Details are still emerging, but yesterday the Niagara County Courthouse apparently had a major swine flu scare requiring offices to be “deep cleaned with a bleach solution,” emails obtained by the Niagara Times reveal.
County Manager Greg Lewis, meanwhile, spent most of the day AWOL on the issue, and building a wall of denial around the problem, trying to keep information about the potential outbreak secret from county employees and members of the public who conducted business in the Courthouse in recent days.
Let me repeat that: Greg Lewis tried to keep information about an outbreak of a serious, and potentially deadly disease from county workers and the public.
Lewis was first made aware of the problem at 9:30 a.m. in an email from Labor Relations Manager Dave Watroba, which we will quote at length:
[An employee] from the DA's office has notified us of one confirmed case of swine flu in their office. That person is in the hospital. Another employee is being treated for unconfirmed swine flu. A third is a "probable" case and a fourth is going to the doctor today, reportedly not feeling well.
The Dept. of Health has been notified. The office is being deep cleaned with a bleach solution today.
For hours afterwards, though, nothing happened. Sources tell us that Lewis, along with Human Resources Manager Peter Lopes, made the determination that they would not notify county employees or the larger public about the potential outbreak because they didn’t want to cause employee unrest. They then made the decision to keep discussions to only a handful of Lewis’ closest confidantes, including Lopes and Watroba. Even department heads in the government were left unaware.
We are also told that rumors began to fly inside the Courthouse that something was amiss around lunchtime when word of the cleanup began to spread, and that’s when county employees began to demand answers.
However, it wasn’t until after the county workforce’s workday ended at 4:30 p.m. that Lewis finally made the decision to act, and that only after a lawyer in the county attorney’s office got involved—apparently tipped off by contacts in the DA’s office—and the press started making inquiries. An email sent by County Public Health Director Daniel Stapleton at 4:50 p.m. sums the issue up:
i just got off the phone with Rick Pfeifer from the gazette and Joe Foltz from county atty office. Tomorrow, I recommend that a memo to all county employees needs to go out from their employer with comments, education and directions from the Public Health Department, consistent with our outreach to the public. Thoughts?
Finally, at 6:29 p.m., Lewis made the decision that employees should be made aware of a potentially life-threatening disease:
I am ok with a memo to County employees provide HIPPA compliance is assured and the communication is carefully crafted in accordance with Public Health guidance on the subject matter of H1N1..
Did you get all that? At 9:30 in the morning, Lewis is alerted to a potentially serious health risk to employees. Rumors are flying within hours. But he can’t make a decision to act until AFTER lawyers tell him to do something and AFTER the media starts demanding answers—and AFTER workers had already left for the day.
Think about how many people were potentially exposed already on Monday. Think about how many more, though, were senselessly exposed on Tuesday because Lewis refused to act. People have a right to know if they’re at risk of contracting serious illness.
Think about pregnant mothers who chose to go to the Courthouse, whether they had business in the County Clerk’s office or were reporting for jury pool duty.
Think about young children accompanying parents on errands or seeing the legal system in action.
And think about the hundreds of county workers who weren’t warned to stay away all morning.
And then realize: Unlike you, Greg Lewis didn’t think about a single one of them.
His piss-poor attitude is one thing. His constantly courting employment elsewhere is yet another. But this, this is too much. Playing games with the public’s health, and that of his employees, though, is an entirely separate issue. If he isn’t removed for the first two reasons, then the third should be an impeachable offense.
Will someone in the Leg please grow a pair and kick this guy to the curb?