Amazon Tried to Work With Coronavirus Test-Makers to Screen Employees But They Were Too Busy With Government Orders

Amazon executives have reportedly contacted the heads of companies producing COVID-19 tests about the possibility of screening its employees for the novel virus.

The move, which comes as the shopping giant is scrambling to ensure its U.S. warehouses can remain operational, does not appear to be moving forward as CEOs from the firms, Abbott Laboratories and Thermo Fisher Scientific, said they do not have the capacity for such a job.

The test-makers' workload is being dominated by the demands of the U.S. government, the CEOs said, according to notes from an internal meeting obtained by Reuters.

The newswire reported that Amazon is now seeking a way to screen multiple employees at once for the virus, which has been found in at least 19 of its facilities.

Last month, a test from Abbott Laboratories that claimed to detect the virus in as little as five minutes was granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It was praised by president Donald Trump in a press briefing as a "whole new ballgame."

But a document obtained by Kaiser Health News indicated state and public health laboratories would only be getting enough to test 5,500 people, although Abbott said more were being made.

Dave Clark, senior vice president of worldwide operations at Amazon, wrote in a blog post on Thursday that temperature checks were being conducted in U.S. fulfillment centers.

"We are now temperature checking more than 100,000 employees per day," he noted. "The complete rollout of temperature checks across our entire U.S. and European operations... is expected by early next week, at which point we will be testing hundreds of thousands of people daily."

The executive said millions of face masks that were recently ordered by the company were starting to arrive and they would be distributed to employees "as quickly as possible."

The efforts to remain operational during the health crisis have sparked criticism from some staffers, and Amazon faced controversy earlier this week after firing an employee who had organized a walkout at a Staten Island-based distribution center amid concerns about staff members' safety.

An Abbott spokesperson told Newsweek via email: "We have been contacted by Amazon and other companies to provide testing for their workforces.

"We know it's important for several industries for their workforces to be safe, but as we've said, right now we've prioritized the health care frontline workforce in outbreak hotspots and have been working with the White House Task Force, FDA, FEMA and CDC and state authorities to ensure they get to those areas. Through yesterday we've shipped 191,000 rapid tests to customers in 21 states."

Reuters indicated the internal notes were from the same batch including criticism of the protesting staffer, Chris Smalls, penned by General Counsel David Zapolsky and first obtained by Vice.

"He's not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we're trying to protect workers," Zapolsky wrote, fueling a widespread and immediate barrage of criticism.

Amazon told Newsweek Smalls had been fired for ignoring warnings about social distancing after coming into contact with a colleague who tested positive for the new respiratory illness.

"Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite today, March 30, further putting the teams at risk. This is unacceptable and we have terminated his employment," it added.

But in a statement to Newsweek, Smalls rejected the response from the company, saying: "There are thousands of scared workers waiting for a real plan from Amazon so that its facilities do not become epicenters of the crisis. More and more positive cases are turning up every day."

"Instead of protecting workers and the communities in which they work, however, Amazon seems to be more interested in managing its image," he added. His termination was blasted by New York Attorney General Letitia James and New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Following the leak of his notes about the meeting, Zapolsky said he had been frustrated and upset, and added, "I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me."

In a separate blog post on Thursday, Clark acknowledged there have been "expressions of protest" from some Amazon employees, but did not explicitly reference Smalls' sudden firing.

"These incidents have occurred at a very small number of sites and represent a few hundred employees out of hundreds of thousands," he wrote.

"We want to be very clear that we respect the rights of these employees to protest and recognize their legal right to do so. At the same time, these rights do not provide a blanket immunity against bad actions, particularly those that endanger the health, and potentially the lives, of colleagues."

This article has been updated with comment from Abbott Laboratories.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks.
  • Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • COVID-19 can still be picked up on gloves and transmitted by touching your face.
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Amazon employees hold a protest and walkout over conditions at the company's Staten Island distribution facility on March 30, 2020 in New York City Spencer Platt/Getty