All of the carpets in Los Angeles City Hall and City Hall East may need to be ripped out to root out the fleas that carry typhus, according to Council President Herb Wesson, who cited the typhus diagnosis of a city employee who may have been infected at work.
An uptick in typhus cases was reported last October by the Los Angeles County Public Health Department, which identified two clusters of cases, including one around downtown LA's Skid Row area, which is several blocks from the Civic Center.
Now it has hit home for city government.
Noting that typhus is typically spread by fleas that have been infected by rats, cats and opossums, Wesson also wants city staff to report on the scope of vermin and pest control issues within the Civic Center complex, according to a newly filed motion the full Council will consider on Friday.
Flea-borne typhus can cause high fever, chills, headache and rashes in people and can be treated with antibiotics. The disease can spread in areas where there is an accumulation of trash, but is not transmitted person-to-person, according to the California Department of Public Health.
Wesson's motion says there has been a "noticeable increase in the volume of rodents in the area and within city buildings," and cited a recent NBC4 I-Team report, in which Elizabeth Greenwood, a deputy city attorney now on medical leave, said she was diagnosed with typhus last November.
She believes the infection occurred when she was bitten by fleas in her office in the City Hall East building, across Main Street from City Hall.
Wesson said his office staff have had personal experience with vermin when they began hearing scurrying sounds in the walls and ceiling, and found what they believe to be rat tracks on papers left out.
Last November, the city's General Services Department, which manages city buildings, brought in pest control experts who set traps, advised the removal of all live plants which the rodents were consuming, and recommended the removal or containment of all food products.
Since last fall, rats and fleas have also been reported elsewhere in City Hall, including the office of City Clerk Holly Wolcott, who said she has been bitten by fleas, and once caught a glimpse of the tail of a rat as it disappeared into a wall.
Inspection discovered a small hole that is now sealed with steal wool, and guarded with a rodent trap.
Around Halloween, a pumpkin was found gnawed, presumably by a rodent.
Her office has since been fumigated and there have been no further issues with fleas, but she said as recently as last week staff had seen rat droppings and other evidence rats are still nearby.
When Wolcott works late, she turns on a television set in the hope the noise will make the rats think people are still around and stay away.
She hopes Wesson's motion will lead to further steps.
"I definitely support his efforts," Wolcott said.
In Wesson's office, after a staffer noticed fleas, Wesson made the decision to have all of the office's carpeting removed, leaving the concrete below to serve as the floor. There have been no further issues in his office since that was done in December, he said.
Wesson's motion would instruct city staff to report back with a cost estimate and plan to remove all carpets in City Hall and City Hall East, and to report back with an assessment of all live plants in any city building, city-owned facility and city-operated facility within downtown, including which varieties are most attractive to vermin.
The motion also suggests exploring the drafting of a policy that would require all city employees to secure their food after hours and require custodial services to dispose of all food left out by any employee.
In response to NBC4's report, Mayor Eric Garcetti's office issued a statement that said, "Last fall we directed multiple city departments to begin a coordinated and comprehensive effort to improve cleanliness and protect public health in the Civic Center, including City Hall and City Hall East. In addition to increased trash collection and cleanings, aggressive action has been taken to address pests both in the buildings and in the surrounding outside areas -- including abatement treatments and the filling of 60 rodent burrows and 114 tree wells. This work in busy and highly populated public buildings is executed carefully to protect workers and visitors, and the scheduling of extermination activities takes these factors into consideration."
The California Department of Public Health reported recently that there were 167 confirmed typhus cases during 2018, and the majority of them were in Los Angeles County.
In downtown LA alone since last year, 19 people have been diagnosed with typhus, eight of them while homeless, according to the County health department.
"People with prolonged outdoor exposure in close proximity to wildlife, including individuals experiencing homelessness, are at risk of acquiring flea-borne typhus," according to a department statement issued Thursday.
Rats are often seen at night scurrying between trees in the Civic Center, according to Antonia Ramirez, who stays in the area.
Wesson, Wolcott and others have speculated that one factor in the apparent increase in the civic center rat population may be the current demolition of Parker Center on the east side of the Civic Center. The large structure had been used primarily for storage since police headquarters moved to a new building a decade ago.