The coronavirus pandemic has isolated a lot of us, but it’s also brought community institutions together in a new way. In New Hampshire's North Country, a daily zoom call has become essential for leaders managing the fallout of the pandemic.
When the coronavirus shut down just about everything in March, including schools, Gorham Superintendent David Backler got on a call with his counterpart in Berlin, and staff from the hospital and local health centers.
“We realized that we had so many different stakeholders and different perspectives in our community, and we needed to find a way to get everybody together to be on the same page,” Backler said. “At first, it was a symbiotic relationship where we were just looking for resources.”
Back then, the pandemic was a daily cascade of unknowns: Is social distancing effective? Should we wear masks? If so, do we have enough?
It quickly became clear that no one could handle this crisis alone.
Institutions took inventory of PPE in the region and began sharing whatever they could. Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin had a limited number of N95s that health workers needed to reuse, so the Gorham School District lent the hospital a set of UV lights that teachers used to sanitize science lab equipment.
The 4 p.m. calls that started with school and medical leaders continued, and more and more people joined: The prison warden, the nursing home director, the fire chief, even the director of the Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce, Paula Kinney.
Kinney said getting regular insight from the local hospital and Coos County Family Health Services helped businesses and institutions prepare for COVID-19. But until recently, the North Country had hardly any cases.
“It was like we were living in a different planet," she said. :You turn on the TV at night and it was horrible in some places and here we were doing great. Everything was fine...and now reality is setting in.”
Coos County now has substantial levels of community transmission of COVID-19. The virus has gotten into local schools and the federal prison. And the stakes are high here, because the things to watch out for with the coronavirus - like limited ICU capacity, high rates of chronic health conditions, a high proportion of elderly residents - are all true in the Androscoggin Valley.
So that Zoom call, once weekly, is now daily.
On a recent call, the valley’s two medical facilities announced the number of COVID-19 tests administered that day and gave updates on contact tracing after a positive case.
Kinney thanked Julie King, the Berlin schools superintendent, for sending 20,000 disposable masks to the Chamber of Commerce, after Kinney’s order for businesses got delayed. (Kinney said she'll repay the school in kind when the Chamber’s order arrives).
Representatives from the federal and state prisons in the region gave the latest numbers on COVID-19 among staff and inmates. And a few people celebrated the news that rapid antigen tests are finally on their way to the mental health center in Berlin.
One might wonder why a superintendent needs to know about prison cases, or the fire chief about rapid tests at the mental health center. But if there is one thing the coronavirus has taught the members of this group, it’s that institutions often thought of as separate are deeply connected when it comes to public health.
COVID-19 cases in the prison could go home with prison guards, infect those guards’ kids, end up in the school, show up in the nursing home, and fuel a crisis in the region’s small hospital.
Kris van Bergen, a program manager at the North Country Health Consortium, is one of the regulars on these calls. She said before the pandemic, many people associated health just with the doctor’s office.
“But public health is really about health in community, and people experience their wellness and their illness where they live,” she said.
Leaders in different spheres don’t always collaborate, but Bergen said it’s essential to controlling COVID-19 and improving overall health in the North Country.
“It's important to have employers in the mix so that we understand their impact on a person's wellness or their financial security, for example," she said. "Having the schools involved makes a lot of really good sense, because that's where our children are for the bulk of their waking hours.”
The call among these leaders doesn’t have a name, or an official note-taker, but participants say it’s become a lifeline.
Kinney, with the Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce, said she hasn’t missed one call yet, even if it means pulling over on the side of the road with spotty service.
Recently, the group decided to meet up in person for the first time, just to say hi. They gathered in a field at White Mountains Community College, overlooking the Androscoggin River.
“We all stood apart and we just all looked at each other in a circle,” Kinney said.
Each person wore a mask and said a few words. Someone read a poem, and then they all went back to work.
“Everyone felt really good that day,” Kinney said.
Participants say when the pandemic ends, they’ll have a big dinner together, and hopefully tackle the next public health problem together.