It should be old news by now that the Moore County Health Department is woefully short-staffed and falling further behind. Almost from the very moment the coronavirus arrived locally, the department has struggled to keep up with its mission.
And yet almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the department and director Robert Wittmann continue to offer new stunning examples of their inability to keep up.
On Friday, Jan. 21, shortly before 5 p.m., the county issued a news release announcing 28 new deaths due to the coronavirus — finally.
We say “finally” because we already knew. Earlier this month, Pilot staff writer Jaymie Baxley went to the county’s Register of Deeds office and reviewed death certificates from Dec. 2 to Dec. 30. On Jan. 5, he reported finding 12 COVID deaths that had yet to be reported by the Health Department.
Coincidentally, the department that day reported four deaths between Dec. 12-22. It reported no others this month until the mega-total announced on Jan. 21.
Then, on Thursday, the department announced 24 more deaths, going from Dec. 11 to this past Tuesday. Coincidentally again, that announcement came just a few hours after Baxley went to the Register of Deeds to count the unreported deaths for January — and it came a few days before the monthly Board of Health meeting.
The pandemic has shown how chronically neglected and underfunded public health systems in this country have gone all these years. They were destined to struggle, and Moore County is no different.
But when you’re already in a hole, quit digging and climb out. Wittmann continues to dig.
He and others have blamed reporting delays — and other failures and missteps — on their massively increased workload and lack of resources. And Wittmann says the state-required paperwork in filing the deaths bogs down reporting. Huh. We don’t see where it’s bogging down other counties.
And how odd that the paperwork could slow down reporting deaths that are five weeks old but NOT deaths that occurred five days ago. Sorry, but that excuse doesn’t hold water.
The latest explanation regarding the backlog in death reporting: “Moore County Health Department also acknowledges that there have been recent delays in statistical reporting. This is due in large part to COVID-19 vaccination efforts which have taken precedence.”
In other words, we’re too busy giving vaccinations to give the dead their due.
Excuses Are No Justification
The Moore County Board of Commissioners this past year has repeatedly asked Wittmann if he had sufficient staffing and resources. The county has millions of dollars in reserve funds it can bring to bear, and commissioners have offered to shake the piggy bank to help the Health Department.
At the board’s last meeting on Jan. 19, Commissioner Catherine Graham, again asked Wittmann if the county should hire additional staff to help the health department deal with the increased workload. Inexplicably, he declined the offer, further demonstrating how out of touch he is.
“Things are flowing very smoothly and we’ve got all the vaccinators we need at this point,” Wittmann said. “Between our paid staff and volunteers, we’ve got a good depth on our bench right now.”
All reports we’ve heard confirm that the Health Department seems to be staying on top of vaccinations and scheduling, although the county had to lend personnel from other departments to staff appointment scheduling. Again, Wittmann couldn’t just ask for more resources?
Yes, North Carolina has an archaic paper-based reporting system, so it has to mail hard copies of death certificates and paperwork to Raleigh, which then get entered into the database. The state, one of three left using paper, is in the process of implementing a faster electronic reporting system. That will help.
But rather than make excuses, Wittmann should apologize for failing to keep up and accept help that’s been offered. When will the Board of Commissioners and Board of Health demand accountability?
There’s a good topic for Monday’s Board of Health meeting.