BERLIN — As COVID-19 rates in the area continue to climb, the Berlin City Council recently discussed the possibility of reinstituting a mask mandate ordinance.
The city had originally passed an emergency 60-day ordinance in November 2020.
Representatives from Androscoggin Valley Hospital and Coos County Family Health Services were on hand during the council’s Monday evening work session to update council members on the rise in COVID-19 cases in the area and to ask the council to provide whatever help they could to ameliorate the situation.
Coos County Family Health Services CEO Ken Gordon said that while the numbers of COVID-19 cases are tracking downward in the rest of the country, Coos County is experiencing its highest rate of cases it has seen since the start of the pandemic.
“We are in the thick of it in the North Country,” Gordon said.
Gordon asked the city council to help spread the word regarding the current surge in the virus. He said Coos County Family Health is really struggling to keep up with the demand. He said they have staff members out with illness or quarantine and those that remain are dealing with high amounts of stress.
Gordon said that the community has seen a spike that began in mid-September and is continuing. Gordon said that unlike previous spikes, where there were significant numbers at area nursing homes and prisons, this spike is community driven.
According to one of the charts provided by Gordon during the meeting, the rate of cases per 100,000 residents is more than two and a half times the state average. In another chart that shows numbers by town, as of Monday there were 91 current positive cases in Berlin, 27 in Gorham and 18 in Milan. An average of 36 cases per day have been reported in Coos County which is a 60 percent increase from two weeks ago.
Androscoggin Valley Hospital CEO Michael Peterson said that he felt the red-alert sent out last week was acknowledged by community members. Peterson said the hospital saw a decrease in non-emergency cases coming into the hospital with 40 patients on Friday and 15 on Saturday.
Peterson said that with this wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospital is seeing patients coming in that are younger and sicker than previous waves. He said of the hospital’s 25 total beds, there were currently 11 in-patient COVID-19 positive patients, 82 percent of which (nine) were not vaccinated.
Peterson said the hospital also currently has eight staff members out with COVID-19, of which seven are unvaccinated, which is creating an additional strain to the hospital’s staffing.
As of Monday, Peterson said the hospital is in red status, meaning they cannot take anymore inbound patients and are looking to transfer or off-load patients to other medical facilities. He said Monday that the hospital has been at red status for a half a week now and that the hospital had never been at red status before.
Peterson said the hospital is in Week 2 of what he called “the tsunami” and that staff are having a difficult and emotionally trying time. Peterson noted that for many suffering from the more serious affects of COVID-19 it is similar to drowning. He said that seeing so many very ill patients has resulted in some nurses visibly crying during their shifts.
In response to a question from council member Michael Rozek, Peterson said that he thinks what Coos County is seeing is the delta variant of COVID-19 but he noted that the state doesn’t provide exact information on the variants. He said he feels like this is the delta variant because of how aggressive the virus is, specifically with younger people. He noted though that one of the advantages that the hospital has now is that there are treatments available, such as the monoclonal antibody treatments, that were not available at the beginning of the pandemic.
Gordon had this to say to members of the council: “We need the help of everybody. We want to make sure the public is aware. We will get through this and we will survive. We just really need to be careful due to our small rural health-care system. We don’t want a system that is overwhelmed.”
Following Gordon and Peterson’s presentation. Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier suggested buying a full-page ad in The Berlin Sun alerting people to the current risk to the community. Grenier said that part of the issue is that human behavior needs to be altered.
“Mask up,” Grenier said. “This isn’t about freedom. If we are going to be a society with people who care about one another.”
Grenier said what is going on now in Berlin isn’t the Berlin he grew up in, adding that in the Berlin of his youth, people got together and helped one another.
“We have community members suffering from a disease that is preventable,” he said.
AVH staff member Erica Hoyt, who was allowed to speak during the work session, said that since the COVID-19 pandemic started her job has dramatically changed, adding that it is now more stressful than enjoyable.
Hoyt, who works with testing those who might have COVID-19 said that the hospital is testing some 80-100 per day. She said that on Friday alone there were 104 rapid swab tests, of which 27 came back positive.
Hoyt said that she didn’t feel the community was doing enough to educate people about the risks of the virus.
She said as part of her job she has to field phone calls regarding the virus and that often people have no idea what to do with respect to the virus. Hoyt said she felt that the bottom line is that residents need to be made to mask up or else the community would be in “a world of hurt.”
Resident Nicole Plourde also spoke to the council and urged masking as well. She said it boggles the mind that people will not follow the advice of local health-care professionals. She recommended a city ordinance to encourage people to stay home with repercussions for going out.
“Everyone doesn’t appreciate the risk of what is going on,” Plourde said, urging the council to do whatever it takes to make people do the right thing.
Council member Lucie Remillard said she felt it was time to enforce the city’s mask mandate. She noted that the state had imposed its own mask mandate late last year, but that the mask mandate was taken away when things began to get better, but now that things were not going as well, she felt that it is time to require all businesses to enforce the wearing of masks.
Grenier said that he felt that a mask mandate creates division and that it is difficult to enforce.
“Why put something out you can’t enforce?” Grenier asked.
Grenier said he was in favor of communicating with businesses through the Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce to strongly suggest the wearing of masks and that if things don’t improve the city could then take a more concerted effort to enforce the wearing of masks.
Rozek said in his opinion responsible people are wearing masks in public and he also noted the issue with enforcement of a city-wide mandate.
Council member Peter Higbee said that at a minimum the city should enforce a mask mandate for all city-owned properties such as city hall.
Grenier again reiterated working to educate people first before moving to require a mask mandate.
Council member Denise Morgan said, “There are some parents that think that this is a cold. This is not a cold and it is not a funny situation. We want to teach people and some are just not going to listen.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the chamber released a letter to businesses on behalf of the Berlin Emergency Management COVID Task Force which included the following in part:
An update on yesterday's (Monday’s) local conference call regarding the status at AVH:
1. Eleven patients currently in the hospital due to COVID-19.
2. Three of them are in the Intensive Care Unit.
3. Two of them are on ventilators.
4. AVH is working to transfer any non-COVID emergency patients to other hospitals for care, but beds are scarce across the state.
The situation at AVH is being described as life or death at this time. AVH and CCFHS are experiencing staffing shortages, COVID positive employees, and systems which are being stressed to the max.
The good news is you and your fellow employees can do something to make a difference:
1. Stay home from work if you have any symptoms and get tested.
2. Wear a mask indoors in public settings.
3. Avoid large groups, especially indoors.
4. Get vaccinated, COVID-19 and the flu shot.
We have all been down this road before, but this time the situation at AVH is dire, Please help do your part to get us through this. The consensus is that we likely have at least two weeks more during which it will only get worse.
This letter was followed up on Wednesday with an update, noting there are now 13 patients at AVH with COVID-19, three to five of them critically ill and in intensive care, and two on ventilators. For the the city's complete message to the community, see page 4.