COVID-19 hits mayor’s office, administration won’t discuss details

Mayor-President Josh Guillory at council meeting
Mayor-President Josh Guillory is pushing a $3.2 million raise for the city's fire and police employees but hasn't yet released a plan to fund it. Photo by Travis Gauthier

The gist: A key member of Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s staff has tested positive for COVID-19, but the administration is not divulging what it has done to protect others the employee was in contact with. 

Confirmation comes just as the governor announced a positive case among his staff. Gov. John Bel Edwards said today the employee tested positive Thursday (this is not the first time governor has disclosed a confirmed case among his staff). The statement did not identify the employee and noted that two additional unidentified staff members deemed to have close contact with the infected person are quarantining for 14 days, per guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the Louisiana Department of Health. The person did not have close contact with the governor, according to the statement.

The Guillory administration’s lack of transparency this week brings into question how it has handled outbreaks in other departments.

Reached by cell phone at home, the employee confirmed the diagnosis. The Current agreed not to name the employee, who is working from home, helping to coordinate the emergency response to Hurricane Delta. “LCG and [the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management] are prepared as always for any storm on our horizon,” the employee says. 

The city-parish worker’s last day in the office was Friday, Oct. 2, and the employee tested positive Monday but is unsure how the virus was contracted. The employee was prompted to test for COVID-19 after elderly family members got a positive result Sunday, according to the worker.

The mayor’s staff member remains symptomatic, with a relatively mild case. Outside of a “debilitating headache,” the employee has lost taste and smell senses but says oxygen levels are fine. 

A list of contacts was submitted to HR. The employee confirms having worked closely with the mayor and several of Guillory’s key lieutenants last week, ahead of Monday’s positive result. The infected person sent a list of contacts, approximately 15 to 20 from the mayor’s office and another meeting the staffer attended out of town, to Lafayette Consolidated Government’s Human Resources Department. As the governor’s office stated today, the CDC recommends that anyone who has been in contact with a COVID-positive person quarantine for 14 days and look out for any symptoms, like fever, cough or shortness of breath. 

Guillory’s spokesman, Jamie Angelle, referred The Current’s inquiry to Human Resources Director Rick Zeno, who refused to say whether any contact tracing had been conducted or was underway. “I’m not going to confirm or deny,” Zeno says. “I have no comment.”

Angelle tells The Current he was not asked to quarantine. It’s unclear whether anyone has. The spokesman was out of the office Tuesday and Wednesday for personal reasons, he says, and back at work Thursday. In a follow-up text message about whether he was asked to be tested, Angelle said he “was not told anything.”

“Why is this even a story? Seriously?!,” Angelle texted. “Do you just enjoy making people’s personal health information a news story? This is pathetic for even you! You can quote me on that!”

The mayor-president was out in public this week after one of his top lieutenants tested positive for COVID-19.

Guillory has been known to flout the governor’s mask mandate. Early Thursday afternoon, the mayor-president posted a photograph on LCG’s official Facebook page showing him being interviewed outdoors by The Weather Channel ahead of Hurricane Delta, set to hit Lafayette this afternoon. While he is socially distanced in the image, the mayor is not wearing a mask. In the interview that aired on the network, he was not masked. 

Minutes from Tuesday’s council meetings show Guillory, CAO Cydra Wingerter, CFO Lorrie Toups and Assistant City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott in attendance. The mayor and others in his close circle attended public gatherings this week as well, according to multiple sources.

As this story went to press, the mayor-president was holding a hurricane briefing in the media room at City Hall. 

Dr. Tina Stefanski, the state’s top health expert in the Acadiana region who often appeared with Guillory during his coronavirus briefings earlier this year, tells The Current epidemiological investigations in the state are confidential “so I can’t give specifics on any case or scenario” but was willing to comment generally.

“If someone is named as a contact to a confirmed case of COVID-19, they should quarantine for 14 days following the last exposure to that person,” Stefanski says, pointing to the CDC’s definition of a close contact, which includes having been within 6 feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more.

“One thing to point out because we are often asked about this, close contacts may decide to be tested following a potential exposure,” Stefanski adds. “Even if a close contact tests negative, they must remain in quarantine for the full 14 days.”

In a phone call after his last text Thursday afternoon, Angelle continued to assert his position that a case of COVID-19 in the mayor’s office is not newsworthy, saying, “COVID is everywhere.” He went on to name all of the departments that have had positive cases that haven’t made their way into the media. 

Questions arose about LCG’s handling of outbreaks over the summer. On July 21, after receiving multiple complaints about the safety protocols not in place at the Lafayette Police Department, The Current issued a public records request to LCG seeking information on policies and protocols for testing and quarantining police officers, as well as the policy for paid sick leave. Two weeks later, City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan responded to the request in an email. But rather than produce any policy, Logan said LCG had “engaged medical professionals to manage and direct each employee on a case-by-case basis. This includes the Police Department.”  

Logan said LCG had hired Safety Management Systems, a division of Acadian Companies, which “consists of Doctors and other trained medical staff.” Logan, who did not say when the firm had been engaged or provide a copy of the contract with SMS, explained that the company consults with the individual employee and directs the case management, “be it testing, quarantine or otherwise.”  

“They are following guidelines of the CDC and LDH and modify their case management accordingly,” Logan wrote. By the time The Current received a response to its request about how outbreaks were being managed at the police department, sources informed us that the process appeared to be improving — but one officer now says it is still falling short of ensuring officers’ safety. The officer says, for example, the mask mandate is repeatedly violated in the common areas of the police department. 

Angelle says more info may be forthcoming. The spokesman said the administration would decide after the storm passes whether to release any additional information about its protocols for dealing with a positive case in the mayor’s office.