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Board of Health roundup: With COVID waning, other issues move to forefront

by | Mar 14, 2022 | Featured: News, News

COVID-19 is not completely off the radar, but as cases continue to decline, Hopkinton health officials are ready to dig into other important health issues.

“One of the things we’ve been discussing is how one of our challenges, moving out of COVID, is keeping it in the rearview mirror and transitioning into the basic everyday services we were providing pre-COVID,” Health Director Shaun McAuliffe told the Board of Health during its meeting Monday night.

He listed three general areas of focus: mobile integrated health care, community EMS programs (CEMS), and youth- and family-related substance abuse.

“We’re one of the few communities in the commonwealth to have been approved to participate in this program,” McAuliffe said of CEMS. “If you go through the list of approved community EMS services, you can see there are opportunities throughout here for partnerships between the the public health nursing department, the schools, firefighters/EMTs, and the Senior Center. What we envision is we will will continue providing these services … through revolving funds we’ve applied for.”

The state Department of Public Health lists about two dozen approved community EMS services whose focuses include, among others, mental illness and mental health, housing stability/homelessness and substance use disorders.

“In a nutshell,” Public Health Nurse Simone Carter said, “our big things coming up as far as education is a focus on chronic disease prevention, things that impact our EMS services.”

Mental health, she said, is a huge area of concern. Going hand-in-hand with that, she added, is substance abuse.

“I think that goes across all ages, whether in the pediatric community or the elderly community. It’s everywhere right now,” Carter said. “I see us partnering with Youth & Family Services, working with kids and schools and the Senior Center and Council on Aging for older folks.”

Part and parcel of that, she added, will be the continued work on an initiative by the town to get certified as an age- and dementia-friendly community.

While she said she doesn’t think the town has a huge issue with housing stability right now, Carter said, “The more we can focus on what drives our population as far as their mental health and their well-being that way, it all ties together. We’ll see more of a focus on that as we focus on health promotion rather than this emergency response we’ve been in.”

McAuliffe said his department is taking a data-driven approach toward identifying issues and sifting through mortality and morbidity data. For people ages 50 and under, drug use and depression are key issues, while dementia is a focus for older age groups.

“The Senior Center just formed a new committee that is meeting kind of bimonthly,” McAuliffe said. “We’ll be part of that group as are our EMTs with the Fire Department. We’ll work on how best we can address the challenges in the community.”

He also noted a Drug-Free Communities grant being rolled out by Youth & Family Services, and said the town will be working with the organization, along with the MetroWest Health Foundation and the schools, “to attack that issue.”

Referencing the recent news of six West Point cadets who were hospitalized while on spring break after reportedly overdosing on cocaine laced with fentanyl, McAuliffe said, “We’re receiving calls about harder drug use. We’re trying to work with Youth & Families and Drug-Free Communities staff to get ahead of that.”

Board members were happy to be talking about something other than COVID, but acknowledged the scope of the issues now requiring attention.

“It’s refreshing to hear all these issues that are non-COVID that are quite meaningful and diverse in their scope,” Member Rick Jacobs said. “There’s a lot of stuff here. I don’t want you to get buried in things you don’t necessarily have to. I’m interested to see how this layers out into the field.”

Added Chair Lisa Whittemore, addressing McAuliffe and Carter, “I want to make sure you’re not boiling the ocean. It’s so wonderful to have a conversation about something other than COVID. It’s been two years. I really love to see this as part of our strategic plan. I love the way you’re talking with partnering with the Senior Center, Council on Aging, schools, and Youth & Family Services. … I just want to say to both of you, breathe for a couple weeks before you jump in, because it’s been so long.”

McAuliffe said he met with Youth & Family Services representatives earlier Monday and is working with them and the town manager to get a consultant on board. Carter noted that a focus on dementia and the whole person “has been around for a while.”

“It’s not that we haven’t been thinking about it,” she said. “It’s that we only had time for COVID, COVID, COVID for so long. So we really just have to refocus our attention.”

Questions remain on PFAS

Revisiting a topic that has generated much discussion, McAuliffe said he has been “needling” the Department of Public Health and other state agencies on disseminating more information regarding per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

“The risk varies greatly based on age, populations and types of exposure,” McAuliffe said. “All the focus has been on the drinking water, but it hasn’t been on food. Research out there suggests that of the PFAS load we carry in our body, 20 percent comes from water, the other 80 percent from the food we eat. Much like COVID, there’s a lot more education that needs to be done. We’re just pushing the regulatory bodies to produce that communication material so we can get it out.”

McAuliffe said people his age, 55, or older focus on exercise, a healthy diet and staying on medications as a way of maintaining good physical health.

“That’s where my list is,” he said. “It’s not on the PFAS concentration we’re seeing in the water in Hopkinton, so this is the stuff we need to get out. It shouldn’t be up to local health to come up with 250 different versions of this. It should come out of the state departments and really target the communities that are at risk.”

More PPE to be ordered

In a sign that COVID isn’t entirely a thing of the past (according to Carter, the state has recorded 22 positive cases in Hopkinton so far this month, not including schools), McAuliffe said he plans to finalize the purchase of personal protective equipment, or PPE. That is thanks to $150,000 from the Metrowest Health Foundation. He said he will order extra-small and small face coverings to be distributed to schools and the food pantry. Another supply of Level 3 and/or N95 masks will be distributed to the Senior Center and public safety. Several existing face coverings will be sent to the Department of Public Works, he said. He said some of the grant money also might cover case management and contract tracing costs related to COVID-19.

“Now that the surge is waning, there’s another portion of that grant that we might be re-allocating,” McAuliffe said. “We’re having discussion with the Metrowest Health Foundation about what we do there.”

In-person meetings might return

The Board of Health, like other town boards, continues to meet remotely, but Whittemore noted Gov. Charlie Baker’s order allowing remote public meetings expires July 15. She suggested an item be put on the next meeting agenda for a “full discussion” on when to return to in-person meetings.