This blog broke significant ground last Wednesday when it revealed some of the inside details of County Manager Greg Lewis’ failed attempt to contain news that the swine flu virus was on the loose in the Niagara County Courthouse in Lockport.
We asserted then that the public had a right to know, as, frankly, did the county’s workforce—it was they, after all, whose health was on the line.
What we find galling, therefore, is new details that reveal Lewis apparently engaged in a systemic effort to cover up this information and keep it from both the public and the workforce.
In a memorandum sent to county employees at 11:01 a.m. Wednesday (nearly four hours AFTER this blog reported the presence of swine flu, and more importantly, a full 26 hours after Lewis was notified!) Lewis stated “Niagara County management wishes to communicate to all employees that there have been no laboratory confirmed cases of H1N1 influenza in the Niagara County workplace or the Niagara County employee population.”
That memo goes on to say, at length, “Precautionary sanitary measures were taken on Tuesday, July 7 within the workplace regarding clean-up of office areas where illness was reported, which unfortunately may have led to speculation regarding the H1N1 flu. Again, Niagara County has no laboratory confirmed cases of H1N1 influenza in its workforce. Due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (‘HIPAA’) and general employee privacy concerns, however, the County will not ultimately announce the result of reported testing of any employee.”
That was Wednesday morning. By Thursday afternoon, though, Lewis was singing an entirely different tune, issuing a second memorandum at 4:40 p.m. This one stated: “A laboratory confirmed finding of Novel H1N1 Influenza A involving a Niagara County Courthouse employee was received late Wednesday by County officials.” Lewis goes on to advise employees to wash their hands. And note the time: 4:40 p.m., just minutes after the end of the county workday—this despite the fact Lewis had known all day the results of the test.
So, what caused the shift in Lewis’ opinion?
Perhaps Lewis genuinely believed that there was no swine flu in the government.
But no, that’s just not the case. An email circulated among several key members of the government reveals Lewis had every reason to believe, in advance of issuing his memo denying swine flu’s presence, that it was there. In an email sent to Lewis at 8:01 p.m. on Tuesday—the night BEFORE Lewis denied the presence of swine flu in the county offices—Health Director Daniel Stapleton wrote:
what about if/when the testing results come back positive for confirmation of H1N1? Should the cover say "at this time" or leave it alone? I don't want us to have to give an update if the testing comes back positive for H1N1, which it probably will.
As we all know, Lewis went ahead and issued a weasel-worded denial of swine flu the next morning.
So, what transpired to change Lewis’ mind by the next afternoon?
The same thing that forced him to deal with the issue in the first place: the county attorney’s office got involved, this time in the form of County Attorney Claude Joerg himself.
Our sources tell us that Joerg, after reading Lewis’ initial memo to employees and then receiving word that the swine flu tests had come back positive, was forced to seek an outside legal opinion to demand Lewis release the information.
You read that right: the county attorney was forced to threaten Lewis with legal action if he didn’t inform county employees of a very real threat to their health.
Greg Lewis has been a festering sore on Niagara County government for far too long. He is arrogant, oafish, and inept. But now, we can see he is also dishonest, more concerned with keeping problems hidden than addressing them honestly and capably.
We will, once again, renew our call to the Legislature: fire this idiot. Fire him now, before someone gets hurt.