Waste Management admits to a ‘communications breakdown’ before eventually sending a staff member home to isolate.

After keeping an Omicron contact at work during his government-mandated isolation period earlier this week, the country’s biggest waste company has admitted it got things wrong.

The Auckland man returned one negative test on being told he was a contact. On the strength of that, he was asked by his supervisor at Waste Management to return to work.

However, public health requirements required that he remain in self-isolation at home until receiving his day five test results – advice the company was given early on Tuesday, but ignored for nearly half a day.

In response to Newsroom’s story, a spokesperson from Waste Management said this was a result of a miscommunication which was quickly fixed.

“The safety of our team is top priority, and we would never direct anyone to contravene the rules,” she said. “Unfortunately, there has been a communication breakdown in this case, which was rectified immediately on learning our staff member was a secondary contact.”

According to Waste Management, the worker had mistakenly understood he was a casual contact and returned to work on Tuesday after receiving a negative test result.

However, the man’s wife was a close contact from working a wedding on the weekend that has since become a location of interest, making the man a household or secondary contact.

Although the Waste Management spokesperson said the man was sent home immediately upon learning he was a secondary contact, Newsroom understands several hours elapsed between the man’s wife’s employer contacting Waste Management saying the man should be in self-isolation, and when he was sent home at around 4pm.

“You’re not the Ministry of Health,” a Waste Management manager told them. 

The Auckland District Health Board was concerned that Waste Management was putting pressure on the employee to stay at work.

Later on Tuesday, the man was allowed to go home and his workplace fully cleaned.

“There was no contact with other staff members and the worker was wearing full PPE,” said the Waste Management spokesperson. “He has since returned another negative test result and will remain in isolation as per government requirements.”

On Wednesday, Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said incidents like this were up to local public health units to handle.

Verrall said this was “why we provide financial support to businesses that have workers that need to isolate”.

Bloomfield added that employers supporting employees to isolate had played a significant part in New Zealand being able to control previous outbreaks.

But as shown by the three-phase Omicron plan the Government unveiled at the same time, control to the same extent as previous outbreaks is likely off the cards – a new reality suggested by contact tracers’ inability to reach two key cases in the early days of the latest outbreak.

Newsroom revealed on Tuesday that contact tracers didn’t contact an Air NZ crew member and a Summerset retirement village kitchen worker, both of whom continued working in high-risk environments for a day or more before testing positive for Covid.

Waste Management has over 1600 team members across 70 sites nationwide, collecting over a million tonnes of waste per year and recycling over 200,000.

The large company provides an essential service throughout the country with a large team of people who could at any minute come close to the virus – yet it seems the ambiguities of close versus casual versus secondary versus household contacts may have escaped them.

It’s likely this problem may arise more frequently as isolation guidelines evolve – especially as a phased approach means public health guidelines have the potential to change week by week.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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