Last week, a manager at an Amazon.com warehouse in eastern Pennsylvania issued a stark warning to his team on how to handle shipments from another Amazon facility afflicted with the novel coronavirus: Don’t touch them for 24 hours.

“As a precaution surrounding Covid-19 concerns, a directive came in today to let ALL loads from AVP1 sit for 24 hours prior to opening/receiving,” the manager said in an email reviewed by Bloomberg. “Please do not process any AVP1 trailers before the 24-hour mark.”

The AVP1 warehouse in Hazle Township is among dozens of Amazon facilities where employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, including a warehouse on Staten Island, New York, where workers have staged protests. But the cluster of at least 21 positive tests at AVP1 appears to be one of the most severe in Amazon’s sprawling logistics network.

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With many workers now afraid to come to work, the company is struggling to keep the facility open and orders flowing. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Wednesday it is opening an investigation into working conditions at AVP1.

One of 10 such warehouses in Amazon’s U.S. fulfillment network, AVP1 is an important cog in the smooth functioning of the online retailer’s logistics machine, according to Marc Wulfraat, a consultant who studies the company’s operations. Extended closures of Amazon facilities could fracture the company’s finely tuned network, delaying deliveries to customers who would rather avoid stores and shop online instead.

Employees at AVP1 were informed of at least 21 cases in their ranks, according to voice mails and text messages from the facility’s management reviewed by Bloomberg. Three employees said more cases disclosed in meetings might not be included in the tally of 21. The employees, two of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from their employer, said paranoia is rife that the virus is spreading from employee to employee in the building, though they have no hard evidence to back up that suggestion. In the meantime, absenteeism has surged, the employees said.

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“It’s kind of a Petri dish,” said Andrea Houtsch, who last worked March 27 and has been taking unpaid time off so she doesn’t catch the virus. “Any time you’ve got hundreds of people in the same building, breathing the same air, no matter how far you stay apart, there’s that chance.”

She added: “Amazon is not responsible for this pandemic, nobody was prepared for this. They just need to be realistic about what’s happening here. Once things get better, I have no problem going back.”

Amazon said the guidance about goods coming from AVP1 was a mistake. “This was an error in communication made locally with positive intentions but was misinformed — it has since been corrected,” Kristen Kish, an Amazon spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement. “Based on guidance from the CDC, the WHO, and the Surgeon General, there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread through packages. It’s a belief within the infectious disease community that if there was transmission through packages there would have been immediate global spread early in the outbreak, that did not happen and it confirms the risk as incredibly low.”

Kish declined to provide a complete count of COVID-19 cases at AVP1, and the company didn’t immediately have a comment on the OSHA investigation. Amazon says it has stepped up cleaning measures at all of its facilities, in line with federal guidance for employers allowed to stay open as state orders close many businesses. The Seattle-based  company has staggered shift start times, reorganized break rooms and repositioned workstations to prevent employees from congregating.

This week, Amazon is rolling out temperature screenings and a limited supply of masks for employees to wear during their shifts. The company has also offered temporary raises and more lucrative overtime to people who keep working, and said it will give two weeks of sick pay to those diagnosed with COVID-19 or quarantined after being exposed to someone with the disease.

Still, concerns about getting sick, or infecting loved ones, continue to fester. Hazleton, home to about 25,000 people, has been hit hard by the coronavirus. It is in Luzerne County, which has the third most cases per capita in Pennsylvania, behind nearby Lehigh and Monroe counties, according to Pennsylvania Department of Health data.

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Commodities giant Cargill this week idled a beef plant located near AVP1 after workers there tested positive for COVID-19. “People are scared to death,” said another employee at AVP1. One worker, afraid of spreading the disease to family members at home, last week broke down and started crying in the break room, two colleagues said.

The Hazle Township facility, west of the town of Hazleton, opened in 2008, one of the first in a decadelong expansion from a handful of warehouses to hundreds across the nation. AVP1 is the anchor of a cluster of depots Amazon built in Pennsylvania to take advantage of cheap real estate, a workforce reeling from the loss of manufacturing jobs and a relatively short trip to major cities like New York and Philadelphia.

Amazon’s warehouses are best known for orange robots zipping around, ferrying products to workers who place them in bins and send them along a conveyor belt to be shipped out. AVP1 is different. Called an inbound cross-dock, it receives pallets of goods from manufacturers, many of them overseas, breaks them down and then ships them on to Amazon warehouses. The facility handles all manner of goods, and shipments in recent weeks included sought-after items such as Lysol wipes, as well as bedsheets, books and toys, workers said.

On March 26, AVP1 staff were informed of the first COVID-19 cases and quickly shared the information with the Hazelton News 1 website. More people began calling in sick, or staying home, in the following days as managers disclosed more cases at impromptu meetings, the employees said. Some people, worried they weren’t being informed of cases from other shifts or departments, started comparing notes on social media and sharing contact details of local and federal authorities.

The next week, dozens of new staffers arrived at AVP1, according to two employees, part of a hiring surge Amazon has unleashed to keep warehouses open and meet rising demand. Workers said Amazon is using the new hires to fill gaps left by employees who have chosen to stay away to avoid being exposed or to take care of children whose schools have closed.

Trainers at AVP1, worried about working with people they don’t know or who hail from the hard-hit New York area, refused to train the new hires, according to two employees. Instead of six hours of supervised, hands-on work in small groups, the batch of recruits spent last Monday in the break room watching instructional videos before a question-and-answer session with a manager.

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Early last week, more than half of one shift’s 500 or so workers didn’t show up, according to an employee briefed on the numbers. Then about 30 minutes before the end of the shift, managers announced there were seven additional COVID-19 cases among their co-workers. That prompted all but a handful of the more than 100 workers in the shipping department to leave rather than finish their shift, said one employee who was there. Before long, products started backing up, triggering an alarm and halting the conveyors, the employee said, and managers had to help clear the backlog and send out the final shipments.

Amazon says it has adjusted staffing at its facilities to make it possible for employees to practice social distancing.

Meanwhile, workers at a warehouse in nearby Pittston were told to let goods coming from the warehouse sit for at least 24 hours. “It just made us more anxious,” said an employee at the Pittston warehouse. The employee said the guidance was still in effect as of Tuesday.

Workers at AVP1 last weekend were told by automated text message and voice call of four additional COVID-19 cases. On Monday evening, they were informed of nine more. The messages said the site had undergone “enhanced cleanings” since the sick employees last worked and that Amazon would send home, with pay, those who have been in close contact with the sick. The company this week also began encouraging employees to wear face masks, in line with updated federal health guidance. Employees were welcome to bring their own, and Amazon will also have “limited quantities” on site, the messages said.

“We understand the risk of exposure is low for those who weren’t in close contact with the affected associate,” the message said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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