Health board approves letter

Sean Horgan, Gloucester Daily Times, Mass.
·4 min read

Apr. 23—The Gloucester Board of Health on Thursday unanimously voted to accept a letter that defines the role of the Health Department as separate from other city entities after Health Director Karin Carroll expressed concerns about the actions of Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The board, meeting online via webinar, also voted unanimously to recommend Gloucester opt out of a state-run mosquito control plan that includes spraying. The issue now moves to the City Council and the administration, which will have to move quickly to meet the state's May 15 opt-out deadline.

The letter on the Health Department's role, read aloud by Chairman Richard J. Sagall, clearly delineated the board's accountability to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health rather than to the city government as it "implements measures to improve and maintain the health of Gloucester residents."

It stated the Gloucester Health Department "is charged with executing the policies, rulings, and regulations approved by the Board of Health" and that Carroll "represents the board, overseeing the department's employees" in their duties.

"Although the department staff are city employees, they ultimately report to the board and not the city," the letter stated.

In a later interview, Sagall said the letter represents "a statement of opinion" by the board.

Carroll, at the board's April 8 meeting, requested it draft the letter after she listed a number of incidents where she said Romeo Theken's actions contradicted the board's plans, violated regulations of the state Department of Public Health and may have violated protections contained in the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, also known as HIPAA.

"These actions, however well-meaning, can adversely affect public health and should not continue," Carroll told the board at the April 8 meeting.

She charged Romeo Theken had obstructed the Health Department as it attempted to discharge its public health responsibilities by sharing incorrect information with the public and bypassing established protocols to personally arrange COVID-19 vaccine appointments for individuals.

Romeo Theken, at the same meeting, denied violating HIPAA, saying she only served as a translator and was not engaged in patient tracing.

Romeo Theken attended the virtual meeting Thursday night, but did not comment on the letter.

"The Board of Health expresses their (sic) support and gratitude for the untiring work of the entire Department of Health in implementing the policies provided to lessen the impact of the pandemic on Gloucester residents," the letter stated. "In addition, the board expresses its support of all city employees in their following the policies as promulgated by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and not taking steps to circumvent these policies. The board urges city employees to refer health-related questions to the proper staff, to not interfere with established protocols and to support the actions of the Board of Health and the Health Department."

It then specifically thanked Carroll and Public Health Nurse Kelley Hiland for their efforts to help control the spread of the pandemic, as well as to educate city residents and work with state and local officials on testing and vaccination programs.

"The city is fortunate to have all the members of the Health Department," the letter concluded.

The board also voted 4-0 (member Robert Harris did not attend the meeting) to recommend opting out of the state mosquito-control program run by the State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board, principally because it includes the spraying of pesticides widely considered dangerous to humans, other animals and the environment.

In order to opt out, the city must present the state with an alternative mosquito-control plan designed by the Board of Health. That plan, according to Health Department Assistant Director Max Schenk, will be an extension of the city's ongoing mosquito management policy based on educational outreach and personal protection.

"The Health Department wholeheartedly stands by our past practices, which have been effective," Schenk said.

The proposed alternative plan now goes to the City Council, which, along with the mayor, holds the final responsibility for applying to opt of the state program and implement the alternative plan.

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT