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Amid a COVID-19 surge in the North Country, residents and officials hope behavior will change

Dr. Ming and Nurse Manager of the Emergency Department Tammy Berthiaume at Androscoggin Valley Hospital
Alli Fam
Dr. Sarah Ming (left), after working a 24 hour shift in the Emergency Department. Usually, Ming can catch a few hours of sleep on these shifts. But that’s not the case now, she says, it's just too busy. Nurse Manager of the Emergency Department Tammy Berthiaume (right) at Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin says trying to find open beds for patients has been like a chess game.

Marcel Couture spent 41 years installing flooring all over Berlin, but since retiring last year you’re more likely to find him at Fagin’s Pub, a cozy restaurant on the city’s Main Street. Everyone seems to know each other there. Everyone also seems to know someone who had COVID-19.

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“My aunt and my uncle got sick, and he goes up to the hospital,” Couture says, sharing breakfast with his friend, Peter Nolet. “They tell him: You can't stay here unless you need a ventilator.”

Couture says the hospital sent his family members home, where they've been quarantining now for 10 days.

The conversation turns to a prominent member of the Berlin community, who passed away just last week from COVID-19.

Teresa Long, a waitress at Fagin’s, says her 16-year-old son was sick with COVID a few weeks ago. While his symptoms were mild, Long said her son’s illness still forced her to stay home to take care of him and lose nearly two weeks of pay. Still, despite her family’s brush with the virus, Long doesn’t wear a mask and has chosen not to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“That's my choice,” she said. “It's not that I have a problem with taking the vaccine. I don't want to be forced.”

Reluctance to get vaccinated isn’t uncommon in this part of the North Country: Vaccination rates in Coos County lag behind the rest of New Hampshire. It’s one of several reasons why COVID-19 cases here have skyrocketed in recent weeks, far outpacing the rest of the state.

New COVID-19 cases in Coos County are now more than twice the state average. Recent data from the New York Times ranks the county as having the second-highest rate of infection in the entire Northeast.

The recent COVID-19 spike has put a huge strain on the region's health care system and has pushed community leaders to scramble to try and prevent the surge from getting even worse.

The whole region is feeling the impact, but maybe nowhere more acutely than the emergency department of Androscoggin Valley Hospital.

Dr. Sarah Ming works there, and when we met her, she had just gotten off a 24-hour shift. It wasn’t easy.

“You're running from start to finish and seeing a proportionately large number of COVID patients, which is really time intensive,” she says.

Finding open beds for patients at the hospital has been like a chess game. It’s hard to send them to other places, with hospitals across the state also near capacity. It’s not always possible to transfer patients who might need more specialized care.

Dr. Ming also says COVID levels are making some staff worried again, just like at the beginning of the pandemic. She says they’ve taken to sleeping in tents or motels away from their families.

“They're just scared to go home again because they have mothers getting cancer treatment,” she says. “They have children who are immune-compromised or cannot be vaccinated”

Chief James Watkins at the Berlin Fire department says his team is also on the front lines of COVID-19 response. They’ve been making more trips to the hospital lately, fielding calls for people suffering from severe cases of COVID.

Over the summer, he says they’d get a call a week for COVID —maybe. Now, it’s about a call a day.

Watkins says the department has been trying to share as much information about the virus as possible and encouraging people to take precautions like wearing masks. But persuading people to make more of an effort to stay safe has been difficult.

“I haven't come up with a solution yet,” he says.

Watkins says for many on his team, this surge has felt personal. One of the captains was helping helicopter a patient who was on a ventilator, only to look down and realize the patient was someone he knew.

Berlin and Gorham also used messaging systems to alert residents by phone about the surge, and to share information with people who might not be on Facebook tuning into the news.

Watkins takes part in a now-daily Zoom call with community leaders from across the region, including administrators at local nursing homes and prisons and mental health providers.

Last week, the group focused on making large community events, like Riverfire in Berlin, as safe as possible.

They decided to cancel the beer tent. They canceled bouncy houses, any of the venues that were supposed to be inside, to allow what was left to just be outside and distanced,” Kris van Bergen with the North Country Health Consortium says. She also joins that daily Zoom call.

Van Bergen is also unflagging in efforts to coordinate vaccine clinics across the region. On Monday, she and her team held a clinic in Lisbon, at New England Wire Technologies, one of the region’s large employers, an hour drive west of Berlin.

Standing in the rain outside the factory, van Bergen says it’s been a successful clinic. The clinic isn’t over, and she and her colleague estimate they’ve already given out more than 40 shots. Though, mostly they realize, it’s been booster shots, rather than 1st doses,

One grim hope, van Bergen and other health officials say, is that as word of more cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID trickle through the community, some people will make the decision to get that first dose of vaccine.

But, as they try to manage the intensity of the current surge there’s also the reality that right now, that protection just won’t kick in fast enough: it’s behavior that has to change.

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