State marijuana regulators said Wednesday they are “looking into” allegations that one of the state’s biggest cannabis firms, New England Treatment Access, is failing to adequately protect its workers from the coronavirus, after employees at two of its facilities tested positive for COVID-19.
NETA, best known for its popular Brookline dispensary, confirmed that a worker at its large cultivation and processing center in Franklin and another at its Northampton dispensary were diagnosed this week with the deadly, fast-spreading disease. The Franklin facility, where the company grows various strains of cannabis and processes the plants into edibles and other products, employs more than 400 people.
The sick Franklin employee, “whom we will continue to support in every way we can, practiced excellent public health and social responsibility by self-identifying symptoms, notifying their manager upon feeling ill, pursuing COVID-19 testing, taking appropriate hygienic precautions, and self-quarantining," a NETA spokesman said in a statement, adding that the Northampton worker had done the same.
While recreational marijuana sales have been shuttered by Governor Charlie Baker because of the coronavirus pandemic, medical marijuana operators such as NETA (which also serves the recreational market) have been allowed to continue to serve registered patients as an “essential” healthcare business.
NETA said that, per state protocols, local boards of health and the state Department of Public Health had been notified of the positive test, and insisted there was no chance the Franklin worker had contaminated products made by NETA.
The spokesman also said the company was protecting workers appropriately, including by hiring a contractor to “deep-clean” the Franklin building after learning of the sick employee, and that many employees had told management they agreed NETA’s efforts were sufficient.
However, a number of workers at the Franklin facility told the Globe that they are worried they could have been exposed to their ill coworker, including at a building-wide appreciation breakfast last week at which numerous employees were served French toast from a common table.
Workers also said the company’s social distancing guidelines are only sporadically enforced, or impractical. They described employees frequently working side-by-side and small locker rooms crowded with a dozen or more workers changing in and out of their uniforms.
The workers questioned the extent of the “deep-cleaning,” saying the facility was operated uninterrupted despite the worker’s diagnosis.
“We’ve been telling management for weeks that they have to do something about it,” said one cultivator at the Franklin building, who requested anonymity because he fears losing his job for speaking out. “We’re all piled on top of each other here. They’re more worried about money than the health of their employees and patients."
“I don’t want to see people die because of the negligence of this company,” the cultivator added. “It’s really disheartening that I have to say that, but here I am.”
Asked whether managers had taken steps to identify workers who may have been in close contact with the sick Franklin employee, NETA initially said, “the local health department is the agency that identifies, with the [sick patient], any close contacts.” The company also reiterated that it has encouraged workers with symptoms to stay home (though COVID-19 patients may be simultaneously asymptomatic and contagious).
However, the company later said managers were “in touch with the employee’s co-workers who worked closely with the employee who tested positive, and they are being asked to self-quarantine.” Another group of workers that had “close contact” with the sick Northampton dispensary employee are also self-quarantining.
A spokeswoman for the Cannabis Control Commission, which regulates both medical and recreational marijuana operators, said it is "deeply concerned about COVID-19’s threats to patients, customers, employees, agency staff, and all residents of the Commonwealth. We are aware of the complaint and looking into it.”
The commission had urged marijuana companies to let sick employees stay home, step up sanitization efforts, switch to pre-orders only at their retail dispensaries, and strictly enforce distancing guidelines between and among employees and customers.
Barbara Carrapichano, a 30-year-old patient adviser at NETA’s Brookline dispensary, said the company has failed to provide masks or protective partitions to prevent transmission of COVID-19 between workers there and the medical marijuana patients they serve, some of whom have compromised immune systems.
In addition to better protective gear, she and other workers who spoke with the Globe want NETA managers to communicate virus-related protocols better, check employees’ temperatures before they clock in, more thoroughly sanitize shared equipment such as computers, and keep workers apart, among other efforts.
“We see enough people that we could be a vector for this [virus] to spread exponentially,” Carrapichano said. “NETA has not set up an adequate response whatsoever. I have an auto-immune disorder myself and I’m putting myself at risk every time I walk through those doors. My biggest concern is the people — everyone involved."