Tag Archives: Mark Cooper

Former Employee Sues Westport Weston Health District Director

For more than 16 months, the Westport Weston Health District has been at the center of the COVID fight.

Now, executive director Mark Cooper is in the hot seat.

Last month, Louis D’Onofrio Jr. resigned as WWHD director of clinical care. This month, he sued his former boss.

The suit, filed in District Court, charges Cooper with retaliation against D’Onofrio, after he tried to address alleged health and safety hazards in the Health District office.

D’Onofrio made multiple complaints about rodent droppings, which he says Cooper disregarded.

Louis D’Onofrio Jr.

D’Onofrio says he then complained to the Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency, which inspected the premises in June 2019. The suit says that CIRMA found that safety data sheets had not been updated in over a decade, and that unlabeled bottles of chemicals where improperly stored where they could harm staff or visitors.

D’Onofrio says that Cooper did not review and resolve the concerns. Rodent droppings continued. D’Onofrio says that rodents also chewed through raincoats and jackets worn by employees.

This past April, D’Onofrio said he spoke with the Westport Police Department about concerns of possible financial mismanagement. He says approximately $73,000 was part of “unclassified” medical services.

After D’Onofrio spoke with the WWHD board chair about his financial and safety concerns, he alleges that Cooper “initiated an investigation into a fictitious vaccine matter.”

D’Onofrio also says that Cooper threatened to eliminate his position, because the district had lost approximately $70,000.

In May, D’Onofrio charges, Cooper took away a bonus, with “no valid cause.”

D’Onofrio submitted his resignation on June 16, “because of the intolerable condition of being required to continue to work in a setting that was hazardous to health and safety of himself, co-workers, and members of the public.”

Westport Weston Health District director Mark Cooper (right) addresses the media on March 11, 2020, when the pandemic first hit Westport. First Selectman Jim Marpe is at left. Mask wearing was not yet mandatory.

D’Onofrio charges infringement of his free speech rights, and unlawful employment practices. He seeks a jury trial, and asks for compensatory and punitive damages.

“I wish things had never gotten this far,” D’Onofrio told “06880.” “I love my career helping people. Our staff did everything to combat the pandemic. They should not be surrounded by such horrible conditions. I just wanted him to clean the office.”

Asked to respond, Cooper told “06880”:

I am certainly aware of the report since I approved the request to have CIRMA, the WWHD’s insurance carrier, conduct the voluntary assessment. The request to have CIRMA conduct the assessment was made to help staff prepare for our outpatient clinic license application to the State, as well as to identify any potential risks so they could be addressed.

The inspection was conducted over 2 years ago with the report noting that: “It is with the utmost appreciation to the Westport Weston Health District staff for time dedicated to assisting in this project. The coordination of on-site visit went extremely well…

The inspection resulted in several recommendations to address. All of CIRMA’s recommendations were corrected and clearly did not impede approval and issuance of WWHD’s clinic license.

Although not included in the lawsuit, D’Onofrio also told “06880” that Cooper refused to wear a mask in the office, and left the state for long weekends during the pandemic but did not quarantine upon his return.

Cooper did not reply to emails and text messages asking for responses to those allegations.



Contact Tracing: Health District Protocols

In the wake of yesterday’s disclosure of a COVID-19 positive employee at Longshore Sailing School, the Westport Weston Health District fielded a number of questions about contact tracing.

Director Mark Cooper noted that because the employee does not live in Westport or Weston, that person’s local public health authority is doing the contact tracing, as required by law.

Cooper also sent this information, from director of clinical care Louis D’Onofrio:

Westport Weston Health District has performed contact tracing for communicable diseases since it was established in the 1960s. Contact tracing is a fundamental public health activity that enables public health officials to slow the spread of infectious diseases.

The WWHD began contact tracing for COVID-19 in early March of this year. Our clinical team, along with trained volunteers, is responsible for and has been managing contact tracing activities for every reported positive case in residents of Westport and Weston.

