DUNKIRK – The Democratic candidate for Chautauqua County Executive is criticizing current County Executive PJ Wendel for how the county handled a recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases at a north county food processing plant. In addition, Dunkirk Democrat Richard Morrisroe is also calling for free, rapid testing for every public school employee and student ahead of the start of the new school year.
Morrisroe put out a media release on Tuesday, in response to the recent handling of the cluster of COVID-19 cases coming out of the Fieldbrook Foods processing plant in Dunkirk. Morrisroe is questioning what he calls Wendel’s lack of transparency and timeliness in addressing the 49 confirmed COVID-19 cases at the Fieldbrook Foods plant.
“There is no such thing as going overboard in communicating with the public about preventable threats to their health,” Morrisroe said in response to Wendell and the county Public Health Director Christine Schuyler’s delay before publicly acknowledging the cluster and given details on where it was located.
“We deserved to know what happened at the Fieldbrook Farms plant within days, not weeks,” Morrisroe noted. “The secrecy and inaction of county officials and plant management endangered lives and threatens school reopening. Their ongoing incompetence is a threat to our long-term economic recovery. The time to prepare for a crisis is before it happens. The unelected County Executive had more than five months to plan for a county COVID cluster and his lack of transparency and leadership is very troubling.
COUNTY WAITS EIGHT DAYS BEFORE GOING PUBLIC
While Morrisroe accuses officials of waiting nearly two weeks before announcing the Fieldbrook cluster, the actual timeline between the first known positive case of the cluster (Aug. 16) and the county publicly announcing it (Aug. 24) was eight day, or just over one week.
During a press conference on Friday, Aug. 28 and also in his weekly Monday Morning Memo correspondence, Wendel explained that Schuyler and her staff were closely monitoring the increased number of confirmed cases among employees at the Fieldbrook. Wendel said they had been working with the New York State Department of Health and Fieldbrook administration to manage and control the spread of the disease.
“Since August 16… the County Health Department has been notified of and investigated 49 cases of COVID-19 in Fieldbrook employees and 14 cases in close contacts of those employees. All communicable disease protocols have been adhered to including isolation and quarantine. The outbreak investigation is ongoing,” Wendel said. “We have taken all appropriate and necessary actions during this outbreak and I am extremely proud of my staff and grateful for the many partners who are working collaboratively with us during these unprecedented times.”
Throughout the pandemic, Schuyler and her department have initiated a policy of not identifying specific communities in the county where an active case is present, nor had her office provided the name and location of any business that had a positive case reported. In March, WRFA had asked Schulyer about the policy for withholding the names of businesses and specific communities, despite other counties in the state doing so.
“In all three of the confirmed cases in Chautauqua County [through March 29], the individual and all household contacts were identified and ordered in mandatory quarantine, and all proximal contacts were identified and ordered into precautionary quarantine,” Schuyler wrote in response via email on Thursday. “If a broader potential exposure would have been identified, then it would have been publicized. Just because someone works somewhere or visited a place, one cannot assume that there is broad exposure.”
The past two weeks that “broader potential exposure” has been evident in the Fieldbrook outbreak and the county has followed through by identifying Fieldbrook Foods as a source of the cluster.
Still, Morrisroe and other critics say the county was being more reactive than proactive, especially since the Governor’s office was the first to indicate a food processing facility in Dunkirk was the source of an outbreak on Aug. 23. It was only then that that Wendel and Schuyler held a press conference the following day, on Aug. 24, to formally announce the location of the outbreak, along with the number of those infected.
MORRISROE CALLS FOR FREE, RAPID TESTING FOR PUBLIC SCHOOL STUDENTS, TEACHERS
Morrisroe also said that school districts around the country are experiencing spikes in confirmed cases of COVID-19 as they return to in-person instruction. he said that most children who become infected will be asymptomatic or experience a mild version of the illness, but they can become “super-spreaders” by passing the virus onto other unwitting students, who can then pass it on to older and more vulnerable family members.
“I call on PJ Wendel to provide free, rapid testing for every public school student and employee before school starts. We cannot afford to play fast and loose with this virus,” he said.
Morrisroe also outlined some steps he would have taken to immediately address the public health crisis as County Executive:
- Dispatch a SWAT team of public health inspectors for onsite inspection at Fieldbrook within 24 hours of confirmed cases at the plant and prepare to suspend operations if the doors weren’t open for inspection and employees were not provided with resources relating to the virus, including Spanish speakers and translation services.
- Hold a public information session announcing county wide testing within 48 hours and sharing information vital to the public who may have encountered the infected individual.
- Coordinate with regional county executives and state officials on best practices for testing and contract tracing, PPE supplies.
- Redirect county personnel to the County Department of Health in coordination with union representatives and hire temporary contract tracers and frontline personnel if there are still not enough resources to stop the spread of the virus.
- Ensure that every frontline worker, even temporary workers, have health insurance, rapid testing, and worker protections.
- Provide every public school employee and student with free rapid testing.