Boeing workers walk outside of Boeing’s Everett assembly plant on April 21 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Boeing workers walk outside of Boeing’s Everett assembly plant on April 21 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Boeing: Newly confirmed virus in Everett workforce is no risk

The 2 employees stayed home after falling ill in mid-March. Their test results just came through.

By Dominic Gates / The Seattle Times

According to Boeing’s latest update to its daily internal listing of the company’s COVID-19 cases, two Everett employees were confirmed as positive for the novel coronavirus on Tuesday — the day thousands of workers on the 747, 767 and 777 jet programs returned to work at the factory.

Understandably, some among the Everett workforce were alarmed at the possibility of new infections, starkly illustrating the continuing challenge Boeing faces in tamping down fear of coronavirus contagion as its employees return to work.

However, Boeing spokeswoman Jessica Kowal said Thursday both of those infected employees had fallen ill in mid-March — before the four-week factory shutdown that began March 25 — and stayed home after becoming sick. At that time testing wasn’t widely available, and their results came through only this week.

Furthermore, she said, both employees have recovered and have been cleared to return to work.

The company data states that during the period when these two employees may have been infectious, they worked in the bays where the 767 and 777X jets are built.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they were infected at the Boeing plant; the virus was widespread in the Snohomish County community in mid-March and they could have picked it up outside the factory. It does mean they could have spread it while at work before the shutdown.

As in all such cases, when someone reports a positive test result, Boeing Health Services interviews the person for contact tracing and notifies other employees who worked in close proximity to the infected person.

Those employees are then sent home for quarantine, many of them returning after 14 days without having gotten sick.

Posting all the details

Boeing has been more transparent with employees than most companies, posting its updated list of confirmed cases among the workforce on its internal website each day.

While this data is provided as a means of assuring workers the facts are known, with the virus still uncontained, it can also stoke worry.

The list obtained by The Seattle Times was updated Thursday and provides the data on all cases as of April 22.

It tallies a total of 212 COVID-19 cases confirmed at all Boeing locations since the first four positive tests, all in Everett, came back on March 9. Of those, only 56 are still active cases.

In Washington state, 142 employees have been confirmed infected.

One employee died last month from the disease — quality inspector 57-year-old Elton Washington died on March 22, just before the four-week shutdown — while more than 100 have recovered and been cleared to return to work.

Boeing says only 35 of the Washington state COVID-19 cases are still active.

Without identifying any of the employees, the list states where each worked, on which date Boeing was informed of the positive test and which building the person worked in during the period when they may have been infectious.

Many of the cases, 65 out of the 212, are listed as “working offsite,” indicating that the person was not in the workplace when infectious. Boeing began in March encouraging those employees who could work from home to do so. Most of those listed as working offsite when infected tested positive this month.

Of the 142 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Washington state employees, 84 worked in Everett; 26 in Renton; 13 in Seattle or Tukwila; eight in Auburn; five in Moses Lake; and six at other sites.

Among Boeing sites elsewhere in the country, the Boeing plant in St. Louis, Mo., had 15 cases; the site in North Charleston, South Carolina, had eight; and the military helicopter plant at Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, had eight.

Fed by word of the new COVID-19 cases reported this week, private Boeing employee Facebook groups on Thursday featured concerned discussion of a few workers being sent home sick in the first two days of the return to work — implying that the coronavirus might immediately have returned to the newly cleaned factory.

Asked to respond to this, spokeswoman Kowal said it’s not significant if someone among a large workforce goes home sick on any given day, and that in the current pandemic anyone suspected with any symptoms is expected to do so.

“Boeing is asking employees to perform a daily self-wellbeing check to monitor for symptoms,” she said in an emailed statement. “If an employee feels ill at work, they should go home.”

As the specter of the coronavirus persists, Boeing may have to brace for the impact on employee morale of future positive cases.

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