The Bedford Board of Health Monday agreed to movE forward with an internal analysis of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bedford Health Department will be included in the process.
Ann Kiessling could not persuade her fellow board members to spearhead an evaluation of the response by all relevant town boards and departments. Kiessling said that the project is time sensitive, because Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad, who was central to the coronavirus response, is retiring at the end of June.
The difference in scope emerged at the board’s March meeting, and not much has changed since. Board Chair Susan Schwartz Monday assigned Kiessling and member Bea Brunkhorst to prepare questions for an eventual expanded evaluation, but Brunkhorst commented that she thinks the process should be an interagency one with help from a consultant.
Member Maureen Richichi drafted questions intended to form the framework for an internal evaluation. She said they were designed to “codify functionalities and capabilities of the department. “There are foundational practices,” she explained. “We are taking what is traditionally considered the work of public health and asking how did we do in meeting our responsibilities in responding to the pandemic.”
Richichi said tasks like communication and engaging the public are “within our purview. How did we do? What could we have done better? When the next pandemic comes, we will have a sense of how we might tackle some of these same functionalities in a different way.”
Kiessling drafted another set of questions that she said was “a much more global overview. How many businesses did we lose and why? How many people died? Did any practices make that work worse or better?” She said, “These are questions for the people in the front lines making decisions every day,” aimed particularly at the two areas hit the hardest: education and business.
“Some group in Bedford needs to get this ball rolling. We need some kind of community review on how we responded to the pandemic,” Kiessling maintained. “We’ve just been through three years of trauma and we need to know how people managed it.” The schools and Health Department received instructions from state agencies, Kiessling said, so a local survey “is the only way the state is going to figure out whether it did well.”
Schwartz commented, “I think we need to do our own analysis because then we will have that to contribute to the community analysis.” The follow-up process should include representation from a variety of boards, she said.
Richichi acknowledged, “I see value in a community review. I’m not sure about these questions. How will the answers make us do anything different next time? There was disagreement in so many levels; how do we manage our responses with communication from higher up?” Kiessling suggested that “it could mean a different local structure to process information.”
Heidi Porter, Director of the Health and Human Services Department, called for “input from multiple sources.”
Richichi added that a broader survey requires more time to develop and explain, and “I don’t have time over the next month to give this the time it needs.” But Kiessling, who likened her plan to “a big research project,” countered that even now, “people don’t even want to think about Covid anymore.”
Schwartz asked Brunkhorst and Kiessling to develop questions for a broader evaluation, but Brunkhorst said, “I really think the community response should be made by a group of people representing many facets,” with input from a professional. “I would like to see some kind of task force. We could start it,” she added.
Porter suggested the Bedford Community Partnership, an interagency body with business representation, could be a resource. “It doesn’t have to be rushed. It has to get started,” said member Anita Raj.
Schwartz said she hopes to learn how other communities are evaluating when attending an upcoming meeting of the Massachusetts Association of Health boards. Then perhaps the issue can be brought to the Community Partnership agenda. But Kiessling predicted, “If it doesn’t happen by the end of school it won’t happen.”
Julie Genove, community nurse, reported to the board Monday that there were 35 cases of COVID-19 in Bedford in March, not counting self-diagnosed cases that were not reported. All metrics concerning the virus continue to decline, she said.