WASHINGTON — The agency leading the nation’s coronavirus response said that seven of its employees had tested positive for the virus with another four cases pending, though in a letter to its employees’ union, it declined a request to say where they were located, prompting criticism from the union that the agency was jeopardizing public health.
Union leaders last week had asked the agency, Federal Emergency Management Agency, how many employees had tested positive, and in which offices, so that workers who might have interacted with those people could decide whether to get tested as well. On Friday, FEMA turned down that request, saying the union did not need to know, according to a copy of the agency’s letter to the union that was reviewed by The New York Times.
In response to inquiries from The Times, the agency on Saturday said that seven employees had tested positive for the coronavirus. “Currently, FEMA has 11 total cases — seven employees have tested positive and four potential cases are pending,” Lizzie Litzow, a spokeswoman for FEMA, said in a statement. “Individuals who need to be aware of their names and locations have been made aware.”
“FEMA has taken every precaution recommended by the C.D.C. to protect all employees,” Ms. Litzow added, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Steve Reaves, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 4060, which represents about 5,000 FEMA employees, said that by not sharing details about the staff infections with the union, the agency was endangering other employees as well as the safety of the people to whom the agency was currently providing aid. Over all, the agency has about 14,000 employees.
“If we’re out there handing out masks and gloves, and we’ve got Covid, then they’re contaminated,” said Mr. Reaves, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The concern over the health and safety of FEMA employees comes as the agency is already stretched thin by three years of major natural disasters.
As of Saturday, FEMA was responding to 54 major disasters around the country, according to agency documents. Thirteen states and territories have requested disaster assistance from FEMA for the coronavirus since Monday alone.
Just one-third of FEMA’s trained work force is available to be deployed, agency data show. The demand on those workers will most likely grow in the coming weeks and months: Federal scientists predicted this month that 23 states would get “major to moderate flooding” between now and the end of May. And hurricane season starts June 1.
The coronavirus has made FEMA’s job more challenging in other ways. The traditional response to disasters usually entails gathering large numbers of people together in close quarters — whether it is disaster victims in emergency shelters or relief managers in field offices — to dispense relief most efficiently.
The virus, however, is forcing the agency to rethink that approach. It has urged its staff to work from home when possible, and distance themselves from their colleagues when it isn’t. FEMA has also restricted the number of disaster victims who are allowed inside its field offices at once, and has made it easier for states to shelter victims in hotels or other settings where they don’t have to be crammed together.
But those steps only go so far.
Mr. Reaves said he was aware of at least three people who worked with the agency and had tested positive. One is in Nashville, where the individual was helping people affected by a tornado. Another is in Atlanta, where FEMA has a regional office. Both people are self-isolating, he said.
The third person worked in FEMA’s Washington headquarters, and tested positive on Tuesday. The official had been working at the center the day before, when Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the administration’s federal virus task force, hosted a conference call with governors at the coordination center.
The agency said that the people leading the coronavirus task force were safe. “At no time did this individual or any others known to have contact with them come within six feet of the vice president or any other task force principal for any period of time,” Ms. Litzow said by email.
Mr. Reaves said that at least two other people who worked in the office had since told him that they were self-isolating out of concern that they were exposed.
Some FEMA officials had grown concerned over how crowded its headquarters had become since President Trump tapped the disaster agency to lead his administration’s response to the coronavirus.
Officials from the White House aiming to manage criticism of the response to the outbreak have increasingly frequented the center in the past week. Hundreds of FEMA employees work alongside teams from the White House at the center, including one led by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
One senior administration official, who asked not to be identified, said the agency was struggling to track the number of employees who had self-isolated because of coronavirus symptoms, since so many had already been directed to work from home.
FEMA’s communications office did not say if any employees are self-isolating because they have symptoms. The office also didn’t comment on its decision to decline the union’s request to find out which offices have had confirmed cases.
In its letter to the union, the agency suggested that providing that information could violate employees’ privacy. At some FEMA locations, the agency said, “the number of employees is sufficiently low that affirmatively associating those locations with an employee who tested positive for Covid-19 may allow those familiar with the matter to discern the person’s identity.”