After going decades without a Board of Health meeting, council members on Monday afternoon convened to discuss the municipal response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Council president Maritza Davila began by questioning the numbers of infections and deaths being reported by mayor Andre Sayegh’s administration.
“For an entire week, seven days, we did not have one reported death,” said the council president. “I see a lot of discrepancies.”
She said a meeting with hospital officials on Monday convinced her the city is under reporting fatalities. The city on Monday reported a total of 64 deaths. Hospital officials sent over a list of 86 deaths to the city, said several officials at the meeting.
“We’re cross checking those deaths,” said health officer Paul Persaud. He said each death has to be scrutinized to ensure it is unique. Multiple agencies report deaths which could lead to the same death being counted twice without scrutiny.
“They report directly to the state,” said Davila of hospitals. “You are not giving accurate information.”
Davila became increasing combative with the health officer. She interrupted him on the WebEx video conference four times in the first 25 minutes of the meeting as he attempted to provide detailed explanations on how the infection and death tallies is derived.
“Does that also take into account people that died in their homes?” asked councilman Flavio Rivera.
“It does not reflect people who died in their home,” answered Persaud.
Davila also questioned the city’s confirmed case number of 2,931. She said the county is reporting 3,117 infections in Paterson.
Passaic County is showing much higher numbers of cases for municipalities. It is displaying raw data. For example, Clifton, which has the second largest outbreak behind Paterson, has a larger number of infections in the county system than what the health department in that city is reporting.
Councilman Michael Jackson said the county numbers likely includes duplicates. He pointed out the local health department is the one conducting epidemiological investigations.
“The real number of cases are what we’re giving,” said Persaud.
Davila, who repeatedly cut in while her colleagues were speaking, interrupted Persaud.
“All you keep doing is interrupting me,” retorted Persaud.
Davila thought Persaud, who attempted to explain things using analogies, was “patronizing” her. Some council members, who also serve as Board of Health members, were not fully aware of the functions or role of the Division of Health.
Paterson Strike Team
“We have a Strike Team. We don’t know who they are or what they are doing,” said councilwoman Lilisa Mimms.
“The strike team is an investigative team. They are trained to do epidemiological investigations,” said Persaud.
Mimms wanted two council members to serve on the team. Council members cannot serve on the Strike Team.
Persaud explained the Strike Team, made up of two-dozen disease detectives, investigates every case in Paterson. It is responsible for contact tracing.
Mimms sought the list of the members and their qualifications. Most have them have received training through the Division of Health at the Louisiana State University for outbreak response.
“We have one of the most prepared teams in the state of New Jersey,” said Persaud. His team handled two communicable disease situations last year. A possible meningitis outbreak in early 2019 and a Hepatitis A incident later in the year, both incidents better prepared the team for the pandemic.
Jackson said the lack of knowledge among his colleagues is due to the Board of Health having never met in the past decades.
Davila had been urged to hold a Board of Health meeting to discuss the pandemic on March 24. She also brushed aside requests to hold a health board meeting last Tuesday. She only relented over the weekend to schedule Monday’s meeting.
Jackson said had the Board of Health met earlier in the outbreak it could have devised a response to the pandemic and set up a testing site for residents.
“Why don’t we have a Paterson-only testing site?” asked councilman Luis Velez. Administration officials said there’s a plan to potentially open a testing site in Paterson.
Persaud sought to open a testing site at the Board of Health in Paterson around the same time Passaic County opened its site at William Paterson University, but was sidelined. County officials did not want Paterson to compete against them for scarce testing kits. However, the city failed to take initiative to open a testing site over the next weeks as testing kits became widely available.
Paterson had nearly 3,000 infected people on Monday.
“Let’s open up a testing center,” said councilman Al Abdelaziz. “We need to ramp up testing.”
Abdelaziz said it’s still not too late for the city to open up a testing site. He called on the administration to prepare a plan for a testing site.
“What is it that we’re doing for our homeless population?” asked Davila to health and human services director Oshin Castillo. “Tell me the plan.”
Castillo outlined the administration’s plan. She said police are called. Police then contact NJ 211. NJ 211 provides transportation to the homeless person to get them to a shelter.
The plan appears to be severely inadequate. During the weekend, a resident followed Castillo’s steps, but the homeless person remained at the bus stop on Broadway for nearly 20-plus hours.
Davila was unsatisfied with Castillo’s verbal plan. She sought a written plan from the administration.
The four-hour meeting is the first time in decades the council has convened as the Board of Health. Years ago, state health officials told municipal officials to hold at least four meetings per year.
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