GENEVA (AP) – The World Health Organization has recorded 65 cases of the coronavirus among staff based at its headquarters, including at least one cluster of infections, an internal email obtained by The Associated Press shows, despite the agency’s public assertions that there has been no transmission at the Geneva site.
The revelation comes amid a surge of cases in Europe, host country Switzerland, and the city of Geneva, in particular, and the email said about half of the infections were in people who had been working from home. But 32 were in staff who had been working on premises at the headquarters building, indicating that the health agency’s strict hygiene, screening and other prevention measures were not sufficient to spare it from the pandemic.
Raul Thomas, who heads business operations at WHO, emailed staff on Friday noting that five people – four on the same team and one who had contact with them- had tested positive for COVID-19. While the email did not use the term “cluster,” one is generally defined as two or more cases in the same area and the five cases indicate basic infection control and social distancing procedures were likely being broken.
A previous email he sent on Oct. 16 indicated that no clusters had been found at the site.
“As per standard protocols, these colleagues are receiving the necessary medical attention and are recovering at home,” the email Friday said. “These last five cases bring the total reported number of affected members of the Geneva based workforce to 65 since the beginning of the pandemic.”
Farah Dakhlallah, a WHO spokeswoman, confirmed the accuracy of the information about the case count in an email to the AP.
Thomas’ email did not specify who was infected, but a WHO staffer with direct knowledge of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the press said the cluster included a member of the WHO director-general’s leadership team who is also an infection control specialist.
The senior manager reportedly held several in-person meetings at WHO in early November before testing positive last week. The person, contacted by the AP, referred all comments to the WHO media office.
According to the email, 49 of the overall cases had occurred in the last eight weeks, “thus very much in line with the situation being reported in Geneva and the surrounding areas.” He added that “a higher number of cases among those who telework might have gone unreported.”
Enhanced measures to “reduce our risk profile” were being considered, the email said.
“Finally, members of the workforce are reminded that physical meetings, including gatherings in common areas or in the cafeteria, are strongly discouraged and should only take place where absolutely necessary,” it added.
Elsewhere in Geneva, restaurants are among many public venues that have been closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Last month, Thomas told WHO staffers the agency was restricting access to its Geneva headquarters to critical staffers, including senior directors, their assistants and management officers. “All members for the workforce are reminded to always keep proper hand hygiene, respect physical distancing standards (at least one meter) and wear masks, when distancing is not possible,” he wrote.
In normal times, an estimated 2,400 people regularly work at WHO’s seven-story headquarters overlooking Geneva. As the pandemic has swelled in the area, staffers have been encouraged to work from home when possible. Non-staff visitors have been required to wear masks, and access to the building has been curtailed.
And ahead of WHO’s weeklong meeting of its member states last week – which was mostly virtual – staffers were told in an internal email to take extra precautions, including mask-wearing in public places.
On Monday, from a vast meeting room at the headquarters, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and other officials were participating in a session of the agency’s latest executive board meeting, which was largely conducted by video conference. He was returning from a two-week self-quarantine at home after coming into contact with a person who tested positive. Because Tedros did not show any symptoms himself, he was not tested for COVID-19 but stayed at home out of an abundance of caution.
On Nov. 2, WHO’s technical lead for the COVID-19 response, Maria Van Kerkhove, told reporters there had been no transmission or clusters at headquarters, before adding: “But it is something that we’re monitoring every day.”
The WHO press office did not respond to two emails from the AP – on Nov. 2 and Nov. 10 – asking how many staffers based at WHO headquarters had tested positive for COVID-19.
Cheng reported from London.