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Municipal Spotlight Milot, Coakley: First Responders Who Deal With COVID Daily

Chris Milot, left, and Neil Coakley have lots of experience as first responders.

By KEN HAMWEY, Contributing Writer


Chris Milot, Bellingham’s Deputy Fire Chief who also serves as the town’s Emergency Management Director, knows what a first-responder’s role is all about after 30-plus years with the fire department. And, so does Neil Coakley, a captain who’s been a firefighter in Bellingham for 25 years.
COVID-19 has changed the way first responders deal with 911 calls. Milot and Coakley are not only monitoring the community’s needs, but also ensuring that the fire department’s emergency teams follow the necessary procedures to deal with 911 calls that are COVID-related.
“When a call comes in to the dispatcher and the person says he or she is having trouble breathing, the dispatcher will ask if they’re COVID positive or experiencing symptoms,’’ Milot said. “No matter what information the dispatcher relays, we respond. If it’s COVID-positive or suspected, one ambulance and one fire engine will be on the way. Callers reporting a condition, whether serious or not, may not realize it, but every Bellingham firefighter on the force is a paramedic.’’
If the individual who called can walk, a paramedic will assess that person outside their front door.
“Assessing someone outside is a preferred COVID protocol, because that reduces exposure,’’ Milot said. “Paramedics can conduct a good assessment of the patient face-to-face, but if the patient can’t get to the front door, then we send one paramedic in to check the patient. If more help is needed, they’ll get it. We try to reduce the number of firefighters exposed to the person. A decision to go to a hospital will be made by the paramedic and the patient.’’
Since the coronavirus pandemic has spread because of variants, hospitals are overburdened and emergency rooms overcrowded. Long wait times are not unusual. That sometimes changes a patient’s desire to be transported.
“If a patient is stable, showing only minimal signs of COVID, then we’ll give them information on what the situations are at hospitals,’’ Coakley said. “Then, they’ll make an informed decision and we’ll either transport them or leave them at their home. But, we encourage them to call back if their condition worsens.’’
If a caller is dealing with COVID but well enough to drive, not experiencing any distress and not in need of an ambulance, then that individual may be advised to check with their primary care doctor or go to an urgent care facility. “We sometimes get calls from an urgent care facility that a patient needs to get to a hospital,’’ Coakley said. “We’ll respond via ambulance.’’
Paramedics arrive at a home masked and vaccinated. Social distancing, however, cannot be practiced when assessing an individual. “Prior to our arrival, we suggest that the patient wear a mask and that family members or any other inhabitants either be masked or isolated in a separate room,’’ Milot said.
At times, mutual aid has to be relied on because delays occur, some due to the lack of an available ambulance and some because of an abundance of calls. “Bellingham’s number of COVID-related transports has increased significantly, creating a strain on the system,’’ Milot said. Ambulances are sanitized after each run. 
Bellingham’s Fire Department is 99% vaccinated, according to Milot, and 75% of the staff have had a booster shot. “Some of the staff have tested positive,’’ Milot said. “They isolate for the necessary time, and all but one has returned to work.’’
Testing occurs at the department only if someone has symptoms or if they tested positive outside the department. “Then, we’ll have the entire staff tested at a clinic,’’ Milot said, “but we hope to soon have the rapid test in-house so we can test more often and have the tests available quickly.’’
The 57-year-old Milot, a lifelong Bellingham resident, has been the go-to guy for acquiring COVID equipment and scheduling COVID-related activities.  In his role as Emergency Management Director, getting PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and setting up flu clinics have been high-priority tasks. He has played a behind-the-scenes role since the pandemic hit in March 2020, assisting the Board of Health with vaccine clinics to ensure they’re organized and function smoothly. A booster-shot clinic was held on Jan. 11 at the Senior Center, and two vaccine clinics were conducted recently at the Middle School. 
“In December 2020, the Board of Health and Emergency Management got first responders (police and fire) vaccinated,’’ Milot noted. “In January 2021, the second dose was given to first responders. Last February, municipal employees and essential workers were vaccinated, and in March 2021, we provided staffing at the regional clinic in Uxbridge while we scheduled more clinics in Bellingham.’’
Milot also made sure that sufficient PPE was distributed to the police and fire departments, schools, the Board of Health, to Town Hall, the Senior Center, the Library and other municipal agencies.
“Dealing with COVID is more than just responding to calls,’’ Milot said. “There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes. Bellingham residents should understand that all PPE is provided by local and state funding, which means taxpayer dollars. All of this (pandemic preparedness) creates a burden on government and its taxpayers.’’
Coakley adds, “Bellingham, day after day, has been fortunate that it’s never had a shortage of PPE.’’ PPE includes masks, gowns, gloves, eye protection and sanitizer.
“We’ve had calls from other towns who’ve run out of PPE,’’ Coakley noted. “We help and assist them with supplies, and they return what we provided when their PPE is sufficient.’’
Since the pandemic began, Bellingham has experienced 17 COVID-related deaths (as of Jan. 11, 2022). 
Chris Milot and Neil Coakley have dealt with the pandemic every day since it arrived and their thoughts as first-line responders are basic and clear-cut. “This is not just a U.S. issue, it’s a worldwide problem,’’ they emphasized.
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