The Westport Weston Health District works with Connecticut’s statewide confidential software system to monitor the health and wellbeing of people affected by COVID-19. The information collected in contact tracing is used to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

All WWHD staff and volunteers have completed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention training prior to performing COVID-19 contact tracing.  The majority of volunteers are a medical professional of some kind (nurse practitioner, medical doctor, registered nurse or medical assistant), and/or is a member of our Medical Reserve Corps.

Each public health jurisdiction in Connecticut is informed by the State Department of Public Health of a suspected or active COVID-19 case in their jurisdiction. The WWHD serves both Westport and Weston, thus it is our responsibility to contact residents in both.

The COVID-19 virus

WWHD staff then contacts that person and asks multiple survey questions using the state assessment outline. The survey collects basic information on symptoms, the ability to self-isolate, and assesses unmet needs (such as access to food, housing, healthcare, etc.), to connect people who are being asked to isolate with the resources needed to be successful. All information collected will remain confidential, and contacts who are identified will not be given information on cases (such as the person who may have exposed them).

If a positive COVID-19 person informs the interviewing WWHD staff member of another  person who may have been exposed to them and that places that person at risk, per CDC recommendations*, then the WWHD contacts that new person. If the person is not a Westport or Weston resident, we inform other local health departments via the CT DPH software, and their own town of residence public health agency performs that contact tracing.

Click here to learn more about contact tracing. We appreciate the public’s cooperation if contacted, as we must all work together to slow the spread.

*For COVID-19, a close contact is defined as any individual who was within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from 2 days before illness onset (or, for asymptomatic patients, 2 days prior to positive specimen collection) until the time the patient is isolated.  The public health evaluation of close contacts to patients with laboratory-confirmed or probable COVID-19 may vary depending on the exposure setting. Contacts in special populations and/or congregate settings require additional considerations and may need handoff to a senior health department investigator or special team. 

Health District Chief Addresses COVID Numbers, Tests And More

As of yesterday, Westport had 233 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and 13 COVID-associated deaths.

Today, Westport Weston Health District director Mark Cooper said that while all data is preliminary, the number of cases and associated deaths have increased, while the number of hospitalizations has decreased.

Day to day changes reflect newly reported cases, deaths, and tests administered up to a week prior. Reported deaths can lag by up to 10 days due to issues with data collection. COVID-associated death numbers may go up or down, as medical providers and epidemiologists continue to refine case definitions and audit autopsy reports.

Cooper said that early efforts to flatten the curve by social distancing are having positive impacts. Westport and Weston’s case rates (829 and 615, respectively per 100,000) are lower than many nearby communities.

Westport Weston Health District director Mark Cooper (right) and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe, at a March 11 press conference.

Cooper urged continued vigilance: Stay safe and at home whenever possible. Avoid social gatherings. Maintain at least 6 feet of separation from others, and wear a mask or cloth face covering in public.

Cooper noted that the WWHD is seeking rapid result saliva test kits, for an easier, less invasive method of checking infection status. These tests can be repeated multiple times, and are safer for health care providers because of reduced risk of exposure. Turnaround time for results is much faster as well, sometimes just 24 hours.

While the Health District looks to transition to the new rapid result saliva test process, there are currently a number of sites where concerned citizens who fit the criteria for testing can be tested. For a complete list and contact information, click here.

Cooper also provided these CDC guidelines. A face mask should:

  • fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face
  • be secured with ties or ear loops
  • include multiple layers of fabric
  • allow for breathing without restriction
  • be able to be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to shape.

A man and his mask

First Selectman Jim Marpe added, “We appreciate your continued patience and persistence as we all work together to assess, manage and combat the coronavirus. In cooperation with surrounding communities and under the direction of state and local health officials, and state government directives, our town departments are working on an effective re-opening strategy that will not reverse or diminish the progress made so far.

“As we continue to work though this crisis, please be sure to look after your families and friends as well as yourself. Together we will get through this, and remember you’re not stuck at home, you’re safe at home.”

