The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families shut down two offices this week after learning that a social worker tested positive for COVID-19 and another was being tested for the virus, state officials said Thursday.
DCF officials said they learned that an employee tested positive for the coronavirus on Tuesday in the Hyde Park office and shut down the workplace to give it a “deep clean.”
On Wednesday, the state shut down another office in Leominster after being informed that another employee was “seriously ill” and being tested. All other employees at the office were advised to self-quarantine, the state said.
A third social worker fell sick in another office but had been quarantined weeks before she was symptomatic, according to officials from Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 509, which represents some 3,500 social workers. State officials did not confirm or deny this third case.
The news comes as the state office tasked with protecting some 44,000 at-risk children struggles to do its work amidst a government shutdown.
Many child welfare specialists worry that vulnerable children are at higher risk cooped up at home with stressed families without the eyes and ears of teachers and other adults who are required to report signs of abuse or neglect.
DCF officials sent a memo to staff last week advising social workers not to go to work if they felt sick and to reach out to families and children by phone or FaceTime.
“This is a very stressful time for children and families and our work is assessing how they are doing, including determining any safety or risk factors that may be present or increased because of new circumstances,” the memo said.
Megan Piccirillo, communications director for the union, said she’s concerned that the Hyde Park employee who tested positive for COVID-19 had shown up to work the day before. “We are all asking, 'What happened? Did she not have sick time?'" she said. “We are awaiting answers.”
She said employees are still unclear about what to do in an emergency. The state directs workers to call ahead and screen families before entering a household and reach out to supervisors with any concerns. She said this directive is not always realistic in a crisis situation.
"Nobody knows what to do in this new world we are in," Piccirillo said. “We are trying to protect the well-being of children and the well-being of our workers.”
Adriana Zwick, president of the union’s DCF chapter, said social workers can do much of their work from their desk but there are times when they have to “lay eyes” on families to make sure children are safe.
She said workers are starting to receive hand sanitizer and protective gloves, but they need more. Zwick said she is proud of social workers who are learning new technology and reaching out to families despite their own personal challenges. And she’s concerned they will be getting more calls about children in trouble.
"I am worried as each day passes, as parents and kids are cooped up at home, that this could result in some real challenges," she said.