Acting on a complaint from a Haddonfield resident who is also a retired physician, a representative from the Camden County Board of Health visited the borough’s Acme just before the turn of the new year.
Upon thorough inspection, county officials confirmed that the store in question on Ellis Street in the town’s southern section was compliant with all current mandates regarding COVID-19 protections. But a spokesperson for the grocery chain later confirmed that an employee of the store was, in fact, stricken by the virus and died as a result.
Susan Hoch told the Sun in late December through an email exchange about her concerns, first relayed to borough officials shortly before Christmas. She listed five factors that caused her alarm, based on eyewitness accounts from at least one acquaintance, as well as her own experiences shopping in other stores both in the borough and in the region. Concerns included a lack of social distancing, failure to spray down the conveyor belt after each customer was served, and store employees not enforcing mask mandates among customers.
Commissioner for Public Safety Colleen Bezich told the Sun on Dec. 30 that her first contact with Hoch about the situation at Acme occurred in an email eight days earlier, which included information about a possible outbreak at the store.
“It’s come to her attention there were 12 cases, but no indication from her email they were cumulative or all at once, including the manager. She indicated the manager may be hospitalized,” Bezich said.
Bezich added that the borough does not receive data about confirmed cases from employers, and the county issues notifications only of the number of Haddonfield residents confirmed positive.
“If there were an outbreak, we wouldn’t know if they don’t live in the community and we can’t get that information,” she added. “I take this very seriously. We are not allowed to reveal the identities of individuals, due to HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) laws which prevent that information to be dispersed.”
Bezich further stated that, at no point in time prior to her contact with Hoch had any other resident, personally or officially, complained about conditions at the Acme or its COVID protocol. In addition, the commissioner said, to date, there had been no data based on contact tracing that would have indicated any outbreak at the store.
Bezich also confirmed that she subsequently spoke with Anne Walters, department director for Camden County Health and Human Services, who told her that she would have to check with staff to confirm, but that no other customers from Haddonfield or anywhere else in the county lodged a complaint about that particular Acme.
The Sun reached out to Walters as a followup during the first week of January. Director of Public Affairs Dan Keashen responded by also invoking HIPAA laws. He confirmed that, based on a complaint from a resident in Haddonfield, the county did send a health representative to the Acme on Dec. 30 who confirmed the store was observing all proper protocols.
Keashen also confirmed what Bezich earlier stated, that no one else discussed a similar complaint about lack of COVID protocols against the store.
“None of us, as commissioners or the county, can compel these businesses to adhere to anything other than executive orders issued by the governor. There are specific requirements regarding conveyor-belt cleaning,” Bezich explained.
“They’re not wiping down belts after every shopper because that is not currently mandated. I also have no official evidence or reports, on info gleaned from others, that the Acme was not limiting occupancy.”
An Acme official reached by phone on Jan. 6 declined to comment when asked if any of its Haddonfield employees contracted COVID. But Dana Ward, a public affairs manager for the grocery chain, responded to questions via email on Jan. 7 with a statement that confirmed an employee at the Acme did pass away in late December due to COVID complications. The statement further revealed that the affected associate had not worked at the store for over a month before his death.
Ward’s admission confirmed what Mayor Neal Rochford reported in an email on Dec. 28. Based on Hoch’s concerns, Rochford followed up with calls to the county health department as well as the district manager of Acme’s parent company, Albertsons.
“I was told there was one employee case of COVID,” Rochford’s message revealed.
Both Bezich and Rochford implored residents, as they have throughout the 10 months of the pandemic, to observe protocols for hand washing, social distancing and mask wearing when out in public.
“Our hearts are heavy, and our thoughts are with that associate’s family,” Ward noted. “This is a difficult time for the entire Acme family. We have let our team know that if they are feeling uneasy, they can call our employee assistance program to speak with licensed counselors.”