COVID Testing At Bedford: Health District Provides Details

Drive-through COVID-19 testing took place yesterday outside Bedford Middle School. The line of cars sparked rumors throughout town.

This morning, I spoke with Westport Weston Health District director Mark Cooper. He explained what happened.

Initial testing was done last week, the day after the WWHD learned of a party the prior weekend. The protocol followed any infectious disease outbreak — virus, food-borne illness, sexually transmitted disease — the WWHD becomes aware of. It includes both testing (to confirm a disease) and contact tracing (to notify anyone who might have been exposed).

“Over the next few days, we found that substantially more people had been at that party,” Cooper says. “And they went to other functions afterward.” The initial 40 people “quickly blossomed. Those numbers overwhelmed our ability to do contact tracing.”

Meanwhile, anxious Westporters kept calling the WWHD office on Bayberry Lane.

Yesterday’s tests at Bedford represented “the final efforts of the first part of our investigation.” The WWHD tested 72 people, though more had been notified of the testing.

Cooper surmises that some did not show up for testing because they had been tested elsewhere, while others may not have felt sick.

The tests were overnighted to a lab. Results will be available in 3 to 5 days.

In any infectious disease outbreak, the health district not only traces the illness; it monitors those who are infected. That includes daily calls by nurses to check on patients’ temperature.

The WWHD has brought in extra nurses to do that monitoring. There is, Cooper notes, a nurse shortage throughout the area.

“I know the community needs and wants more testing,” Cooper says. “We are talking with a private company about testing for symptomatic people, over the next 3 Tuesdays.”

When plans are finalized, he will announce the times, locations and more details.

Westport Weston Health District director Mark Cooper (right), with 1st Selectman Jim Marpe.

URGENT: As 20 Residents Test Positive, Marpe Declares Civil Preparedness Emergency; All Restaurant Closed Inside; Other Closures Announced Too

1st Selectman Jim Marpe has announced that under the powers granted by Connecticut General Statute 28-8a and Westport’s Emergency Preparedness Ordinance, Chapter 26, Article III, he has declared a Local Civil Preparedness Emergency.  

The statute and ordinance allow for this declaration in the event of a local emergency creating a risk of severe hazards to life, welfare or property of the town of Westport or its residents, and includes any public health crisis occurring in or adversely affecting the town. The 1st Selectman says:

As of 8 p.m. today (Monday, March 16) the following will remain in effect until further notice:

  • All restaurants, including bars, delicatessens and other locations where food and/or beverages are prepared for on-premises consumption, are prohibited from all in-restaurant and outside service. No customers are allowed inside a restaurant. Delivery of food and beverages and curb-side pick-up of food and beverages is permitted, subject to all existing laws. This prohibition does not apply to cafeterias where employers provide meals exclusively for employees and residents/patients.
  • All commercial gyms and fitness centers shall be closed.
  • All nail and hair salons and barber shops shall serve by appointment only.
  • There shall be no social or other gatherings of any sort at the Inn at Longshore.

The onset of the COVID-19 virus has introduced a public health crisis to Westport. Westport Weston Public Health Department director Mark Cooper says that of the 31 Westport residents recently tested for the presence of the COVID-19 virus, 20 tested positive.  This confirms that the virus has developed a significant presence in our community, and highlights the need to take a much more aggressive action to limit the spread of the virus through social contact.

First Selectman Jim Marpe (left) and Westport Weston Health District director Mark Cooper.

There have been repeated calls by the town and Health District for residents to socially isolate or distance themselves in order to “flatten the curve” of the virus spread. Nevertheless, many instances and opportunities to gather in groups and to further spread the virus remain.

Marpe adds, “I want to thank our residents, the public and private schools and all the local organizations, houses of worship, businesses and other groups that have worked to fulfill the previous request to not gather in groups. Unfortunately, based on the advice of Health director Mark Cooper and other public health experts, I concluded that the town must take additional steps under the LCPE to reduce any group gatherings and minimize social contact.

