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Emergency Planning Group Strives to Keep Residents Safe

Apr 30, 2020 06:00AM ● By Pamela Johnson

Bellingham Deputy Fire Chief Mark Poirier

by Ken Hamwey, Contributing Writer

The coronavirus has changed lives dramatically, and that holds true for members of Bellingham’s Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC). Deputy Fire Chief Mark Poirier (right)is the LEPC director, and his committee includes all town department heads. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the committee convened quarterly. Now it meets every weekday, Monday—Friday, at 9 am, just before daily updates are provided on cable TV starting at 10 am. After every LEPC meeting, selected members provide local and state news on COVID-19, policy changes at their departments and statistics on townspeople’s dealing with the virus.

“I and any committee member can be on the phone any time, day or night, dealing with issues relating to COVID-19,” Poirier said. “Any surge in the virus could lead to meeting seven days a week. When the virus is under control and close to being conquered, I’m going to start dating my wife.”

Days are no longer a sprint; they’re a marathon.

The meetings and the TV updates focus on just about every town-wide aspect—police and fire procedure during the pandemic, recycling center hours, social distancing at grocery stores, mask use in public, controlling trash, etc. “It’s all about the needs and wants and keeping the public safe,” Poirier said. “Making the town safe is our main purpose.”

Poirier, who labels the virus as the worst crisis he’s dealt with in his 25 years as a firefighter, lauded residents’ cooperation during what’s basically become home confinement.

“Townspeople are watching the telecasts (ch. 11, Comcast; ch. 45, Verizon) and understand what we’re trying to do,” he said. “The only way to get through this is to work together, and all department heads have been working diligently to keep everyone safe.”

Denis Fraine, who’s been Bellingham’s Town Administrator for 33 years, has played a key role during the pandemic, working as a liaison with all departments and ensuring that accurate information gets to the public.

“I follow the directions of the LEPC director and assist with the implementation of those directives as they relate to the municipal departments,” Fraine said. “We went to TV updates because there was a lot of misinformation on social media sites throughout town. Having department heads on the telecast means that correct information gets out, and having our public health nurse (Esther Martone) answer questions on TV is a big plus.”

Questions for the nurse are sent to an email address ([email protected]), and Fraine directs them to her.

Martone provides daily updates on the number of Bellingham’s positive cases, the number of people who’ve recovered and how many are being monitored. The numbers change continually. For example, on April 3, Bellingham had 14 positive cases and four had recovered. Twelve days later, on April 15, Martone reported 35 positive cases with the recovered number at 15. The number tested on April 3 was 107; by April 15 that total was 159, and one Bellingham resident had died. The count on April 28, was even more sobering: the number of cases was 78 and the number of deaths, three.

The nurse deals with a variety of questions on TV. She was asked whether produce and frozen food packages should be washed before being placed in a refrigerator. She also was quizzed on how one can get a COVID-19 test. Her answer on the produce and frozen food question was “Wash with slightly soapy water.” On the testing question, she said “if symptoms are a temperature, a cough, shortness of breath or aches, then consult your primary care physician and he or she will determine if a test is needed and direct you to the proper place.”

Another helpful hint offered by Martone was about masks. She advised not to disinfect them for re-use. “For re-use, wash your hands before you take the mask off (touching the straps only), place it in a paper bag (a new bag each time), then wash your hands again,” she said, indicating that masks may be reused in an emergency if they're only being used for 10-15 minutes at a time. She does not recommend reusing a mask more than 5 times.

Martone also informed viewers how long the virus remains on different surfaces. Plastic or metal hold the virus for 3-4 days. On paper or cardboard it lasts 24 hours.

Fraine noted that his office receives about 20 phone calls daily that deal with COVID-19 and issues related to it. He’s also bullish on how the town has responded to the government directives to prevent spreading the virus—washing hands, maintaining a six-foot distance, avoiding gatherings, not touching your face, and wiping down surfaces. “People also call to offer help,” he said. “Some are willing to provide vehicles. They’ve stepped up in a big way.”
Bellingham’s economy will take a hit when the dust settles, and Fraine is concerned that some small businesses “may not be able to recover.” He also says the town won’t know about closures until “we’re back in business.” The town’s chief financial officer, Mary McKinnon, said that local budgets may need to be amended because “state aid will be impacted.”

Diminished revenue is a reality, and that became very evident after restaurants were forced to offer only take-out meals. “The local meals tax is an example of how municipal revenue can be affected,” Fraine said, “but that pales in comparison to what restaurant owners and employees are experiencing.”

Bellingham’s health agent, Bruce Wilson, monitors a variety of areas for the LEPC. He inspects restaurants, keeps tabs on trash disposal, conducts routine inspections and meets (via Zoom) with department heads, the State Department of Public Health and the town’s public health nurse.

“I check restaurants to see if people are congregating or violating social distancing,” Wilson said, “and people have to stop disposing of personal protective equipment outside grocery stores. That includes masks, gloves and wipes.”

Sean Morse of Market Basket and Brian Pickering of Stop & Shop appeared on TV on April 3 to update the public on the rules in place to handle large crowds at their stores.

Morse said 147 shoppers are allowed into Market Basket with 10-15 filtered in when others exit. Signage informs shoppers of social distancing at the registers and crews wipe down areas and spray carriages. Traffic in the aisles flows one-way and early shopping for seniors remains at 6-7 am daily.

Pickering said that tape on the floor reminds shoppers of distancing, and he noted that carriages are wiped before being given to customers. The deli and bake shop, he said, are self-serve areas, and there are no limits on customers entering Stop & Shop. Seniors can shop early, 6-7 am daily.

The COVID-19 virus has claimed lives and changed routines and lifestyles. What hasn’t changed is the LEPC’s mission. It’s striving to keep Bellingham safe, and it’s acutely aware that times have changed dramatically.
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