Three weeks ago a county government workshop presenting the results of air-sample testing inside the troubled Sheriff’s Operations Center seemed to conclude, against evidence of illness among half the building’s occupants, that the structure was not sick. The meeting left sheriff’s employees dissatisfied with the analysis, their union lawyer threatening a lawsuit, and the sheriff himself unconvinced that either enough or proper analysis had been conducted. But one of the suggestions during the workshop was to bring in Centers for Disease Control experts for an independent review.
This evening, Sheriff Rick Staly told his staff that just such a CDC visit will take place on Sept. 6 and 7, though the visit will not include further testing. And he announced he’d hired an independent analyst to review last June’s testing by the firm the county had hired, and provide recommendations.
The CDC’s National Institute For Occupational Safety and Health will be sending five experts to Flagler, including Randall Nett, the chief of the agency’s Field Studies Branch, a research and technical supervisors, a medical officer specializing in health hazards and a senior research engineer, according to an email Nett sent sheriff’s and county officials today.
Nett and county officials had conducted a 10 a.m. phone conference to discuss the possibilities and parameters of the visit. Participants included Staly, Chief Mark Strobridge and Laura Kruger, representing the sheriff’s employees, on one side, and from the county’s side, County Administrator Craig Coffey, Sally Sherman, his erstwhile deputy administrator, County Attorney Al Hadeed, and County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin. McLaughlin and Staly had contacted the CDC two weeks ago, setting up today’s call, which was initiated by Nett.
“After significant discussion the county agreed to a site visit from NIOSH to the Operations Center,” Staly wrote his staff. “In my opinion this is a great start for an outside and totally independent review of this situation.”
CDC officials have requested to meet one-on-one with as many of the sheriff’s employees–at least those who work in the building—as possible, for 15 minutes at a time. (Road deputies use the building but neither work there nor have offices there.) The meetings will take place in a county courthouse conference room. “These meetings are voluntary but I strongly encourage you to participate, if you feel you have been affected by the building,” Staly told his staff. “NIOSH needs to hear from you directly and all discussions will be confidential.”
Today’s conversation was not all smooth. Staly’s reference to “significant discussion” was echoed by Nett saying the visit was agreed to “after some discussion,” hinting at the wrangles to get to the point of a visit in early September: the county administration seemed reluctant to agree to a visit this soon, wanting to evaluate the proposal first. Nett spoke of the CDC budget running out in September and a new cycle starting in October, which would mean that a visit could then be pushed much further out, a delay neither the sheriff nor McLaughlin wanted. Nett meanwhile stressed that there would be no actual testing, just a walk-through.
Coffey, in an interview this evening, acknowledged that the call “didn’t go perfectly smooth,” but not because there were disagreements about a CDC visit or its intended objectives. “We were behind on what the rest of the group on the call knew so we were playing catch-up,” Coffey said, referring to previous contact between Staly and McLaughlin with the CDC.
“We had an initial meeting with the sheriff and the union,” Coffey said of recent weeks, “we were dealing with one branch of the CDC, yesterday we got an email that all of a sudden we were dealing with a different branch of the CDC and an on-site visit from the CDC. The last email we had from the CDC,” prior to Wednesday, “we had nothing about that.”
The county had kept the Operations Center untouched by any work in the past weeks for a reason: to give any side that wanted to the chance to do further testing, Coffey said. There was none. But now the time has kicked in to implement some of the remediation work the county’s contracted engineer recommended in July after testing the air in the building—work on the air conditioning system and what Coffey described as a “mass cleaning” of the property. The county was reluctant to keep the building untouched for still more weeks ahead, if the CDC had intended to do any testing. But once the CDC official agreed that there would only be a walk-through, that brought all sides to agreement: Coffey said the dates could then be more easily accommodated. “We had some catching up to do on the phone call today, so the reluctance wasn’t so much to have the CDC come, but more on the logistics,” he said.
Coffey put it this way in a memo to commissioners sent this afternoon: “After some tense moments on the call about this visit issue, we were able to talk through it and agree to the visit while still on the call instead of separately discussing with staff and responding later. Because staff had not met and the CDC process had changed slightly, we were concerned we would be in the middle of some of the recommendations at the same time some type of new CDC testing was occurring or being asked to leave the building in limbo another month. However, the visit scheduled for September 5th-7th would not include any new testing at that time and only a walk-thru for the facility. This allows us to proceed as planned.”
Part of the caution or resistance was the legal angle, McLaughlin, the commissioner who was on the call, said. The county attorney “wanted to make sure he’s covering all the angles on this thing because he’s the guy who has to defend everything, and I respect that,” McLaughlin said. Several attorneys are now involved in the matter on all sides.
McLaughlin said he’d initially been connected to the CDC through U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis’s office. He and Staly then talked to the CDC a week and a half ago or so. “Certainly that is what we want, we want them to come down and take a look and see if we missed anything,” he said. “The building looks like it’s coming up clean, we still have to explain what illnesses employees have and what gave it to them.” There was no reluctance on his part to get the visit accomplished soon, he said. “We need to get this thing going, we need to get this figured out,” McLaughlin said.
With the building undergoing some work between now and the CDC officials’ visit, and the visit entailing no testing, it’s not clear at this point what the scientific parameters of the visit may entail, other than the gathering of evidence from actual employees’ experiences and the symptoms they suffered.
The National Institute For Occupational Safety and Health lists tracking “work-related hazards, exposures, illnesses and injuries for prevention” among its top goals. The sheriff evacuated the Operations Center’s 70-some employees in June, after more than two dozen of them had reported illnesses often associated with sick-building syndrome–illnesses that largely dissipated when affected employees were away from the building. Some of the staff set up temporary work stations at the sheriff’s old administrative building on Justice Lane, some, including the sheriff’s administrative staff, moved to the Flagler County courthouse.
The county is the landlord, responsible for providing office space to the sheriff and maintaining the Operations Center, a building the county bought in 2013, gutting it and rebuilding it after it had sat fallow for over a decade after having been a hospital. After July’s workshop, a state of wait-and-see took hold, with sheriff’s officials on several occasions suggesting that the county was seeking to delay immediate action on the building until after the election, in which two county commissioners are up (Greg Hansen and Nate McLaughlin), both of whom, like other commissioners, have pledged to do whatever is necessary to ensure employees’ safety. But little had taken place until today.
The Sheriff said the agency had hired Dr. Robert Sweeney “to review all building related documents and testing from pre-purchase, renovation through the latest ESI’s testing and to provide me with an independent analysis and his professional opinion and recommendations.” Sweeney is a local expert in the field who initially approached the agency, proposing to review the materials. The sheriff said he has “more than 40 years’ experience in his field and has consulted on many symptomatic buildings.” His report is expected by Aug. 20. “Once it is received his report and any recommendations will be provided to you and the county.”