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As COVID surges, Health Department offers free test kits

by | Jan 10, 2023 | Featured: News, News

The Board of Health at its meeting Monday evening discussed the latest variant of the COVID-19 virus and announced that the Health Department has an abundance of test kits to issue to residents who need them.

Public Health Nurse Simone Carter said that “there has been an uptick of everything” regarding respiratory illnesses including COVID-19, influenza and RSV.

“That includes hospitalizations,” she pointed out. “And yes, it includes deaths.”

Those deaths involved people who tended to be older and had other comorbidities. They tended to be unvaccinated.

She also described a “decoupling” of wastewater as an analysis tool for detecting COVID-19 rates and hospitalizations. However, the new variant “is not throwing us the curveball” that other variants caused back when there were sharp upticks.

Health Director Shaun McAuliffe added that Carter’s public vaccination program has paid off with high vaccination rates in town and consequently low infection rates.

“Our population is one of the best vaccinated in the state,” he said.

Board of Health chair Lisa Whittemore noted that COVID has “become part of the public lexicon.”

To help residents detect the virus, McAuliffe said he just received 63 cases of COVID tests, with another 63 expected in the near future. Residents can take as many as they need.

He noted that some people have to test every day for their job and could benefit from a large number of free tests.

FY24 budget proposal discussed

The board unanimously approved the Health Department’s proposed fiscal year 2023 budget that was discussed last month. McAuliffe told the board that the proposed FY24 budget showed an increase of 9.85 percent over FY23’s amount. He explained that his meeting over the figures with Town Manager Norman Khumalo and the budget team last week went well.

“I’ve been told that health and family services should come out of this — I wouldn’t say unscathed, but the least likely to be scathed,” he said, noting that other town departments have dominated budget discussions of late.

In addition to salary increases, some expenses were moved from the line item covering miscellaneous expenses into the full-time salary category to reflect Health Agent Bryan Besso’s new status as a full-time employee.

McAuliffe added that the department previously requested a revolving fund. Instead, the budget includes an increase that was approved last year “to cover the ‘true cost’ of our medical expenses,” McAuliffe noted.

The current FY23 remaining balance is $95,130.56, according to department administrator Nidia Ruberti LaRoche.

Public Health Collaborative fades

McAuliffe noted that the Public Health Collaborative, of which Hopkinton is a member, is virtually defunct.

“There’s a director left and I think a marketing person left,” he said. “Everybody has left the collaborative for other jobs.”

The one benefit of having a collaborative was that it was a funding source, McAuliffe said. It provided money for the department’s new computers, the digital inspection software system and personal protective equipment (PPE). It also provided expertise in planning.

“What we’re seeing across the board is these collaboratives are just losing staff,” he noted, describing a statewide trend in the healthcare field.

“I think everybody is exhausted from COVID,” observed Whittemore. “People are making different life decisions.”

She noted that several physician friends of hers decided to stop practicing medicine because of pandemic fatigue.

Strategic plan cost needs whittling

Whittemore said that she, McAuliffe and Khumalo met with representatives from the Edward J. Collins Center for Public Management Publications based at the University of Massachusetts Boston, a group with expertise in helping health and finance departments develop strategic plans. The cost of strategic plan development was expected to be around $35,000.

“We asked them basically to skinny down the dollars some,” Whittemore said. She added that the group should have enough background information and needed to direct its focus toward “listening to key stakeholders within the town.”

McAuliffe added that he learned on Friday that the group, faced with financial constraints, may not be able to get it done as quickly as the BOH had hoped. The hope is to complete it within the current fiscal year.
“We are going to circle back to them as quickly as we can,” Whittemore added, noting that the deadline likely had to be adjusted.

The Collins Center also expressed in interest in performing a community health assessment. The board previously decided to move forward with a partnership with the Collins Foundation pending funding approval.

Members filled out a survey from the state Department of Public Health regarding performance standards. McAuliffe said the results showed that out of about 170 areas of focus in the first phase of the survey, Hopkinton completed all but one goal that had been partially completed. He met with DPW Director John Westerling earlier in the day to address that issue. The second phase has been completed. Regarding the third phase, the department submitted 86 percent of the data requested. However the DPH already had the rest of the data from the tobacco coalition.

There was a four-page spreadsheet issued by the DPH in November listing all the topics and regulations that the survey addresses.

“When you look at the spreadsheet, you can see how comprehensive it is,” Whittemore said, noting that Hopkinton completed the bulk of it. She suggested that other towns might not have been able to furnish as much detail.

Said Whittmore: “It puts our department in good stead. This is a great argument for why we need a strategic plan.”

Misc.: Town Narrative Report almost done

The board will need to hold a brief meeting on Monday, Jan. 23, at 5:30 p.m. to finalize the annual town narrative report, which is due on Friday, Jan. 27. While the bulk of the report is written, McAuliffe said that time was needed for “putting in some flourishes.” One issue was that pictures were requested to be included in the report.

“We don’t tend to take a lot of photos for HIPPA reasons,” he explained of the law that serves to protect patients’ privacy. …

A presentation on the Hopkinton Climate Action Plan by the Sustainable Green Committee was postponed at the request of the group.

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