The town of East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, has released its investigation into an outbreak of COVID-19 at the private East Bridgewater Commercial Club after residents voiced concerns about the way it was handled by the local Board of Health last year.
The NBC10 Boston Investigators first reported concerns about how the town handled the outbreak because all three elected health officials are members of the club.
The probe faulted the town's health agent for being unwilling to shut down the club even after cases spiked.
The report credited an administrative assistant for escalating the situation and alerting the town counsel and an elected selectmen about the rapid rise in cases when the town’s health agent expressed reluctance to shut down the club for a 14-day period.
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If that hadn’t occurred, the club likely would’ve reopened in early December. Instead, it remained closed until January.
“While it is impossible to predict how many more positive cases there would have been had the club re-opened at that time, it is fair to say there most likely would have been significantly enhanced cluster amounts based on the large and increasing numbers in such a short time frame coupled with the club’s failure to follow Massachusetts Covid-19 Executive Order and Mandatory Safety Standards,” the report said.
The report released Wednesday also said the town's health agent initially failed to respond to a message on his town-issued cell phone because he was on vacation over the Thanksgiving weekend.
“His failure to maintain basic communication protocols/procedures while he was on vacation is inexcusable,” the report said. “It is not acceptable for the Town’s primary public health official to not check his phone while on vacation during a pandemic.”
In addition, the investigation revealed confusion and lack of familiarity with Massachusetts open meeting and conflict of interest laws by the elected board of health members.
“The report found repeated incidences showing a lack of professional competence on the part of the town's health agent regarding COVID-19 and quarantine enforcement,” attorney Christopher Kenny, who conducted the investigation, told the Board of Selectmen on Wednesday night.
The Board of Selectmen voted Wednesday for the town counsel to take "any action deemed necessary" against the health agent. The report also recommended ethics training for elected Board of Health members.
Carole Julius, the chair of the East Bridgewater Board of Selectmen, said Thursday that she was very concerned by the multiple failures brought to light by the investigation.
“It’s definitely troubling,” Julius said. “The outbreak at the Commercial Club seemed to be kind of the tip of the iceberg. The other details of the report revealed a complete lack of knowledge and enforcement of state COVID mandates.”
Julius said she was also bothered by the Open Meeting Law violations by elected health board members cited in the report. She noted the town’s election is next week, with two health board seats up for grabs.
You can read the full report below:
East Bridgewater Selectmen decided last December to look into the town's handling of the outbreak, hiring the law firm of Clifford & Kenny to conduct an administrative investigation.
Members of the Board of Health also ceded their authority to investigate the outbreak to the state, accepting a recommendation from the town’s lawyer to recuse themselves from any further involvement amid concerns they might have a real or perceived conflict of interest.
The moves came after town officials said at least 55 people contracted COVID-19 associated with the East Bridgewater Commercial Club. The facility was forced to shut down temporarily due to the outbreak.
Selectmen convened an emergency meeting after learning of the positive cases.
The coronavirus outbreak surfaced roughly around the week of Thanksgiving. The NBC10 Boston Investigators reached out to the East Boston Commercial Club for comment back in December, but were unable to get anyone to go on camera. A message left with the club's new manager on Wednesday night was not immediately returned.
After the local cluster came to light, town officials said rumors had surfaced on social media regarding whether East Bridgewater regulated the facility appropriately.
Under state guidelines, the responsibility to enforce coronavirus safety measures in East Bridgewater falls largely on its three-member board of health and its staff.
All three board members have acknowledged that they are members of the Commercial Club, though two, Myles Heger and Lisa Lesogor, said they joined late last year. Board Chairman William Hubert said he had longer-standing ties to the organization.
John Clifford, the town’s lawyer, advised them to recuse themselves from any ongoing enforcement activity involving the club, saying they risked the appearance of a conflict of interest.
But members initially disagreed on whether that was necessary. Lesogor, a nurse, said members have a range of other affiliations that some might perceive as conflicts with their roles as public servants, citing examples such as carrying a library card or participating in sports.
The Board of Health ultimately voted 3-0 in December to hand over enforcement authority of the Commercial Club to the state Department of Labor Standards.
Several hours earlier, selectmen authorized town lawyers to investigate how the health department handled the matter, as well as its enforcement activities generally prior to the outbreak.
The Board of Selectmen voted 2-0 to authorize the probe into how the health department handled the matter. Selectman Peter Spagone Jr. abstained from the vote because he is a longtime member of the club.