Postal carrier in Hoke tests positive for COVID-19

By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • A post office employee in Raeford tested positive for COVID-19, according to a statement from the United States Postal Service (USPS).

An employee with the Raeford Post Office who chose to remain anonymous tipped off The News-Journal about the situation. A reporter reached out to USPS strategic communications specialist Philip Bogenberger for further information, and received an email statement confirming a post office employee was positive for coronavirus.

“The U.S. Postal Service has learned that an employee at the Raeford Post Office tested positive for the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),” the statement said.

The statement also claimed the USPS had “reached out to the local public health office and will follow the guidance they provide,” but Hoke County Health Department Director Helene Edwards said the postal service did not contact the department. After The News-Journal made repeated inquiries, a USPS occupational health nurse administrator contacted Edwards Tuesday afternoon. The patient was not included in the 20 known cases of COVID-19 connected to Hoke County and likely does not live in the county.

The employee is a mail carrier who drives a mail truck on a delivery route, and doesn’t regularly come into contact with members of the public at the post office, Edwards said. The employee did not have symptoms while they were at work the early part of last week, but began feeling ill while on scheduled time off late last week. They tested positive for COVID-19 after visiting the doctor over the weekend.

Health officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health agencies have said it’s unlikely people can get COVID-19 from handling mail.

“There is still a lot that is unknown about COVID-19 and how it spreads. This coronaviruses is thought to be spread most often by respiratory droplets. Although the virus can survive for a short period on some surfaces, it is unlikely to be spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures,” according to the CDC.

The postal service has already cleaned the post office building on Elwood Avenue in Raeford, Bogenberger said in an email Monday. They’ve also sanitized the vehicle the mail carrier uses for work and have taken other precautions, Edwards said.

USPS informed employees who work at the facility and “believe the risk is low for them,” but planned to keep employees apprised of any new information or guidance as it becomes available, the USPS statement said.

Even so, the Raeford Post Office employee who asked to remain anonymous said some workers were concerned about how the postal service handled the case.

“Several employees are concerned about their health. They continued to allow people to work in the building before they had it sanitized. It has since been sanitized but some of the things leading up to and even after are definitely not the way things should have been handled,” the employee wrote in a message. “Even now it is not a requirement to wear gloves or a mask. They are making that an option.”

The postal service can’t force people to wear personal protective equipment, only provide it as an option, Edwards said. At least 17 USPS employees across North Carolina have tested positive for COVID-19, she said.

Hoke Health Department Medical Director Dr. Karen Smith, a longtime local physician, said that at this point in the pandemic, every person can “almost be assumed” to have possible exposure to COVID-19 regardless of how the exposure happened.

“It doesn’t matter if they were at the post office, the grocery store, the gas station,” she said.

Every person should monitor their body temperature and call their doctor if they develop symptoms including a fever greater than 102.5 degrees and a cough, Smith said. Doctors can then determine whether a patient needs to be tested for coronavirus.

Smith said she encouraged people to do exactly as health officials advise: stay home, practice frequent hand washing, keep at least six feet away from others and wear a facial barrier when out in public for essentials.