ATTICA — Fountain & Warren County’s chief physician could be removed from his role as spokesperson for the bi-county health department over his statements about a lack of compliance with COVID-19 precautions, the Journal Review has learned.
As cases began climbing in both counties in early October, weeks ahead of most other west central Indiana communities, health officer Dr. Sean Sharma linked part of the increase to fewer people wearing masks or following other safety measures at social gatherings.
Sharma also called out some local leaders for doing little to amplify the department’s expert-backed advice, including the Fountain County Commissioners.
“We’ve been pretty open that Dr. Sharma has, in our opinion, released some information that he definitely could have worded in a different way, and we feel that the elected officials have been … thrown under the bus a couple times because he felt we weren’t doing enough to back him up,” said commissioner Tim Shumaker, who noted he’s spoken with Sharma about the interviews.
A committee made up of commissioners and council members from each county has formed to discuss hiring an administrator who would become the department’s media spokesperson.
The elected officials cannot replace Sharma as health officer because the position is appointed by the bi-county health board.
The group hopes to have an administrator in place before the new year. If talks are unsuccessful, “there is a strong possibility we’ll pull out of the bi-county agreement,” said Shumaker, who sits on the committee.
“We’re trying to work through this, getting an administrator that both sides can agree on and hopefully that’s what happens and we won’t have to worry about it,” he added.
The Fountain & Warren County Health Department formed in the 1960s and is the2state’s only two-county public health agency.
Asked what impact going separate ways would have on the pandemic response, Shumaker insisted there would be no interruption in services. He said he has already spoken to possible Fountain County health board members, as well as a couple of physicians.
Warren County officials have taken steps to prepare for a potential breakup. The commissioners earlier this month introduced and then tabled an ordinance that would nullify their county’s side of the agreement if Fountain moves to disband.
“I don’t see it moving forward,” said Brian Jordan, president of the Warren County Commissioners, who is not participating in the talks because his term ends next month. “That doesn’t mean it’s not going to, it’s just something that I don’t see moving forward.”
Members of the health board’s executive committee have also been involved in the conversation.
“We have been meeting with elected officials and [the] committee with both counties and some things are being worked upon,” health board president Kathy Walker said at Nov. 18’s public board meeting.
Sharma said in a statement that the department’s staff remains “committed to working with the public and others to guide our communities safely through the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
Elected officials have said they cannot force people to wear masks in public.
“And it seemed like every time [Sharma appeared in the news media] we were getting some type of jab about how people in Fountain and Warren County weren’t doing what they’re supposed to do,” Shumaker said, “instead of saying something positive like, yup, the majority of people are wearing masks, the majority of people are social distancing.”
Opposition to disbanding the department has come from residents in both counties. Both of Warren County’s health board representatives were among citizens who attended a recent commissioners meeting in Williamsport to speak against the plan.
Sue Mitchell, a registered nurse from Covington and a former health board member, asked board members this month whether a plan was in place if public health services are separated.
“I really don’t understand why in the middle of the pandemic this has become an issue and everyone that I have talked to in the medical field is appalled by it and does not understand,” Mitchell said. “It saddens me that it has become a political issue and, I hate to say this, but I feel that’s what it is here in this county also.”