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Longtime 911 operator expressed concerns about COVID-19 precautions at work weeks before dying of virus, daughter says

Russell Modjeski died March 29 of a COVID-19 infection, weeks after telling relatives his concerns over safety precautions at work.

Russell Modjeski, 60, was a longtime 911 operator who died March 29 of coronavirus.
Russell Modjeski, 60, was a longtime 911 operator who died March 29 of coronavirus.
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A longtime 911 operator who died of complications from the coronavirus last month had told his family he was concerned he and his co-workers had not been provided with adequate personal protective equipment, according to his daughter.

Russell Modjeski was a hard-working man dedicated to his family and his co-workers, his daughter Hannah Modjeski told the Sun-Times in a phone interview Saturday.

Modjeski died March 29 of a COVID-19 infection, with diabetes and hypertension as contributing factors,“ according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

In the weeks before his death, Modjeski, 60, told relatives that hand sanitizer was being supplied at his office, but that workers were not being given masks, gloves or other protective equipment while working for the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

“Earlier in March, we spoke because he had already dealt with complications with diabetes, and we knew he would be vulnerable or less likely [if] got sick,” his daughter said.

According to an emailed statement from the OEMC, 14 people have tested positive for the coronavirus across all divisions, including Modjeski, and OEMC employees are being notified of all co-workers’ positive diagnoses.

“Since March, OEMC has taken steps to increase sanitation and social distancing in the facility in accordance with the ongoing guidance provided by the CDC and the Chicago Department of Public Health,” the statement said.

Steps taken include increased frequency of cleaning with higher grade disinfectant; workers are being given hand sanitizer and stylus pens to limit touching screens; the emergency operations center has been moved to the Police Training Academy; and the agency has allowed administrative workers to work remotely.

And those employees still working on site “are allowed to wear cloth face coverings at work. Masks are available onsite,” the statement added.

(Left) Russell Modjeski, (Right) Hannah Modjeski
(Left) Russell Modjeski, (Right) Hannah Modjeski
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Modjeski worked for OEMC for 20 years, his daughter said, yet no officials have reached out to the family since his death, only his co-workers, she said.

“No one has said anything, no one has reached out to offer condolences or anything,” Hannah Modjeski said.

She said her father, or anyone else who dies from COVID-19 while working in government jobs, deserves to be recognized as dying in the line of duty by the city.

“These are the people answering the calls and sending the police or an ambulance where they are needed,” she said. “They work in densely populated areas, enclosed spaces, and some people share desks. They absolutely should all be recognized as dying in the line of duty.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has publicly acknowledged the deaths of two Chicago police officers as well as the death of other city employees who have died from complications of COVID-19, his daughter said, and wonders why her father’s death has not been.

On April 3, Interim Chicago Police Supt. Charlie Beck said the coronavirus-related death of veteran Officer Marco DiFranco will be considered a line-of-duty death, ensuring DiFranco’s widow and two children will receive special burial honors and benefits, the Sun-Times reported.

Those honors and benefits are not available to “civilian workers,” according to an emailed statement from the OEMC. The agency did, however, say, “Several staff members have been in touch with Mr. Modjeski’s family to express their condolences and assist with human resources-related matters.”

His family has been self-quarantining since he tested positive and are assuming they, too, have been infected by the virus, his daughter said. Her 89-year-old grandmother, who lives in the family’s home, recently tested positive for the virus. After a week of uncertainty, her health began to improve.

“My dad was quiet, but he cared,” she said. “He cared about us and his co-workers, and that is why I’m speaking out, because that’s what he would have wanted.”