“We support and encourage local restaurant curb-side pick-up and direct delivery of food at this time. We recognize the financial and operational hardships that this introduces to the businesses and employees as well as the inconvenience to their customers. This decision has not been taken lightly, but is nevertheless demanded because of the risks of the current COVID-19 public health crisis. We encourage all residents to patronize any businesses that remain open under required conditions. Westport is committed to promoting the patronage of these businesses as much as possible.”

“Here are ways to follow the town news:

“We urge you to be vigilant, stay at home, and stay informed.”

Health District Tests 40 People; Waiting Now For More Kits

Yesterday, the Westport Weston Health District received 40 COVID-19 test kits.

Officials called 40 people who had been at a party last week — the first known direct exposure to the virus in town — or had symptoms tied closely to those who were there.

Those nasal swabs were sent to a Quest Diagnostics lab in California. Results are expected in 3 to 5 days.

WWHD director Mark Cooper says they’re waiting for the next shipment of kits. The WWHD requested many last week, but they seem to be shipped only 40 or so at a time.

When kits arrive, testing will be done on a priority basis. Anyone with symptoms wishing to be placed on the list for testing should call 203-227-9571, ext. 237. You’ll be asked to leave your name and phone number. A nurse will call back to assess your symptoms and exposure history.

Westporters lined up yesterday at the Westport Weston Health District, for the first testing kits. Nasal swabs were administered under the blue tent, at the far left. (Photo/Steve Mochel)

In other COVID-19 news, Westport’s first positive case was confirmed late last evening by the state Public Health Department lab. “This was expected and comes as no surprise,” the WWHD says.

Statewide, 105 people have been tested. Six were positive, 99 negative. For a county-wide breakdown and more information, click here.

Health District: Advice On Small Gatherings, Doctors’ Calls, Testing And More

An alert — and concerned — “06880” reader emailed: “With kids home, parents have no idea whether or not they (or adults for that matter) should be getting together, going to other people’s homes, etc. Do you know the answer?”

I called Mark Cooper, director of health for the Westport Weston Health District. In between meetings and calls, he took time to reply.

Cooper said, “We need society to keep going. We can’t prohibit everything. 

“Use common sense. If you or your child is sick or has symptoms, you need serious self-isolation. But if someone is healthy, there should be no problem associating with a few others who are healthy.

“COVID-19 is in our community. It can be anywhere. The reality is, most people will be exposed to it. Eat healthy, get enough sleep — and if you feel bad, isolate yourself or your children.”

Cooper also asked me to tell “06880” readers: “If you have symptoms, don’t just visit your doctor. Call ahead first. Make sure they have equipment, like test kits and protective and equipment. The waiting room may be crowded. You need to call first, rather than just show up.”

Westport Weston Health District director Mark Cooper spoke at yesterday’s press conference, in front of Town Hall.

In addition, Cooper passed along this message. It’s also posted on the WWHD website.

Things change quickly. Just a few days ago the community was discussing containment. Today we need to discuss what to do now that it is here.

What began as a private celebratory party of about 40 family and friends became the focal point in the potential spread of COVID-19 in the community. As of now, it appears about 14 of the 40 attendees have developed flu-like symptoms. Such cases are to be considered COVID-19, even though there are still active cases of the seasonal flu. Confirmation testing results are needed to be 100% sure.

The private party was held on Thursday evening. The index case developed mild symptoms on Sunday evening, and the first report came to the Health District mid-morning on Wednesday.

This could happen to anyone and anywhere people congregate and interact. This virus will spread unless everyone diligently practices the simple and effective control measures of  washing your hands, covering your cough, keeping sick children home from daycare and school, not touching your face — and doing this every day and everywhere, until the virus runs its course.

