“Just Makes Me Laugh”- Public Health Director
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
“Just makes me laugh.” This is a direct quote from Colleen Nielsen, the Director of the Lake County Public Health Agency (LCPHA) at the Board of Health (BOH) meeting which was held last Thursday, April 12, just hours after a carbon monoxide emergency forced the evacuation and closure of the Safeway grocery store in Leadville.
Nielsen was referring to the communication exchange happening on the Leadville Today Facebook page where over 8,000 people were expressing their opinions and frustrations about ongoing public health and safety concerns at Lake County’s primary food store. While citizens were engaging on an open, public platform that has been used many times by local emergency officials to disseminate safety messages to Leadville and Lake County residents, Nielsen can be heard in an audio recording obtained by Leadville Today, exchanging comments with other BOH members just prior to the official start of the quarterly meeting.
“Kathy Bedell is now reining on our Facebook Page. She’s encouraging everyone who is upset with Safeway to report our public health agency to CPHE (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment),” Nielsen stated just prior to the meeting which was getting underway at the Lake County Courthouse.
“Just makes me laugh,” Nielsen can be heard chuckling.
But while the Director of the LCPHA was laughing and attempting to undermine the credibility of a local news source, Leadville Today stayed committed to the conversation that was happening online, as well as responding to phone calls, text messages and emails. People had questions, concerns.
There was a mother concerned about how she would get medicine for her sick child. There was a former employee expressing concerns about ongoing, unsafe working conditions. There were older residents inquiring about how long the pharmacy would be closed.
Unfortunately, the recording also revealed that last Thursday’s incident was never even addressed during the official BOH meeting, something Nielsen would later state to the contrary. However, since this latest violation was not discussed within the confines of the public session, it cannot be legally recorded within the minutes, and therefore will not be a part of BOH public record for the April 12 meeting. How lucky for Safeway.
However, that’s not the only conflict – or omission – of facts that that has come to light about last Thursday’s carbon monoxide emergency evacuation. There’s more, and it’s nothing to laugh about.
“What we know is that the fire department came out to the store about noon from reports of a bad odor,” explained Kris Staaf, Public Affairs Director with the Safeway Corporation in an interview with Leadville Today on Friday, Apr. 13.
“The fire department indicated to us there were levels of carbon monoxide in the store and as a result they evacuated and shut us down. The store was reopened about an hour and forty-five minutes later. The fire department asked us to install carbon monoxide detectors.”
Now that last statement might come as a surprise to a few readers, and you’re not alone. So, Safeway didn’t have carbon monoxide detectors prior to this incident?
“I don’t believe so, but I can follow up and check,” answered Staaf. But clearly no follow-up was necessary, because if Safeway had been asked – by Leadville/Lake County Fire Rescue – to install carbon monoxide detectors, then it was obvious that there were none of these life-saving devices in the store when the emergency evacuation happened on Thursday, April 12, 2018.
Ironically, at 1:54 p.m. as the real-life scene was still in recovery, The Lake County Public Health Agency posted a message on their Facebook page as follows: Lake County Public Health Agency would like opportunity to bring awareness to Carbon Monoxide poisoning. See Photos for how to make sure your family is safe and for more information on Carbon Monoxide prevention go to: https://www.cdc.gov/co/guidelines.htm
However, believe it or not, Safeway has not been required to have these life-saving devices in place. But that also might explain the alarming reports of people throwing up and passing out inside the store last Thursday. With no detectors in place, the human body was now sounding its own alarm. In fact, several LT readers had posted that the air quality had been suspicious the night before and possibly for days prior to that.
Later, Nielsen was able to confirm that one person was transported to St. Vincent Hospital, was treated and released. In addition, LT was able to identify two other individuals in the store at the time of the evacuation who did end up seeking medical treatment later, when their symptoms did not subside as quickly as they thought they should.
Eventually, the carbon monoxide leak was identified by Xcel Energy crews at the scene and the piece of leaking equipment was repaired. After proper ventilation and additional testing was conducted, the store was deemed safe to be re-opened.
