False alarm: RTD told employees a coworker tested positive for COVID-19 and then found out it wasn’t true

Officials say it provides lessons in a rapidly changing time.

RTD commissioned new MallRide buses. (Chloe Aiello/Denverite)

RTD commissioned new MallRide buses. (Chloe Aiello/Denverite)

staff photos

A memo sent from the Regional Transportation District to employees last week stated that a staffer had tested positive for COVID-19, the infectious respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus. But state health officials found no evidence of any test taken, let alone a positive one, the transit agency said, causing RTD to rescind the memo a day later.

The original letter, obtained by Denverite, was sent to coworkers of the supposedly infected person on March 20 from assistant general manager of bus operations Fred Worthen. In it, he told staffers that a worker had tested positive, “making this the agency’s first and only COVID-19 case at this time.”

But the concern was short-lived. RTD reported the case to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, which is the authority on all local COVID-19 cases. Worthen delivered a much less scary note on Saturday, stating that “after involving local and state health officials, we have not been able to confirm that the employee’s test is positive.” Worthen said RTD disinfected the building where the employee had worked, just to be safe.

Earlier this week, the state health department confirmed that the employee had not taken a test, said RTD assistant general manager of communications Pauletta Tonilas. Sending the memo was an example of the agency erring on the side of caution, she said, adding that the letter was sent solely to one arm of the transit agency because the risk was confined to one building.

“For me, this is just how we all are living in our life right now, which is that we are making decisions the very best we can with the information that we have,” Tonilas said.

The transit agency has no known positive COVID-19 cases in its ranks, though it does have employees who are self-isolating, Tonilas said. The state health department is not tracking RTD employees as a high-risk group, a CDPHE spokesperson told Denverite.

Lance Longenbohn, president of ATU Local 1001, the union that represents RTD workers, said clear and transparent communication is key at a time when bus drivers and train operators want to help people get where they need to go but also don’t want to get sick.

“Everybody walked into this not expecting for this to be at the level that it’s reached,” Longenbohn said. “And so everyone’s making the same last-minute scramble for all of that same types of protective equipment and mitigating elements, but community communication needs to be consistent. And it doesn’t matter if it’s good news or bad news, you just have to keep telling people what’s going on.”

RTD’s Tonilas said the transit agency has a clear path of action for any positive COVID-19 tests in the future.

“For us moving forward, anytime that we are notified that somebody has had a test that has resulted in a positive case, that automatically goes to the state health officials and they’re the ones who track and monitor all that,” Tonilas said. “And we need to have some formal letter or communication on a doctor’s letterhead or something like that that verifies the positive test.”

Tonilas said she could not offer any information on the worker’s employment status.

The COVID-19 pandemic has sent RTD ridership into a downward spiral. The transit agency will move all buses and trains to a weekend schedule on April 19.

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