ALFRED, Maine — The man who had been in charge of the York County Jail for years was officially fired Wednesday morning for mishandling last year’s major COVID-19 outbreak at the facility.
While county officials described the action as a necessary form of accountability, Lt. Col. Michael Vitiello’s attorney said officials are using his client as a scapegoat.
The attorney, Michael Waxman, said Vitiello is likely to file an appeal in York County Superior Court, challenging the decision to fire him.
“I think the decision was an improper decision not supported by the law or the facts,” Waxman told the York County Coast Star on Wednesday.
The sheriff’s loss of confidence in Vitiello’s leadership is an insufficient basis under state law for termination from this job, Waxman said.
“You can’t just wake up one day and say ‘loss of confidence, you’re fired,'” he said. “There has to be, over a period of time, conduct undergirding that loss of confidence.”
Waxman said his client is widely respected among jailers and had an exemplary track record in York County, as documented in his personnel file. Vitiello is “being thrown under the bus” for a situation in which blame should be assigned to the county sheriff, county manager and corrections union, Waxman said.
York County Sheriff Bill King recommended that Vitiello’s employment as jail administrator be terminated, and the York County Commissioners expressed agreement Friday with the sheriff’s recommendation, according to York County Manager Greg Zinser.
Even though the commissioners have been meeting in person, they have broadcast their public meetings online via Zoom, which allows members of the public to view a livestream and make public comments when permitted. Video recordings are typically available thereafter. But the public portions of Friday’s in-person-only commissioners meeting were not recorded, Zinser said.
The commissioners finished the firing process Wednesday morning, voting unanimously to accept the findings of fact that outline the reasons for Vitiello’s termination. Their vote Wednesday was broadcast live via Zoom and recorded.
Vitiello received nearly $95,800 in compensation from York County since he was placed on administrative leave last summer, Zinser said.
Faulted for ‘no mask’ policy
In a six-page letter outlining the rationale for his recommendation, King notified Vitiello more than a month ago of the plan to fire him.
The letter faulted Vitiello for imposing a “no mask” policy for corrections officers and incarcerated people in the jail’s housing units because Vitiello had a hunch the masks could cause inmates to panic.
Waxman said Vitiello’s fear of the masks inciting panic among those incarcerated at the York County Jail was sincere and reasonable. It is “privileged and unfair” to discount Vitiello’s concern in hindsight, he said.
What’s more, Waxman said, in the months leading up to the August 2020 outbreak, Vitiello was preparing to initiate mask wearing and health screenings for jail staff, but he felt he could not implement such significant changes without first having a new agreement with the National Correctional Employees Union. That agreement was Zinser’s responsibility and was never reached, Waxman said.
Even after the full scope of the outbreak was known — the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention ultimately identified 48 cases of the virus among York County Jail inmates, 18 among staff and 16 among household contacts of staff — Vitiello refused to take any responsibility, King wrote in the letter.
“There was simply no good explanation for discouraging and prohibiting the wearing of masks in the housing units. Instead of admitting and accepting that it was a challenging time and that in retrospect we could have done things differently, you have chosen to deflect all blame on me,” King wrote.
Cellblock COVID: Inmate’s view of York County Jail outbreak
“I have said publicly that mask wearing may not have prevented the COVID outbreak, and I am not certain to this day that it would have prevented it, but your refusal to assume any responsibility and your quickness to assess the blame upon me is alarming,” he continued. “It further erodes my trust in you and in our ability to work together in the future.”
Faulted for staying out of state
King also faulted Vitiello for remaining on a preapproved leave of absence even after he was notified of the outbreak unfolding at the York County Jail.
“For you to remain in California, working at another facility while we were battling the largest outbreak (at that time) in the state is disappointing,” King wrote. “I would have hoped that you would have abbreviated your trip to return home to assist and start your quarantine period earlier. Your decision not to return was poor judgment and eroded my trust in you.”
Waxman said Vitiello was in California working at another corrections facility because he operates a consulting business on the side. It’s “ludicrous” to suggest Vitiello abandoned ship because he remained in constant communication with the York County Jail staff throughout the situation, just as he would have if he were working in Maine during that time, Waxman said.
Capt. Dan Bean has been serving as acting jail administrator in Vitiello’s absence.
King accused Vitiello of mischaracterizing their working relationship and refusing to collaborate with county and state officials.
King’s letter cited the findings of an independent investigation, which resulted in a 39-page report released publicly in February. The investigators reviewed hundreds of pages of documents and interviewed 19 witnesses, including administrators, supervisors, corrections officers, private contractors and inmates.
The investigator’s report determined “the primary cause” of the outbreak was the jail’s “failure to implement best practices” that were being recommended by public health officials, the Maine Department of Corrections and Gov. Janet Mills.
How the virus entered York County Jail
An earlier report by a group of public health researchers, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, laid out the details of how epidemiologists believe the jail outbreak unfolded as part of a broader network of outbreaks stemming from a “super-spreader” wedding Aug. 7 in Millinocket.
One guest who attended the wedding returned to work thereafter at the York County Jail. The staffer began experiencing symptoms Aug. 14, including a cough, muscle ache, runny nose, sore throat and a new loss of taste, according to the CDC report. Despite these symptoms, the staffer was allowed to work daily eight-hour shifts in two separate jail housing units for the next five days, Aug. 15-19.
Zinser has said the jail staffer didn’t believe the symptoms were serious at the time, didn’t attribute them to COVID-19, didn’t seek medical advice or assistance and didn’t report any health concern to management until the day he was tested, which is when he disclosed that he hadn’t been feeling well.
None of the deaths linked to the wedding-related outbreaks were associated with the York County Jail outbreak. One incarcerated man contracted the virus and recovered, then he died from a stroke in October. Maine CDC doesn’t count his death as a COVID death, though the state’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner determined COVID was a contributing factor.
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