So what happens next, readers wondered? The problem was solved, but what other inspections need to be done to ensure that the open produce and other food products are safe? It was the same question LT asked LLCFR Inspector Steve Boyle during a brief exchange at the scene.
“Well, first we’re trying to figure out why the CO levels are so high and then, yes there will be a health inspection before it re-opens,” he confirmed.
Safeway’s Staaf was able to confirm that there was communication between Safeway’s Corporate Food Safety Director Kelly Zeilbauer and Lake County Health Inspector, Jackie Littlepage after the incident. Following a brief phone conversation on Thursday, the food store had received an inspection checklist, of what the corporate spokesperson described as “opportunities.”
Littlepage was hired by LCPHA in 2013 and has gained a solid reputation as a thorough, yet tough health inspector. The kind of leader you want to be in charge of food safety. She is a true professional, but was also willing to engage personally with the LT Facebook Page during last Thursday’s emergency, providing readers with real-time updates as Lake County’s Health Inspector. But those posts lead to more questions from residents, and LT leaned in for more answers from the agency charged to address public health issues. By Friday morning, LCPHA’s messaging agents were in full retreat, and suddenly Littlepage was no longer willing to speak about the incident, requiring all questions from Leadville Today now be submitted in writing.
But there’s more than one way to gather the data necessary to verify the facts for a news story. So when a Colorado Open Records Acts (Cora) roadblock is placed by one department head in a clear attempt to slow down the discovery, there are other reliable sources who still believe in transparency and providing information in a timely manner. If you need the information, they provide it for you.
Fortunately, Safeway’s Staaf was willing to share the information from the official Lake County inspection. The first item she described from the report addressed the need for “having an active manager in control of food safety, during the time of transition.” Translation: Safeway does not have a store manager at this time. While they are actively recruiting for the position of “Store Director,” the head clerk has taken on some of those management responsibilities.
So for 2 weeks (maybe more, Staaf wasn’t sure) prior to the emergency, there was no “active manager in control of food safety,” the person charged to make sure that things are stored at the proper temperatures and sanitary conditions. In essence, that requirement from the inspection report makes it clear that while the grocery store had transferred certain management responsibilities to the head clerk, food safety control had not been one of them.
According to Staaf, the other “opportunities” included in Littlepages’ health inspection report included “some bakery items which were stored in refrigeration near meat; that we fixed immediately.” But I think the big one is really that the raw meat was inventoried yesterday, she continued. This violation describes a situation where an employee was in the middle of cutting and packaging some meat when the evacuation was issued. He had to promptly leave the work station. The health inspector ordered that the exposed meat be destroyed, and according to Staaf it was.
As for the smell – described in great detail among LT readers – it’s the only specific violation mentioned in the LCPHA post: Other smells [CO is odorless] were further investigated and found to be pooling mop water and a grease trap requiring cleaning. Safeway is addressing both custodial issues. The freezers were never powered down and not a health concern.
So, yes, Safeway met these latest “opportunities” with accountability and responsibility. At which point, Staaf took the opportunity to remind customers of the grocery store’s recent changes and upgrades.
“We did have refrigeration issues that we addressed and worked through, and they were significant. We’ve met with community leaders, we’ve met with customers, I’ve done round-tables up at the store to address concerns like bringing in more fresh produce and expanding bakery and deli . We have re-set the store so that it is easier and more accessible for customers who are coming in to maybe pick up a quick lunch or need to use the rest room. During the tourist season we’ve put in additional portable restrooms outside to accommodate the flow of tourists. We’ve reached out to our food bank partners to continue to do a good job with donations.” Check, check, and check!
But there was another concern beyond food safety, that came up. It’s a question that was asked by more than a handful of residents. It’s one which was posed to LCPHA’s Director Nielsen, who made it clear from LT’s first phone call that she “didn’t have the time” and wasn’t interested in talking about the incident. She was resistant, but questions need to be asked, so the interview pressed on.
What about the pharmacy?
Inside Safeway is Lake County’s only pharmacy which administers daily, often life-saving medications to people. What is public health’s plan should the building (with the drugs) ever get shut down for an extended period of time? What protocols are in place to handle this possible situation?