The virus has already spread from the initial introduction point in Westport to 14 new points, who then again potentially passed it on to about 14 new points, each. It is beyond trying to track who has been exposed and monitoring them for 2 weeks, to see if they develop symptoms to make sure they don’t pass it on. It would be like trying to determine who knows who and who may have seen whom when. That is no longer an efficient use of resources. Contact tracing usually involves 2 or 3 people with a limited number of cases. This has grown exponentially.

Although the official recommendation is that all gatherings and/or public events where more than 100 participants are expected be delayed, it is now clear that much smaller private events can be a significant contributor to community spread.

Getting together is in our human nature and can still be done, but everyone needs to go above and beyond the normal effort to keep everyone safe, at least until this virus runs its course.

No one is better able to safeguard yourself, loved ones, and friends than you. And each and every one of us. Otherwise, the only other option for anyone who wants to reduce the risk of community exposure, is to just stay home.

Chronic and convalescent nursing homes and rest homes with nursing supervision have been directed to impose restrictions on all visitors except when a current health state (e.g., end-of-life care) is in question.

Daycare centers should also immediately begin to restrict visitors, and strictly enforce employee and child sick policies — with no exceptions. Child daycare services are an essential service for people who have young children and need to go to work, so each daycare needs to carefully consider whether they need to close preemptively. An outbreak of the virus in such a setting will likely result in mandatory closure.

The Westport Weston Health District continues to work to obtain test kits and begin testing those who have COVID-19 symptoms. If you have symptoms and would like to be placed on a list to be screened for testing, call 203-227-9571, ext. 237. Leave you name and telephone number. A nurse will return your call as soon as possible.

Testing needs to be prioritized. The results will not influence recommendations for you to follow, so please be patient. We will get to everyone as efficiently as possible.

If someone has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or is a confirmed case, the recommendation is to stay home, wear protective face covering if contact with other people is at all probable, and get plenty of rest to help the recovery process. If you feel the need to go to the hospital, please contact your healthcare provider or 911.

Patients who are ill, but not critically so, should stay home. If they are at high risk for having contracted coronavirus, they should reach out to their physicians by phone or email. They can then contact the state Department of Public Health, and get advice as to whether they should be tested or just isolate themselves at home.

Anyone experiencing severe symptoms or other respiratory distress should seek medical help. Do not go to your primary health care provider. Call first, or go to the hospital.

Self-isolation is indicated for any person who has had direct contact with any person known to have COVID-19 and/or experiences any flu-like symptoms, including fever, shortness of breath, or other respiratory symptoms.

This is a very fluid and fast-moving situation. The Health District will continue to work with the town, state Health Department and CDC to reduce the impact to the community.

The Westport Weston Health District continues to have a limited supply of the seasonal flu vaccine for anyone wanting to be vaccinated. Call the Health District office at 203-227-9571, to schedule an appointment.

For COVID-19 questions, the state has partnered with United Way for a hotline. Call 211, or text “CTCOVID” to 898211.

Town’s COVID-19 Forum: Many Questions. Lots Of Answers. Much Unknown.

A small, well-spaced-apart crowd was joined by many more online participants this afternoon. They gathered, in real space and cyberspace, to hear from experts about the looming threat from COVID-19.

The Westport Library event — called “a forum in the Forum” by 1st Selectman Jim Marpe — provided plenty of detailed information. Presentations were clear and cogent; questions were wide-ranging and thoughtful; answers were direct and honest.

It was a powerful display of active, coordinated town leadership on many levels, and a reminder that good government has a powerful place in society.

1st Selectman Jim Marpe (far right), and today’s COVID-19 panel at the Westport Library.

The key takeaways, from Marpe, Westport Weston Health District director Mark Cooper, fire chief and director of emergency management Robert Yost, Westport Public Schools health services supervisor Suzanne Levasseur and others:

It is virtually inevitable that COVID-19 will come to Westport. It’s not a matter of “if,” but “when.” Our population is too mobile, and the virus is too relentless. In fact, it may already be here.

Town officials — including the 1st Selectman, Health District and public schools — are in constant contact with the state and CDC. Conversations are frequent, ongoing and productive.

