Air testing results for Luzerne County’s Penn Place building expected Tuesday

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | May 24th, 2016 8:00 am

County workers at Penn Place fear contracting Legionnaires’ disease

By Jennifer Learn-Andes


The Luzerne County administration expects Tuesday to receive the results of an air quality test officials say will help determine if corrective action is needed at the county’s Penn Place Building in downtown Wilkes-Barre.

The test was ordered in response to employee complaints about mold and unsubstantiated alleged health issues in the building at the corner of Market Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

County Councilwoman Kathy Dobash sent an email to her colleagues last weekend asking if it’s true three county employees who work in Penn Place have Legionnaires’ Disease, including one who was hospitalized last weekend.

Council Chairwoman Linda McClosky Houck replied, saying county Manager C. David Pedri assured her during two lengthy conversations last weekend that the administration hasn’t received any test results substantiating “what is circulating about Legionnaires’ disease.”

Pedri confirmed Monday afternoon he had not received any test results or communication in any form about Legionnaires’ disease.

Wilkes-Barre Health Director Henry Radulski said Monday he has not received any such communication either.

Health care services, including doctors and laboratories, are required to electronically notify Radulski’s office if the presence of Legionnaires’ disease is confirmed in the city, regardless of whether the victim lives in the city, Radulski said.

Radulski’s office would investigate confirmed cases or assist state health officials, depending on the circumstances, he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, Legionnaires’ disease is a respiratory disease caused by Legionella bacteria. The same bacteria also can cause a less serious infection resembling a mild case of the flu, commonly called Pontiac fever.

People are exposed to Legionella when they breathe in a mist or vapor of small water droplets containing the bacteria, such as that which can be generated by air conditioning systems. It is rarely spread from one person to another, according to the CDC.

The worker who was hospitalized remained at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital Monday afternoon. Requesting anonymity, she said her doctors believe she has Legionnaires’ disease, but they were still completing testing. She also alleged the county has failed to address mold in the building and is taking too long to release air quality tests.

County Administrative Services Division Head David Parsnik said Monday he was awaiting the air quality test results but noted the air conditioning unit has not been operating at Penn Place due to the temperature.

The county also has completed window repairs to address leaks, the administration said.

Paula Schnelly, head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, said she’s been bombarded with inquiries from employees who want answers.

“They are frightened and scared and very upset. Nobody is talking to them,” Schnelly said. “The most important thing is to educate employees who are fearful.”

Schnelly said her union has been “very concerned” since learning of the first employee “potentially having Legionnaires’ disease.”

The union met with the administration on April 15 to push for air testing, she said. The test initially was promised to be released around May 19, she said.

“We are still waiting to find out the results of this air quality test. In the meantime, I was informed that two additional union employees also potentially contracted Legionnaires’ disease,” she said.

Schnelly said the administration should provide an update to workers, even if reports of illnesses are unsubstantiated.

“Why isn’t the administration talking to employees to let them know what’s happening? There wouldn’t be such a big panic at this point if there was communication,” she said.

Pedri said Monday he was awaiting the test because he wants to establish and communicate facts.

“If something is wrong at Penn Place, we will address it. We would set up temporary offices if necessary,” he said.

Charles Majikes, who represents unionized probation and domestic relations officers, said he’s also been pressing for completion of a thorough air quality test.

“I think everybody has been on pins and needles with this thing — including management — because of the rumor mill,” Majikes said.

The building houses some court staff, including probation, and numerous other county departments, including the controller’s, election, planning/zoning, drug and alcohol, purchasing, public defender’s, human resources and coroner’s offices.

Prior county commissioners purchased Penn Place in 1999 for $2.48 million from Mericle Development Corporation, and invested millions of dollars in repairs and furnishings to convert the structure into county offices and courtrooms.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.