Bed bugs have infested the vital statistics department of the D.C. Department of Health (DOH), according to emails obtained by The Washington Times that show DOH officials have been slow to eradicate the problem.
The blood-sucking insects, found at the agency's North Capitol Street offices, first surfaced last Thursday, according to representatives of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 383, which represents DOH workers.
"On three separate occasions, three different employees have spotted the bugs," wrote an employee from vital statistics on Monday to Timothy Traylor, president of the local. "Two instances at the front intake counters and one instance of the bugs on the employees jacket. We have contacted our management, who did reach out to the buildings owners and contacted DOH’s Rodent Control division but it doesn’t appear that anyone is taking this issue seriously enough."
Bed bugs, also known as Cimex lectularius, are small, brown insects less than a half inch in length that feed on the blood of their host. While they are not known to carry disease, they spread easily and can cause skin irritations and itchy rashes. They often are found in mattresses and boxsprings and in recent years have been a scourge for the hotel industry.
The Office of Risk Management is responsible for health and safety issues for the D.C. government, and union bylaws specify that employees "shall not be required to work in dangerous conditions until conditions have been removed, remedied or rendered reasonably safe or adequate protection provided for the condition encountered."
On Tuesday, the emails show, AFGE representatives still had not received any word from District officials about what was being done to exterminate bed bugs at the DOH offices.
By Wednesday, Earl H Murphy Jr., labor relations advisor at DOH confirmed "the possible bed bug problem located in our Vital Records Office has been brought to my attention," according to a widely distributed and "high priority" email obtained by The Times.
"Management has initiated action to have an extermination company look into and provide the necessary service to eliminate the problem. It is important to know that while they are pests, bed bugs are not life threatening."
Mr. Murphy alerted DOH risk manager Peter Luciano, the emails state, and assured union representatives that Mr. Luciano was "working with appropriate authorities to address the issue." He also asked a rodent control program manager with the D.C. Department of the Environment to counsel the workforce on problems and precautions associated with bed bugs.
"There are many ways the bed bugs could have arrived in the Vital Records area," Mr. Murphy wrote. "Employees and members of the public may have brought the bed bugs into the workplace on their garments. People being served at the counter may have brought them in when requesting assistance with records. Please be advised that the Department of Health takes this problem seriously and will move to eliminate the it.
"However, we are unable to close the facility or relocate employees. Our employees will be advised on what precautions they should take."
Dr. John Davies-Cole, state epidemiologist, was scheduled to meet with vital records staff on Thursday, though it is unclear what transpired at that meeting.
DOH employees told The Times that as of late Thursday afternoon — a week after the problem surfaced — bed bugs were still being observed at the agency's North Capitol Street offices.
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