactively assess and address COVID-19 concerns among staff.”

Smith said McDuffie and another school nurse who went on to test positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized for it returned to work at the same site in September. Both tested positive toward the end of the month, she said.

The nurse, who rotated among four city schools, has been released from the hospital, Smith said. McDuffie worked at an elementary/middle school in West Baltimore.

“This was 100% work related,” Smith said in an email. “You can’t bring people together in a pandemic, without the proper personal protection and the proper ventilating of air. They had countless interactions with people in the school buildings. This did not have to happen. This was absolutely preventable and predictable.”

Smith said the union would appeal the city’s grievance response to the department head.

On Thursday, the Baltimore Teachers Union president urged parents not to send their children back when city schools reopen to select groups of students in November, saying the schools are not safe for teachers and students. Union leadership said they had examples of secretaries now working in school buildings who did not have the proper equipment to prevent infection, and they did not trust administrators to keep students and staff members safe.

Andre Riley, a spokesman for Baltimore City Public Schools, said while the system was saddened to learn about McDuffie’s death, the claim that the school did not have enough personal protective gear or sufficient air circulation is “not supported by fact."

“City Schools has comprehensive health requirements for all students and employees in our buildings,” the system representative said in a statement. “Adherence to these procedures is critical, and the guidelines are enforced. The district has purchased $2.4 million in personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies and has distributed that equipment readily to schools serving as learning sites and meal sites.”

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He said students were not in the building at the time the system learned of McDuffie’s illness, and she had not been on campus since Sept. 22.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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