The Bedford Board of Health plans at its June 5 meeting to begin an intense review of how the town’s public health arms responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The focus culminates a three-meeting discussion on whether to prioritize examining internal processes or the response by the wider community to the emergency.
Ann Kiessling, the lone member who has advocated the latter approach, said at Monday’s board meeting that she is concerned about an internal assessment taking six to eight months, which could compromise the overall look because “the big problem is memory.”
Maureen Richichi, who drafted a framework to use in the departmental evaluation, thought the subject could be covered in one or two meetings. Board Chair Susan Schwartz said the group should try to tackle at least one or two of Richichi’s questions at its June meeting. Eventually, “Depending on how that evaluation goes, it can tie in to what we ask the community.”
“We could have another pandemic within the next year, so I think it’s urgent that we start looking at this now and identify people with expertise to be on a community task force,” Richichi commented. “Once we’ve taken a look at the results, then we can reach out to the community.”
Kiessling pointed out that the response from the broader audience would be essential to assessing the performance of the board and the Health Department. “I don’t know how to do both at the same time,” Richichi said. Schwartz concurred, saying, “I would like to do something for the community. I just don’t know what that is yet.”
Schwartz asked Kiessling what she would do with information gleaned from a broader inquiry. “You don’t know what you are going to do with the information until you get it,” she replied. “I think people would like the chance to voice their opinion on this. I think there are groups who want to know that someone is listening to them.”
Asked by Richichi to provide an example of “some information we might get and what we could do,” Kiessling said parents and business owners could be asked: “What was your major source of information? Did it come from the superintendent, from schools, from social media, the news? If they were happy with the information feed, we don’t have to do anything.
“We want to know if you think Bedford’s response was adequate,” Kiessling said. “Every organization responded to Covid guidelines in some way. What information source informed their decisions? Maybe they won’t care. But a lot of things happened that didn’t need to happen. And schools really took the brunt of this. Parents and kids were really on a roller coaster.”
Kiessling wanted to focus on businesses as well as schools, and she also mentioned churches. “We are hoping to find out from people who were in the trenches – keeping their businesses open, doing the best for their kids, what worked and what didn’t work.
“We should advocate for an appropriate response to a public health emergency by getting information from the people who were really impacted,” she stated, noting that it would be beneficial but challenging to reach out to the whole community.
“We owe it to the community as a board to review and evaluate our own house and what we did in response,” Richichi replied. “The only thing we have total control of is how we function, how we provide the best information and guidance. That’s what we were elected to do.”
Member Bea Brunkhorst said she would like to see a particular focus on the effectiveness of communication from the Health Department, the board, and other local agencies. Heidi Porter, Director of the Health and Human Services Department, asked, “Are we evaluating the message or the mode of communication? I think it’s going to be difficult to separate.”
She pointed out that “early on, it was the town manager who was communicating, followed by the superintendent. Was it effective? That has to be part of the conversation.”
Member Anita Raj said it would be helpful to review other towns’ after-action reports. That could produce “some better ideas on how to approach this.”
[Editor’s Note: The original publication stated the next Board of Health meeting to be June 20, but it has been updated to reflect the next meeting on June 5. Updated May 22.]