'Wait until after the election' common theme among health officials about needle-exchange

Emails obtained by Eyewitness News show politics played for months regarding needle-exchange program at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. (WCHS/WVAH)

Questions continue to surround the abrupt announcement by the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department in September that the needle-exchange program would not be returning, no matter who was elected mayor of Charleston.

The announcement prompted several questions about motives and timing. An email uncovered by Eyewitness News from the board of health's president, Brenda Isaac, to other members of the board suggested she made the announcement to help Democratic candidate Amy Goodwin in an upcoming debate on public safety.

Now, Eyewitness News has obtained more emails that shine a brighter light on the politics behind decisions being made by the public health board during the months of dispute about the Harm Reduction Program.

The new emails go back months, before the decision to end the needle-exchange program was made but raise new questions regarding Isaac and policies she was potentially violating as an employee of Kanawha County Schools.

Isaac has been with the school system for 35 years, serving as head nurse. She also sits as president on the board of the health at the health department that started the needle-exchange program in 2015 and suspended it in late March of 2018. The suspension came after months of controversy and concerns from police, firefighters and Charleston Mayor Danny Jones that the program wasn't requiring identification, was handing out multiple needles at a time and not operating as a true exchange. Records first reported by Eyewitness News in March showed that the actual return rate of needles being handed out was about 65 percent, not 88 percent as the health department had initially claimed.

"The city put some rules in place that we ethically couldn't follow, so we had to suspend the program," Issac said.

Isaac is referring to the rules issued by Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper that essentially halted the program. The guidelines called for only retractable needles to be lawfully distributed by the program. They also outlined the procedures that should take place with each visit from the needle-exchange program. Under those rules, all participants must be tested for blood-borne illnesses and they must agree to additional testing every six months.

The program was officially suspended on March 26, 2018, but the board did not intend to end the program at the point.

There were numerous conversations about how they could bring it back, as Isaac describes in an email exchange with Dr. Michael Brumage. Brumage was the executive director and health officer of the health department at the time the needle-exchange program started. He stepped down from the position in February to serve as the director of Drug Control Policy for West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. He resigned from that position after about a month on the job.

"These were one-on-one conversations with Dr. Brumage and several times during the conversations, my response to him would basically be, you know, there is so much negativity coming from the mayor's office and there's so much hostility towards us and towards this program and we probably can't do anything until we get a new mayor, who would at least be willing to sit down talk to us and come up with some solutions because we had not seen that kind of cooperation from the current administration," Issac explained.

Those emails came from Isaac's Kanawha County Schools account.

According to county policy, school employees are restricted from using public property in connection with any type of political campaigning and can't engage in any political activity during work. Another policy states that school buildings, facilities or equipment, i.e., copy machines, fax machines, computers, telephones, etc., shall not be used for any partisan or non-partisan political purposes nor for the support for or opposition to any ballot initiative.

That didn't stop Isaac from sending a series of emails, from that account, focusing primarily on elections and issues within the races.

In one email, she tells an inquiring school employee who to vote for in the election.

"First, with the city, I would be ever so grateful if you would support Amy Goodwin for Mayor," she wrote in a May 7 email, the day before the primary election where Goodwin was up against Andy Richardson. Isaac went on to list candidates from city council, school board, Congress and U.S. Senate that she supports and why.

But it's the mayor's race in Charleston that takes center stage in many of the emails between Isaac and other health officials, including Brumage.

"Obviously, it was intended to be a conversation between two people. It was probably an oversight on my part to respond to those that came across my Kanawha County Schools email rather than my private email. I've been here 35 years and probably had an email for most of that time and it's not unusual, when you work with people and you're also friends with those people, sometimes you get personal emails, sometimes you get emails that way and a number of those were in that vein," Isaac said.

In an April email regarding the needle-exchange program, Brumage writes to Isaac that he thinks there are two solutions. "Having a clinic somewhere other than the health department, and having harm reduction be five days a week," he said. He went on to say he never dreamed the program would grow as rapidly as it did but believed for the "short term, the program is effectively dead." Brumage wrote, "What will revive it is a change in leadership in City Hall, and the inevitable HIV outbreak. We are staring down the barrel of that disaster. I applaud you for sticking to your guns and insisting on doing things the right way or not at all. I think it sets a very dangerous precedent to have police chiefs or city attorneys dictating public health practices." He ended the email saying, "It's going to be like a summer storm that blows through."

Isaac responded that she agreed with both of Brumage's suggestions and realistically could look at doing both. She continued, "And I agree that we probably will have to wait until November, which I hate to do but we may not have a choice. If Amy gets the nomination, I don't want to do anything for her to take a stand."

In June, she responded to an email asking if the health department was making preparations to open the Harm Reduction Clinic in the future. "We definitely hope to restart the harm reduction program at some point. Truthfully, it may have to wait until after the election. We don't want to do anything to give the Mayor fodder to use against Amy," she responded.

"I hope that nothing that I said or did in my emails hurts any feelings or causes anyone any angst. Like I said, they were done with the intent of being a one-on-one conversation between two people and there was some tempers flaring and so forth at times, because there was a lot of negative things floating around at that time," Isaac told Eyewitness News when questioned about the emails.

Brumage's position as executive director has sat empty since just weeks before the program was suspended in March. Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper has been critical of the board's failure to fill it.

"I'm not pleased that that happened, it's done. This individual has a long standing career here and is a health nurse with the department of education, the board of education. She's a good person, people make mistakes but the important thing is this is going to end. The health department is going to get back in business, they're going to get a full-time health officer. I'm going to see to that and it's going to happen soon," Carper said on Friday.

In a July email, Brumage wrote Isaac and Lolita Kirk, the current acting executive director, that he is interested in the position again but said that "applying openly now would not be in the best interests of the health department or me given the current toxic politics in the city. I am also interested after the election is completed and we have a new mayor."

Isaac agreed with him in a response saying "we need to lay low until after the election. Less than 100 days now."

Now, Isaac says the opposite.

"He's become somewhat of a lightning rod and there's a huge dislike from some people in city government of him and he didn't think it would be healthy for the health department," Isaac said on Friday.

After rumors that the position was being intentionally left open in an effort to bring Brumage back and Eyewitness News started inquiring, Carper said he was officially informed by Isaac on Friday that Brumage would not be returning to the health department, before or after the election.

Isaac was also asked if there were plans to revive the needle-exchange program after the election. She said the board realized in August the public is against it and there are no plans to restart it.

"We don't have the resources or the time to do another program, so let's do the things we can do and that we know we do well and let's get a new health officer. We don't want to get a new health officer and try to bring back a program that's caused so much confusion and negativity. So that's where we are, we want to put that behind us," she said.

Eyewitness News reached out to Kanawha County Schools about Isaac's potential policy violations. Communications Director Briana Warner said any violation of any policy would be handled internally.

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