Health Board Members Differ on Covid Community Input Approach

March 12, 2024
The Bedford Board of Health are still in discussion about the role of the board in evaluating the Covid-19 pandemic impact on the community. Image BedfordTV

Almost 10 months after the formal end of the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the Bedford Board of Health are still jousting over the board’s role in evaluating the impact of the virus on the community.

Member Ann Kiessling for several months has been advocating that the board take the lead in the process, particularly targeting schools and businesses. 

“We should have reached out eight months ago,” Kiessling said at the board’s monthly meeting on March 4. 

Initially, the other four board members chose to prioritize an internal review, which took several months and is now complete.

Kiessling last week shared eight questions that she wanted to disseminate to all residents. 

“I have had a very positive experience with questionnaires,” she said. “The sooner we get out a mailing and the faster we get it back the more informed decisions are going to be.”

But member Maureen Richichi felt some of the questions needed modifications, such as those referencing school closures and social distancing. 

“I don’t think it’s going to give us useful information,” she said. 

“We need to understand the questions better, and they need to be pointed enough so we get information we can use as well as the state. They need to be narrowed down more,” said Board Chair Susan Schwartz. “And how would this information be used?” She acknowledged the need for “community feedback.”

Kiessling said she would comply, rewording some questions and reducing the number, but called for a special meeting of the board before the end of March.

“Everybody is too complacent about how long it’s going to be before we have another outbreak. We have no idea. We need a plan in place,” said Kiessling. “What we didn’t do was engage the community first. The community needs to know we’re trying to make sure we have all our ducks in a row.”

Kiessling pointed out that one of the board’s goals in its internal review was to provide feedback to relevant state and federal agencies. “Our job is to get back to the Department of Public Health and the Legislature on what could have been done better.

“Bedford did some things differently,” Kiessling said, noting her recent survey, assisted by students, of responses to the pandemic in more than 50 communities. 

“I’m concerned that some of the questions we are asking are not going to get us any helpful information,” Richichi said. A question on favoring or disapproving of quarantine regulations is not meaningful because they were mandatory, she said. 

“We especially need to know about how people felt about school closure,” Kiessling said. 

But Richichi responded, “We could come up with things that didn’t work very well, what we identified internally, without a survey.” The state agency “already knows that for some families, school closings were a blessing or a nightmare. And if we get only a small response, it won’t be valid.”

Health Director Heidi Porter said there are “many different layers on what was lost by closures,” but Kiessling insisted that “we need information from the community to give back to the state.” These policies had “a real negative aspect on schools and businesses,” she said. “If you want community input, we have to figure out how to do that.”

Richichi expects a weak response to a questionnaire. “People have said to me, ‘I’m done with Covid,’” she said. “Businesses have moved on.”  

Kiessling stressed that timing would be crucial when she first proposed the process in the spring of 2023.

“I think it is important to involve the community, and coming out of our own internal review, we have a community task force of what it would look like in the future,” said Schwartz. “My hope is that it will include a strategy on how to take what you said about early community involvement and address that.”

Richichi suggested asking the Department of Public Health the kind of information that would be helpful. Kiessling replied, “That’s going to go nowhere.” She said, “The Bedford community feels like they weren’t heard throughout this.” But Richichi said, “I’ve been in touch with people who felt they were heard.”

Kiessling asked if there is a downside to sending a questionnaire to every household. Schwartz asked about providing an electronic response link; Kiessling said “people would rather respond anonymously on paper.” Porter said preparing and mailing a questionnaire would cost “several thousand dollars.”

Richichi said the internal evaluation was “in our purview. Beyond that, my question with this has always been: ‘What does it gain us?’” If a percentage of residents favored face coverings and the remainder did not, “How will that inform my decision for the next time? It should be based on current science.”

“Why the Board of Health was not more involved in the pandemic, I don’t know,” Kiessling said. Schwartz replied, “The board and the Health Department were absolutely involved.”

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