This was the top Public Health employee, Director Nielsen’s response: “Gee, that’s a good question, KATHY. And we’ll take it into consideration. Thank you for the suggestion. Is there anything else, because right now it just seems like we’re talking in circles.” That interview concluded.
However, that same question was posed to the Safeway spokesperson and here is Staaf’s thoughtful reply:
“In the rare case where the store would be shut down for a duration of time, a pharmacy customer can call any Safeway store, Frisco’s would be the closest since it has a pharmacy, and talk to the pharmacists there. We can absolutely take care of that prescription at that store. We understand the need for the pharmacy to make accommodations when they need to and certainly, we are willing to step up and do that if we need to.” Staaf even relayed a similar situation in another region, where a patient couldn’t travel to the other Safeway pharmacy, and that the store will deliver prescriptions to patients if needed in emergency situations.”
Good to know! Hopefully, readers are coming away with more solid answers as to what happened. All of you certainly provided many thoughtful answers and solutions to the situation, everyone learning from each other and working toward a real solution.
“Just made me laugh.”
There’s no doubt that the Lake County Public Health Agency provides many worthwhile, community-minded services and programs. And of course, there are many good people who work there. However, in recent years this department has become the housing umbrella for many grant-driven programs that require large amounts of time and effort in application and reporting. And while the new programs are nice, it’s taken management and oversight away from other basic services this agency is beholden to – food safety and work condition concerns at Leadville’s primary food store is an example of one of those.
Public health concerns should be its number one priority and these issues should be addressed as problems to be solved rather than a public relations fire that needs to be put out. Additionally, as the local labor market becomes an increasing issue for both the private and public sectors, finding qualified personnel to fill these new programs is also a growing issue.
And the fallout is starting to come into focus, quickly. It’ s concerning to hear from a business that was asked to create an invoice for a service they have yet to provide in order to meet a grant report deadline. It’s concerning to hear from a young person new to the community who has briefly cycled through an employment stint with one of these programs only to quit because they were unsure about whether they were properly trained for the job, or asked to report their hours in a manner that wasn’t completely genuine. Those things are concerning.
But what is alarming are some of the reports coming from the ongoing public health issues at Safeway. And it doesn’t appear that things are being documented or recording in an aggressive enough manner to bring about effective change. Many things have come to light during this investigation, only some of them were reported in this story; the rest will be looked into for verification.
So the question is . . . was last Thursday’s public health emergency funny to the three people who sought medical attention after the incident? Was it funny for the mom who needed medicine for her child? Was it funny for the store employees standing out in last Thursday’s cold and wind, concerned for their jobs and health as they returned to work in a building that had been deemed “safe” by health officials, but continues to raise a lot of concerns from the public?
LT didn’t see the humor in it, nor in the conversation. There have been numerous emergency situations in the past where Lake County’s emergency responders have asked for LT’s help in getting out public safety messages to residents. Whether it was a wildfire, a lost hiker or the need to test the new cell tower on Highway 91, LT will continue to work in partnership with these agencies. They know that Leadville Today is a safe, reliable and respected news source. But it’s clear that LCPHA’s Director Nielsen chooses to respond a different way.
But in today’s world, in Leadville Today, there are many people just trying to get through the day, just trying to raise their families in a safe community. They are just trying to make it to the local grocery store without throwing up or having to see a doctor afterward, and well, they’re NOT laughing. Because it’s not so funny, is it?
Publisher’s Note: Leadville Today will continue its investigation regarding the carbon monoxide emergency evacuation at Safeway. Inquiries into the number of inspections and emergency calls to Leadville’s primary grocer have been made. It’s time to start documenting things. There have also been conversations initiated with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment; those calls made some progress last Friday.
And finally in keeping with Leadville Today’s commitment to bring positive and uplifting stories to readers, stay tuned for the upcoming Marketplace Leadville series. Safeway is not the only food distributor in town, and if you haven’t stepped foot in the others for awhile, you could be pleasantly surprised! Stay Tuned!
Colorado Journalist Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin, LLC, a media company located in Leadville, Colorado which publishes LeadvilleToday.com and SaguacheToday.com. She may be reached at email@example.com