Taking precautions against the pandemic makes sense. Few would disagree. The consensus breaks down, of course, over how far those precautions should go. COVID testing and vaccination requirements; mask mandates — they continue to stir debate.
One thing most of us would agree on, though, is you shouldn’t get locked out of your workplace just because someone accuses you of have having COVID. Especially when you don’t have it — and didn’t even have COVID-like symptoms.
That’s what happened to Celeste Archer. As reported in The Gazette last week, Archer was barred from the University of Colorado at Denver campus, where she works, on Sept. 3. That was after an anonymous complaint claimed she had “either been exposed to COVID-19, tested positive for COVID-19,” or had symptoms. An email from the school giving Archer the news instructed her to “please remain off campus until you are cleared by a contact tracer to return.”
The alert went campuswide. The notice of exclusion also was sent to Archer’s supervisor, Dean Marjorie Levine-Clark and three other members of the CU Denver administration. It said Archer was “unable to return to campus.” Levine-Clark texted Archer asking if she was OK and saying there was an email circulating claiming Archer was either showing signs of COVID-19 or had tested positive.
As reported by The Gazette, Archer was able to track down an official who was legal counsel for the school and special assistant to the chancellor for COVID-19 matters. He emailed her later that same day: “I checked with our team, and we are changing our process and communications. No one should have said you were excluded from campus. They were moving way too fast … I’m sorry that it moved so quickly, we need to slow that down.”
The email continued, “No one should be excluding folks from campus without a clear level of verification and information.”
That should go without saying.
Now, Archer is taking the university to court with the help of Lakewood-based public-interest law firm Mountain States Legal Foundation.
“Celeste is a government employee,” said William Trachman, general counsel for the foundation. “She has a contract; she has a job to do, and she has a property interest in her employment. And if the government or a government actor like the public university is going to deprive her of that, even for short periods of time, it has to give her some due process…they can’t just unilaterally exclude her and hope that they got it right …”
Archer is executive director of CU’s “National History Day in Colorado” program as well as the Colorado Student Leaders Institute. Both are geared toward K-12 students.
In an email to The Gazette, a CU Denver spokeswoman offered an apology — with little explanation.
“Our No. 1 goal throughout the pandemic has been to keep our campus community safe,” the email read.
“We followed our safety protocols and responded with good intent, as we would with any reported positive case of COVID-19 on campus. In less than two hours, we sorted out any misunderstandings and invited the employee back to campus.”
Mountain States’ Trachman said one reason Archer decided to sue is that the university won’t disclose the name of whoever made the report. The report could be considered harassment and defamation. Archer’s suit names a John or Jane Doe as a defendant in the case, in addition to the university personnel, and Trachman said if needed he’ll subpoena the university records to reveal the name of the party that made the report.
Archer’s experience seems all the more troubling because it illustrates how you can be “denounced” to authorities on the basis of nothing at all. And it involves a public institution — a state university system — where you would think greater safeguards for privacy and civil rights would be in place.
Hence, the case’s broader implications, as Trachman pointed out.
“She was targeted using COVID-19 hysteria. This is one of the things that’s happening,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. You don’t have to be an unvaccinated or unmasked person to be a victim of COVID-19 hysteria. And the Constitution doesn’t take a holiday during pandemics, and that’s one of the narratives of our complaint. And that’s why we took the case.”
It’s a reminder to keep our priorities in balance — and paranoia in check — even as we wage war against a pandemic.
The Gazette Editorial Board