In other times, under different circumstances, it might have been worth a chuckle.
We’re talking about the video that surfaced Friday showing 16 workers at the Roseburg VA Medical Center, led by Director Keith M. Allen, dancing and clowning around.
No harm done, right? Just some harmless fun after a long week of work.
Wrong, and wrong again. Obviously, these are not normal times. As we all know — including those at the impromptu VA party — the world is in the midst of the worst pandemic in more than a century, and America is leading the way in all the wrong categories: Most COVID-19 cases, at over a million, and most deaths, at nearly 60,000.
Many of those cases and deaths have come at VA facilities. To date, more than 7,000 patients under VA care nationally have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and more than 450 of those patients have died.
Additionally, more than 1,900 VA employees have tested positive for the illness, and 20 have died. Among those testing positive are four Roseburg VA employees and one patient.
And yet here was Allen leading the dance party, boom box on his shoulder, encouraging others to join in the gaiety, laughing and shaking his hips while the camera is rolling, seemingly not a care in the world.
The partygoers not keeping their social distance. Not wearing masks. The lyrics to the song “Sweet Caroline” seemingly mocking the pandemic and the efforts to control it, including an executive order requiring health care workers to stay 6 feet apart and banning gatherings of more than 10 people.
“Hands, touching hands, reaching out, touching me, touching you ... Sweet Caroline, good times never seemed so good.”
Not only was the party recorded on video, but that video was posted to an internal VA site that 1,000 employees could watch. Many of those employees are on the front lines fighting COVID-19; some are infected themselves, fighting for their own lives. We doubt they found this video amusing.
At first the VA downplayed the party.
“This video was made in an administrative, non-clinical area where PPE is not required,” VA spokesman Tim Parish told The News-Review. “All staff who participated were volunteers and had been properly screened, per CDC and VA guidelines.”
Others, understandably, didn’t see it that way.
U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio called the party “totally inappropriate” and complained to Allen and his bosses about it. “I have no idea what that guy was thinking,” he said.
Allen, to his credit, did apologize, in the form of an email sent privately to community leaders.
“I would like to begin with an apology if this video offended anyone, it was not a dance party. It was meant to bring a small amount of stress relief and happiness to the Staff at the Roseburg VA Pathology and Laboratory Department,” Allen wrote. “At no time have I forgotten any of the staff or Veterans that have become infected by this virus. I hold each and every one of them in my thoughts and prayers.”
Allen took over the post at the Roseburg VA just over a year ago. Prior to that the facility had three directors in the previous year, including one who left after an investigation found the Roseburg VA suffered from a toxic management culture.
This is a dire, deadly serious moment in our country’s history. Tens of thousands of Americans have died and there is no immediate end in sight. As director of the Roseburg VA, Allen needs to exhibit clear-headed, moral, compassionate leadership.
He must do better. Those under his charge, and the veterans they care for, deserve that.