November 24, 2020

ANDROSCOGGIN VALLEY — As the region has galvanized to fight the coronavirus, it has been steered in its efforts by a group that includes health-care officials, school superintendents, municipal officials, nursing home administrators, the chamber of commerce, prison officials and representatives of the state’s congressional delegation.

The group does not have a formal name although most refer to it as the COVID Community Response Task Force.

Through a community call that ranges from daily to weekly depending on the need, the group members share their experiences and exchange information as well as provide support. The success of the task force has led it to be cited as a model for other rural areas at a time when rural America is increasingly bearing the brunt of the virus.

“Being in such a tight-knit group allows us to see how each of our decisions impact others and we have grown to have a unified voice in our response to the pandemic,” said White Mountains Community College President said Charles Lloyd, who participates regularly. “This group truly defines community,” he added.

Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier said the task force has been invaluable. He points out that the valley is especially vulnerable with two nursing homes, two prisons and a large elderly population and limited health-care resources.

“As evidenced by the lack of state resources north of the notches, we’re basically on our own,” Grenier said.

The group started out as a threesome last March.

Berlin Superintendent of Schools Julie King, SAU 20 Superintendent David Backler and Coos County Family Resource Executive Director Ken Gordon began doing a regular conference call, discussing ways to obtain supplies and share resources.

Gordon said at the time the school officials seemed to have a better sense of what was going on at the state level though the N.H. Department of Education then he was receiving from Health and Human Services.

“They were a good source of information,” Gordon said, adding that his agency and the school district had worked closely on projects in the past.

Backler suggested they invite other groups to join their conference calls and King and Gordon liked the idea.

Gordon said he sent out an email invitation to a variety of agencies and local leaders using a list from an earlier community providers group. Eventually, the distribution list would grow to 40 or more although Gordon said the meetings generally draw 10 to 20 on a call as people attend when they can or when they have a particular interest. He serves as facilitator, sending out meeting notices, making sure everyone gets to speak, and doing much of the follow up work.

“There is no grand scheme here,” Gordon said, noted that the group knew how easily the virus could spread through congregate care and correctional facilities and the challenge that presented.

“And so we, I think, understood it was a good thing to kind of understand what was going on,” he said.

At last Thursday’s meeting, the participants started off with a dedication to the staff and residents at the Coos County Nursing Hospital in West Stewartstown, which has been hard hit with a recent outbreak that has spread into the community.

Upper Connecticut Valley Hospital Chief Medical Officer Ed Loverty was observing the meeting because officials in the Colebrook area are interested in setting up a similar working group there.

Gordon said participants are encouraged to offer a dedication to recognize some of the local heroes in the fight against the virus.

The participants provided an update on testing and active cases.

Androscoggin Valley Hospital President Michael Peterson reported some hospital employees have returned and staffing levels at the facility are good. He told the group that Gov. Chris Sununu that afternoon announced a statewide mask mandate, drawing thumbs up signs from many of the participants.

“This is a win for all of us,” he states.

Backler and King reported both school systems have reopened after going remote for two weeks when the number of positive cases were up. Backler praised the dedication and work of teachers and staff.

“These transitions are really hard,” he said.

King said they are seeing an increase in students with anxiety and behavioral issues. She briefed the group on the protocols put in place for winter sports and Backler said his school board has adopted the same rules.

For most of the spring and summer, the task force met weekly.

AVH Chief Nursing Officer and VP of Patient Care Services Brian O’Hearn said as the schools prepared to reopen this fall after going remote last spring, the task force focused on providing rapid testing for students and staff as necessary. He said the group realized when schools opened, school nurses would be faced with trying to differentiate between childhood illnesses and COVID infection.

So, he said, the task force arranged a Zoom session for all nurses in the valley to offer them access to resources and support.

Dr. Brian Beals talked about what to expect and how to manage illnesses through developing pathways of care.

“That was the most powerful meeting I’ve experienced as a nurse. It galvanized us immediately,” he said.

O’Hearn said the uniqueness of the group lies in its ability to evolve through experience. As an example, he cited the October outbreak at the federal prison in Berlin, when eight minimum security inmates and two staff members tested positive for the virus.

“The prison demonstrated that an outbreak can be slowed or stopped if actions are quickly taken (identify, segregate and quarantine). The task force is now following that lesson to combat community spread,” he said.

Since late October, when active cases in the valley reached over 25, the task force began daily community zoom meetings. As COVID-19 cases have surged this fall and over 250,000 people in the country have died, an ABC news report stated rural counties with older, poorer and sicker populations are now feeling the impact more than in the spring. With the holidays here, the fear is the number of cases will continue to increase.

“We are far from being out of the woods yet and we need our group now more than ever,” said Grenier.

The task force has now been meeting together for nine months and participants say the group will continue as long as COVID-19 remains a threat.

Gordon said it works in large part because of “people’s willingness to share and to make themselves vulnerable, and to really, you know, put themselves out there in ways that pretty remarkable.”

O’Hearn said there is no blame or judgement assigned, only support “and an unyielding effort to protect our community as best we can. That is unique.”

Grenier said the task force has also been successful “because it has followed the science and been apolitical.”

O’Hearn said leadership emerges during a crisis and the valley is blessed to have a team emerge to fight the pandemic here.

“We are all in this until the end,” he said.

Gordan said he and Peterson have broached the idea that after the COVID, the task force could continue and take on some health issue like the high rate of diabetes in Coos County or maybe looking at systemic racism or inclusivity.

King said she looks forward to a time when the task force has finished its task and can take time to enjoy a celebratory dinner together in person.

O’Hearn agreed and said working together has forged ever-lasting relationship and friendships.