Board of Health Urges Its Wider Role in Covid-19 Policy Decisions

December 17, 2020

Editor’s Note: the Board of Health is a five-member elected board.  The Department of Health and Human Services – often referred to as “the Health Department” is a town department staffed by employees of the town.

The Board of Health unanimously approved a motion at its meeting on Monday night that it be “included in all communications and meetings that are being held in the town by town employees relative to Covid-19 and/or SARS-CoV-2.” The motion as finally passed also states that it will be reviewed in 30 days.

Pushback came the next day, on December 15, with an 1,100-word “Statement to the Community,” signed by the leadership of the major town boards and read by School Committee Chair Dan Brosgol at the start of its meeting.  The statement said in part: “While we can always improve communication back and forth with residents, elected officials, and Town staff, we are comfortable as the leaders of this community with continuing under the structure we have in place….In this structure, staff are empowered by us to make decisions with input from a variety of sources, including the relevant boards and commissions that help guide major policy decisions for the town. We…are fully confident in our department heads and staff to make the day-to-day decisions in the operation of the Town and Schools.”  The statement was signed by Brosgol, Select Board Chair Ed Pierce, and Board of Health Chair Sarah Thompson who had voted for the motion calling for a different arrangement at her Board’s meeting on December 14.

Monday’s Board of Health motion was offered by member Dr. Ann Kiessling referencing Article 7 of the Town Bylaws which describes the responsibilities of the Board of Health.  “We need to be involved real-time with these kinds of decisions,” she said during the ensuing discussion.  Later she added, “The Board of Health has made no policy decisions. None. There’s been no recommendation to the schools, no discussion about what should or should not be going on in Bedford.  We hear it after the fact and it’s because we’re specifically not included in the Covid-19 Task Force meetings and that isn’t according to the bylaws.”

Chair Sarah Thompson asked if having Health and Human Services Director Heidi Porter on the Task Force addresses the concerns Kiessling voiced about the involvement of the Board.  Kiessling again responded that “real-time participation” was, in her opinion, critical.  She added later, “We should probably have established the Covid-19 Task Force ourselves.”

Porter stated more than once that the Covid Task Force meetings “are staff meetings.  It’s the Town Manager’s discretion.”  She emphasized that the Task Force is operationally focused and that the Board of Health retains responsibility for guidance, oversight, and establishing policy and regulations.

At this point in the discussion, the meeting was opened to comments from those in attendance.  Doug Horton identified himself as one of a group of parents asking how the town is making decisions around school re-opening and how it is interpreting state and federal guidelines.  “We’ve been passed around between the School Committee and the Board of Health and we still have no answers….[It’s] criminal to me that you are not involved with these decisions to date. I can’t fathom that’s the case. You should be at every School Committee meeting.”

Coreen Garrett, also a parent, expressed her assessment that no one on the Board of Health was advocating for the children’s needs to be in school.  She lamented the absence of a clear plan including teacher testing.  A third parent, Stephanie Keep echoed the concerns of the first two speakers and added her frustration that there has never been a single open forum where the public can ask questions and have the decision-makers present to answer.

Resident Maureen Richichi told the Board that there is precedent for a town-wide collaborative task force, and described her experience as a member of the town’s AIDS Task Force in the 1980s.  In that case, according to Richichi, members included board and committee members, citizen representatives, and town staff.  Several Board of Health members indicated their interest in pursuing this idea further.

At this point, Kiessling asked for a vote on her motion which was amended slightly and passed unanimously.

The “Statement to the Community” presented on Tuesday also pointed to local and state law which designates the Health and Human Services Director as “the staff lead for the Board of Health.”  In this role, the Director “has shared information with the elected members of the Board of Health, sought guidance as it relates to proposed policy changes, and regularly updated the Board on the ever-changing matters of state and federal Covid-19 guidance and protocols.”

Bedford’s Covid-19 Task Force, formed nine months ago in response to the sudden arrival of the virus, consists of staff members with day-to-day operational responsibilities and includes the Town Manager, the Superintendent of Schools, and six municipal department heads: Code Enforcement, Facilities, Fire, Health and Human Services, Police, and Public Works. Its purpose is to ensure a coordinated, rapid response by the Town.

The Statement to the Community also said, “Throughout the pandemic, this Task Force has led the logistical planning and response from the Town, following directives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Governor Charlie Baker and state regulators like the Department of Public Health and the Department of  Elementary and Secondary Education…from the start of the pandemic, the Board of Health has established policy, emergency orders, been given consistent and regular communication updates from staff,  requested increased testing, provided outreach and support for a regional testing site,  evaluated data and community metrics, met regularly and provided feedback as it relates to  community response.”

In a final note, the signers proposed a public forum for Bedford residents “led jointly” to address community Covid-19 related concerns.  More information on such a meeting is to be made available in the coming weeks.

Ginni Spencer serves on The Bedford Citizen’s board of directors as well as its editorial committee.

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