March 27, 2007 — Acting Health Commissioner Phyllis Wallace held several meetings Tuesday with employees to find a solution to crowded conditions caused by the shutdown of sections of the Charles Harwood Medical Complex.
Wallace gave employees an update on the ongoing mold remediation and released a mold report, which was issued in October.
Staff of the Maternal and Child Health (MCH) and the Children with Special Needs Program staged a sit-in work action Monday and Tuesday protesting crowded conditions caused by having to share office space with the Public Health Clinic.
Wallace, who was on St. Thomas Monday, arrived on St. Croix Tuesday to work out a solution with affected employees.
"We have been on top of this issue since it surfaced in October," Wallace said at a press briefing held in a conference room at the Christiansted health clinic.
She said that in October specialists collected specimens from mold-infested offices and the administration began to address conditions that caused the problems. Wallace served as the deputy commissioner for Administration Services and Management for eight years before moving to her present position.
Extensive mold in the MCH clinic forced its shutdown in September, and affected employees and clients moved their operations to the Public Health Clinic. MCH services clients from birth to 21 years, while the Public Health Clinic services patients older than 21. Both sections have a full complement of administration staff, nurses and doctors.
"We are moving the prenatal clinic to an area where we were going to establish a public health lab," Wallace said, adding that the move was sanctioned by staff.
She said all efforts will be made to "maintain all our clinic services as best we can," and that "staff will be a part of the solution and give suggestions" on the best way to serve the public.
"No disciplinary action" will be taken against employees who participated in the job action, Wallace said. "We are not here to be punitive. We have a plan, and we are working the plan."
Director of Engineering James Bernier said moldy conditions at the clinic were caused by leaks in the roof, a faulty air-conditioning system, tampering with thermostats and emergency doors being left open, causing instability in the central air system.
ADCON Environmental conducted a mold assessment in October and found "visible signs of microbial growth" in several areas of the clinic, according to the report.
The assessment found:
— "Visible mold growth and serious moisture condensation on drywall, ceiling tile and on furnishings" in the MCH section;
— "Visible signs of a greenish-black mold" in the dental section;
— "Greenish-gray" mold in "infant and toddlers" rooms 1030, 1023 and 1025;
— Traces of "some sort of mold growth and musty smell" in the EMT training room.
Also in the report were interviews with several clinic employees who complained of symptoms, such as hay fever, sharp headaches, sinus problems, bronchitis, congestion, occupational asthma, itchy eyes and tightness in the chest.
Procedures have been put in place to address employees' health issues on an individual basis, Wallace said.
At a recent Senate hearing, Wallace said since receiving the report "steps had been taken to improve the situation." (See Health Building Plagued by Health Hazards, Officials and Staff Say")
Bernier said Wednesday that adjustments have been made to the air-conditioning system, and the roof leaks have been repaired. Plans are being made to equip doors with emergency alarms to prevent unauthorized exits and humidity alarms to alert administration if the levels elevate. He said with a building of more than 91,000 square feet, employees sometimes use exits that are closer to their cars in the parking lots.
Meanwhile, the MCH section of the clinic, which is usually teeming with parents and children, is a silent shell of its former self. The bright red chairs are now empty, and the yellow, purple and blue butterflies adorning the walls have no inquisitive children to marvel at them.
The alphabet charts and teddy bear posters no longer provide distractions to hordes of energetic children. Down the now-darkened hallways, about 20 rooms that were used for examinations, social workers, doctors and nurses offices go unused. A musty smell permeates the air. Inside some of the rooms, mold is left to grow unchecked until the remediation work can begin.
"We are anxious to put this behind us and ensure a healthy public health environment," Wallace said, adding that she plans to keep employees and the public updated on the progress.
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