Testing for the coronavirus — the virus responsible for COVID-19 — has begun at Eastern Star Church, one of the city’s most vulnerable areas.
The epidemiologist for the newly-formed Fishers Health Department has resigned, alleging Mayor Scott Fadness meddled in the agency and could be pushing schools to open classrooms too soon.
“This is a level of interference I had never seen before in a public health agency,” said Eileen White, the department’s only epidemiologist who had previously worked for the Indiana and Minnesota health departments. “I have never seen a health department set up as a business before.”
The city formed its own health department in April and the Hamilton County Health Department relinquished its control a couple weeks later. It is just one of three Indiana cities with its own health department and has set up its own coronavirus testing program, along with a public database to track cases.
Eileen White, former epidemiologist for the Fishers Health Department (Photo: Supplied by Eileen White)
White said she fears Fadness is pushing to ease measurements that will allow in-person instruction at schools to resume sooner than they should, in defiance of widely accepted public health recommendations. She said the city’s positivity rate is still too high — above the 5% threshold the department has established to reopen safely.
White submitted her resignation on Sunday after meeting with Fadness on Saturday to tell him why she was quitting.
“I have a feeling of failure (that) all of us in public health have right now,” White said. “I had so much hope for what I could do. But we are continuing to see more pushback and politics in public health.
“I have children in the system, I want schools to open, too, but I want them to do so when it’s safe.”
Fadness declined an interview request from IndyStar but issued a statement.
“My administration, in concert with the Fishers Health Department, has had a constant focus on what is in the best interest and safety of our residents,” the statement read. “That said, we continue to believe in, and follow the direction of, our public health department leadership, (Chief Medical Director) Dr. Indy Lane and (Public Health Director) Monica Heltz. Any assertion of anything other than that is categorically false.”
Heltz said what White characterizes as interference she considers the full backing of the mayor.
“I have felt nothing but support from the city,” she said. “The suggestion that it has been been anything but supportive is disappointing.”
Current risk questioned
Hamilton Southeastern students are scheduled to attend school virtually until at least Labor Day as part of phase one of a four phase reopening plan.
At a meeting with the school trustees and administration last Friday, Fishers Health Department officials said it is possible to reopen schools earlier with certain protocols in place, and provided more recommendations and guidance to the district.
Though the health officials told the schools the city is teetering on the risk scale toward “significant,” Fadness said they were close to being safely in the “moderate” risk category.
“Right now, we are in yellow tinging on orange,” Fadness said. “But if we can get some things in place, we are solidly in the yellow.”
HSE Superintendent Allen Bourff said then that he would use the information from that meeting to make changes to the district’s reopening plan. On Wednesday, Bourff shared a draft of a new plan with the school board.
That optimistic assessment, combined with the mayor’s constant interjections at a public health presentation, convinced White to quit, she said.
“There should not be full in-person schooling right now,” White said. “Exceptions can be made for children with special needs and those that need to be fed if we do it in small cohorts.”
Heltz noted White was was a full partner in developing the risk scale.
Infections in Fishers have risen in recent weeks, as they have across the state, and the positivity rate stands at an estimated 5.6% of residents tested by Fishers, but that is just a portion of the city’s citizens who have been tested. The actual rate is most likely around the Hamilton County average of 5.9%, as measured by the state, when all the tests in Fishers are added up, city health officials said.
The Fishers Health Department has added a color-coded scale to its website that assesses risk for the community, from green to yellow to orange to red, based on infection rates and other factors.
Each category takes into consideration community transmission, as well as public health and health care system capacity. There are also added considerations for schools as well as mitigation strategies and recommendations.
The recommendation for schools in the yellow and orange categories is for a virtual option for school with limited in-person classes. In yellow, elementary schools can be open and secondary student attendance should be prioritized based on need with hybrid schedules.
In orange, elementary students would use a hybrid schedule or be in small cohorts and older students would be in small groups all day. Schools would be at no more than 50% capacity and students with compelling needs can attend in-person.
In red, where the positivity rate is more than 10%, all learning is online.
Excluded from meetings
White was hired two months ago by Heltz shortly after working three years for the Minnesota Department of Health. But she said she was immediately shocked by the level of interference by Fadness.
White, who mostly works from home, said she was told by Heltz that Fadness drops by the health department offices in the fire department headquarters at the Municipal Complex often, relaying his thoughts on the pandemic. White said she felt that the mayor was subtly suggesting direction for health decisions and was curtailing the department’s independence.
“If he’s not actually directing Monica (Heltz) to do something, it makes it hard for her to be independent,” White said, “and makes it hard for the public to trust that politics aren’t involved in decisions.”
But Heltz scoffed at that assertion.
“The suggestion that I was compromised is also disappointing,” she said. “I have been a health professional for 20 years and have a significant amount of training in public health. And I have no political ties to the city.”
In addition, White said she was left out of meetings that Fadness held with Heltz and Lane, who are not epidemiologists. But city spokeswoman Ashley Elrod said White was considered a part-time employee who worked from home so she would not normally be included in “leadership” meetings.
White said she went to work for Fishers because she was excited that the city had its own health department and hired an epidemiologist, which not all health departments do.
“It is great to have a city health department and that we have our own testing sites,” White said, “but it is how it was done that is the problem.”
Fishers is hiring a new epidemiologist and has posted a job listing on the city’s hiring page.
IndyStar reporter MJ Slaby contributed to this story.
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