But the pandemic – which no one has declared over – dominated the questions presented to the two candidates for one seat on the Board of Health in Sunday afternoon’s forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Bedford.
And there was little chance of duplication, because one of the candidates, Bea Brunkhorst, is running for re-election, and the other, Alison O’Connell, is the challenger.
Asked their positions on the board’s Feb. 14 vote to rescind the mask requirement on Feb. 28, Brunkhorst acknowledged that she preferred to wait until March 7 to gauge the impact of residents returning from vacations. “We’ve had a pretty good week and I’m very pleased I was wrong,” she stated.
Brunkhorst also referenced the advisory message that board members assembled at their meeting last week, which addresses protecting the most vulnerable, testing at home, and “a number of things we still need to do. We are not out of this completely yet.”
O’Connell said she was “very supportive” of the board’s vote, and the thought that went into the advisory. O’Connell emphasized that at the start of the pandemic she was behind mask requirements. “With the influx of vaccines, we are in a different place,” she said. “Now we can move to a place of flexibility.
“From a data perspective,” she said, “you’re not going to see the incremental impact of a mask mandate when people were isolating,” because now residents are at work, in stores, and returning to socialization,” she said. O’Connell also stressed, “I think we should still be wearing masks in clinical settings and around the vulnerable.”
Brunkhorst pressed the point when the candidates took turns asking each other questions. She wanted to know why O’Connell signed a petition calling for relaxing the mask mandate in December, when cases were skyrocketing during the Omicron surge.
“I stand by it,” O’Connell said, pointing to “community data” that showed little Covid case difference among towns with and without the requirement. She acknowledged that removing masks would have been an “experiment,” but “everything we tried was an experiment.” O’Connell also noted that her brother in Sweden reported that the Covid experience was similar to Bedford’s, but there were no mask requirements in that country.
O’Connell also had a turn to question Brunkhorst. She asked the incumbent to recount what made her succeed as a new member of the Board of Health. Brunkhorst was first elected 23 years ago.
Asked about planning an analysis of the local pandemic response – and whether a model for the future can emerge – Brunkhorst said, “We need to involve the whole community in different ways. The full town needs to be involved and objectively,” perhaps coordinated by a neutral party. “It’s not just about statistics; it’s about people’s lives.”
O’Connell said she has managed these kinds of evaluations professionally. She said the initial step is to establish clear goals, then assess current processes and identify where they can be improved or streamlined. Referring to the “Socratic approach,” O’Connell said, “It should be completely dispassionate and criticism-free. This is no time for judgment calls.”
The candidates were asked about the board’s addressing mental and physical health repercussions from isolation and other pandemic steps.
Materials should be accessible to all, O’Connell said, and residents should understand who their resources are. She added that this would be more effective in person, helping residents feel less isolated – “a return to doing things together as a community.”
Brunkhorst said she is “very proud that the town has invested in four social workers,” as well as regional mental health services. She said they could be invited to a Board of Health meeting. Brunkhorst also said the board needs to work with the schools on a risk survey and community forums.
Asked if decisions about requiring face covering is a question of “civil liberties,” O’Connell commented, “Early on it was very important for us to do things collectively. Now we are in a very different place. We have predictable data, very strong access to vaccines, and we see transmission often does not lead to serious illness.” All this makes it easier for people to choose, she said; “you need a very strong threshold for mandates.”
Brunkhorst did not address the question of “civil liberties.” She said the board relies on data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, initially on transmission rates and more recently on hospitalizations and hospital capacity. “These are the kinds of things the Board of Health needs to take into account.” She added that it is important to have “objective epidemiologists” look at data, and “I believe it has to be done by guidance from the CDC.”
There also were a few questions that did not relate to the pandemic. The candidates were asked about other priorities for the Board of Health.
Brunkhorst cited combating tick- and mosquito-borne illnesses, mental health, and obesity. Specifically, she noted that residents on the east side of Route 3 are not served by playgrounds. Brunkhorst also mentioned “vaping, domestic violence, and many other things.”
O’Connell agreed about the ticks and mosquitos, and added that the board should examine the environmental impact of chemical applications. She also said she would value community input on board priorities. “Any time I’m new to something I solicit feedback,” she said. “That’s one of the things I haven’t necessarily seen. We are the board that’s working for the community. I want us to echo where the community wants us spending our time.”
The candidates were asked about the board’s role “in ensuring that diverse populations are heard and served.”
O’Connell asserted that “a general mission statement should be one of inclusivity. That should be a founding principle for any board here in town.” Perhaps one of the questions on the survey she mentioned would be strategies that align around that goal.
Brunkhorst replied that part of the board’s value system is “how to serve the most vulnerable – mental health and wellness and how do we help people emerge from this pandemic with all this drastic isolation.” She noted that, scientifically, DNA among humans is 99.99 percent identical.
Both candidates were asked about whether they are running as a slate, and if so, what are the objectives. But the question was really germane only to O’Connell, who along with three other candidates for two other offices have billed themselves “Better Together.”
“Better Together,” O’Connell replied, “is a sentiment of bringing the town together, bringing energy and being positive and togetherness in general.” The candidate, becoming a little emotional, added that as a newcomer to the town, she met the others in the group casually and “they literally held out their hands to me.”
Brunkhorst commented that “it’s important that each of us runs on our own merit.” She acknowledged that mutual support is “not a bad idea,” but a “slate “is not appropriate for a local election.
Each candidate highlighted qualities in opening and closing statements.
O’Connell said that as the mother of a young child, “I think I can represent parents who want a voice on the Board of Health.” As a compliance officer in the health-care industry, she said, “I have worked on teams, built programs, rolled out policies, looked at results, analyzed data. This has been my career and it would mean a lot to me to leverage that in my own community.”
Brunkhorst, a research scientist and biosafety officer, said, “I always use my scientific knowledge to inform my policy choices.” She said she will continue to listen to constituents’ “valuable insights,” and lauded the professional staff of the Health Department. “Thanks to them we have been able to get vaccinations and tests to residents before many other towns.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763