There are dozens of “what-ifs.” No one knows how many people will be affected or how. Planning is taking place to cover many scenarios.

The best precautions include rigorous hand-washing, frequent cleaning of surfaces, and careful monitoring of surroundings and contacts. Plus, self-monitoring. And save face masks for health care providers and people who are already sick.

State Representative Jonathan Steinberg (left), who co-chairs the Legislature’s Public Health Committee, and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe demonstrate the best way to say hello, COVID-19-style.

If you feel ill but have not traveled to somewhere affected, are not in a high-risk category, or had contact with someone who is ill, contact your health care provider.

If, however, you have traveled to a high-risk area, or are in a high-risk category (elderly or immuno-compromised), contact the WWHD (www.wwhd.org; 203-227-9571).

The Westport Schools are being very proactive. This includes enhanced cleaning; education about the disease and proper hygiene procedures. and monitoring of student health. Nurses are on heightened awareness; there are signs, videos and plenty of soap and sanitizers in every school. Discussions are “ongoing” about things like field trips.

Here are some of the key questions from audience members and online participants — and the answers:

Should people over 60 be particularly worried? Those in this higher-risk group should follow CDC guidelines to limit exposure — particularly people with underlying health issues.

Where is testing being done? Right now, only in hospitals.

The in-person audience was small. But many more residents viewed the forum on the Westport Library’s streaming feed and Facebook page.

How is the Senior Center handling this? Director Sue Pfister said that, thanks to the day and night custodians, “it’s never been cleaner.” There are wipes and signs throughout the building, with an information table out front. “We are operating as normally as possible,” she said. “We are monitoring and educating, without panicking.” Clients are self-monitoring too, and not coming in if they don’t feel well. The staff is making contingency plans for meals for people who depend on the Center, in the event of closure.

Can we trust the CDC? Cooper said the organization is filled with excellent scientists, who are coordinating with colleagues around the world.

Who decides if schools will close? The superintendent — though Governor Lamont could make an emergency declaration. The cause could be infected students or staff, or as a preventive measure to avoid further spread. Daycare centers are also making contingency plans. Marpe noted that because many teachers — and other town employees — live elsewhere, decisions on closing are “complex.” For that reason, they may be made on a regional or statewide basis, rather than town by town.

What about budget implications? Marpe said he and the town’s legal staff are examining the implications of not being able to meet publicly for discussions  — though public meetings are mandated for things like budget decisions.

What about Metro-North? They have enhanced their cleaning procedures — and have seen a drop in ridership. The most at-risk riders should think about using alternative travel methods.

What about restaurants? Owners should check the CDC for checklists. Clorox solutions are the best way to clean. The WWHD will send owners detailed information, if the risk increases.

What about gyms, fitness centers and the Y? They are no more (or less) at risk than other gathering places. Most places seem to be wiping their equipment well; users can do the same.  “Social distancing” is important, as is good hygiene. There is no evidence that the virus is spread by sweat; it is spread through coughing, sneezing, and on surfaces.

What about Westport business with many employees who live elsewhere? Some are encouraging them to work from home. Bridgewater, for example, has taken the virus “extremely seriously.” They are in contact with the WWHD, and have limited travel by their employees.

Do Westport’s first responders have enough equipment? Yost says we have been very proactive. And if the situation goes on for a very long period of time? “Probably.”

Westport’s Emergency Medical Services staff were out in force at today’s COVID-19 forum.

Anything else we should know? Our emergency responders and the Health District are watching everything carefully — and everything else too. “We could have severe weather tomorrow that takes out power to everyone,” one panelist said. “We’re preparing for that too.”

In conclusion: Every action has a reaction. We don’t know what the reaction to all this will be, but town officials are planning assiduously and relentlessly. As for the tipping point of this pandemic: “We don’t know when it will come. But we do know it won’t disappear. We’ll keep watching, offering information, and making recommendations.”

The best sources of information: