At first glance, Mecklenburg County officials seem to have responded appropriately to revelations the county health department failed to tell dozens of women about abnormal results on Pap smear exams.
Four people have left the health department as a result of the troubles. Officials are trying hard to find 20 women who still haven’t been notified of potentially serious problems, and county commissioners decided to bring in third-party investigators to figure out why this happened and how to fix it.
All of which residents should expect of county officials. But we wonder: When exactly did the county plan on telling the public about this problem?
County Manager Dena Diorio was the first to mention it when she announced at Tuesday night’s Board of Commissioners meeting that 185 women seen at two Mecklenburg clinics had waited as long as eight months for Pap smear results. But Tuesday’s revelation came only after Observer reporters started asking questions about tips they’d received regarding health department problems.
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Even more troubling: Officials, including health department director Marcus Plescia, knew of the problems since at least Jan. 10, when Diorio told commissioners about them in a closed meeting. Such meetings, which exclude the public, are supposed to deal with personnel issues and legal matters, but commissioners say that neither individual names nor legal issues were discussed.
Six weeks passed between that meeting and Diorio’s announcement last week. Why does that matter? Had county officials revealed the Pap smear notification issues earlier, they might have had more success locating women who hadn’t yet received their results. Perhaps one of those patients or a family member would have seen a news item in the newspaper or on the television news. At the least, prospective patients would be aware of problems at those clinics and potentially the health department as a whole.
Commissioners have been quick to distance themselves from Diorio last week, questioning the need for a closed meeting in January and suggesting that the county manager was trying to control information and save embarrassment. But no commissioner seemed to object then to keeping things quiet, and no one decided the public might benefit from knowing.
Instead, commissioners and staff were mum until reporters started poking around. Mecklenburg residents can legitimately ask: Can we trust the county with bad news?
It was less than a year ago that the U.S. National Whitewater Center stayed open for five days after the death of an Ohio teen from a waterborne amoeba she likely came in contact with at the center. Later, the Centers for Disease Control said that filtration and disinfection systems at the center were inadequate to properly clean the facility’s waters.
County officials didn't hide anything then, but they didn't act in the public's best interest. Now, with questions again surrounding a public health issue, we wonder just what it is the county is most interested in protecting.