Brian O’Hearn is Androscoggin Valley Hospital chief nursing officer and incident command lead. (COURTESY PHOTO)

Officials urge residents not to be complacent, say Androscoggin Valley needs to be prepared


ANDROSCOGGIN VALLEY — Coos County has not had a positive case of COVID-19, but local officials say it is just a matter of time before the virus reaches this region. As they plan for the surge of cases they fear is coming, health and public officials warn residents to remain diligent and follow recommended preventive practices.

“While there have been no positive cases, this will be in the North Country,” said Brian O’Hearn, Androscoggin Valley Hospital chief nursing officer and incident command lead.

“It’s a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if,’” agrees Berlin City Manager James Wheeler.

Preventive measures include washing your hands, staying at home as much as possible and practicing social distancing.

Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier said he worries that when the coronavirus shows up, it will overwhelm the local health-care system because of the limited capacity here.

“We may be the first county pushed over the edge,” he said.

The mayor explained that Androscoggin Valley Hospital has 25 beds. But there are two nursing homes in Berlin, two prisons and an aging population. Older people and those with underlying health conditions are considered more vulnerable to COVID-19.

In interviews with The Berlin Sun, hospital and city officials outlined steps the organizations are taking to prepare for COVID-19 and urged residents not to get complacent because the county has yet to have a confirmed case. Both the city and hospital have set up COVID-19 incident command teams and are in regular contact with each other.

A command center has been set up at Androscoggin Valley Hospital that links to an overarching North Country Healthcare Incident Command Center. The hospital’s team meets daily and O’Hearn said the hospital also participates in other emergency preparedness networks.

“What we are focusing on is prevention,” O’Hearn said.

He said the hospital has postponed all elective surgery and restrictions are in place on visitors and volunteer workers. Screening has been added as well as strict control standards.

O’Hearn said they are working on making sure the hospital and staff are ready when the surge hits. That involves ensuring there is the necessary personal protective equipment such as masks, gowns and gloves as well as hospital equipment and security.

O’Hearn said the community has been a huge help by providing gear. He said Monday morning the hospital received 75 homemade masks and a local stitching company is hoping to start making gowns.

“We can’t thank the community enough,” he said, noting it has been remarkable to see.

So far 51 people have been screened for COVID-19 in Coos County and all tests have come back negative. O’Hearn said they are following the federal Centers for Disease Control guidelines for testing. Those guidelines call for testing patients with symptoms with priority to health-care workers, first responders and their families; people in long-term care facilities; and those hospitalized with a fever or respiratory illness. In some cases, the hospital has gone to the patient’s home to do testing.

Grenier said Gov. Chris Sununu told the state’s mayors the backlog in testing has been eliminated as of Monday. The state can now handle 500 tests a day and hopes to be able to do upwards of 1,000 a day. At the Berlin city council meeting Monday night, Councilor Roland Theberge noted a Maine laboratory has developed a new test that can give results within 15 minutes instead of days. The test has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Maine company started mass production this week.

Wheeler said plans to set up a mobile testing site in the city are on hold because the need currently is not there.

He said the city is working with the hospital to locate additional space to accommodate COVID-19 patients. As a critical care hospital, AVH has 25 patient beds and has now identified space within the hospital to accommodate another 15 to 25 beds. The goal is to keep coronavirus patients within the hospital.

To be prepared should the number of COVID-19 patients exceed the hospital’s capacity, the city manager said the two organizations are working to create an off-site “surge” location. The hospital hopes to avoid having to staff a second location.

“Obviously everyone’s hope is that we won’t need that location, but we want to do it in advance. … So we are working with them on that,” Wheeler said.

O’Hearn said the hospital is trying to get ready for what is coming with modeling predicting the county should see its first positive cases by mid-April.

“We have a high degree of focus to make sure we are prepared,” he said.

The city has created a public safety task force and put together a COVID-19 incident Command System with Fire Chief Jay Watkins serving as the emergency management director. Also on the team are Wheeler, Community Development Director Pamela Laflamme, Deputy Police Chief Dan Buteau, Police Chief Peter Morency and Health Officer Angela Martin-Giroux. Watkins also coordinates with the state Emergency Operations Center.

One of the city’s concerns is reaching the city’s senior population, who may not use social media or read local newspapers. The city last week did a community telephone call to 6,000 residents, hoping to reach that susceptible segment. People who are alone and need some type of assistance can call City Clerk Shelli Fortin at (603) 752-2340 or the state help line at 211.

Fortin is also the contact for people wishing to volunteer. Wheeler said a number of people have called asking if there are ways they can help. He said Fortin will keep a list of volunteers that the city can call on as needed.

Watkins said he is also working with North Country Health Consortium and they are making a big effort to promote volunteers. He said the city is hoping to piggyback on that effort.

The task force is inventorying personal protective equipment for city staff.

Wheeler said city police, fire and Berlin Emergency Medical Service currently have sufficient PPE but are building up supplies for the expected future need.

N95 masks are the highest priority and Tyvek suits are also needed.

Donations are gratefully accepted and people should call Fire and Code Clerk Devon York at (603) 752-1630 if they have equipment to donate.

Berlin can request PPE through the state emergency operations center and other agencies.

The city has also taken steps to minimize traffic in and out of city hall to reduce exposure and allow non-essential staff to stay home as much as possible. It is not taking payments at the finance windows. People are directed to call if they have payments to make and will be directed to pay by credit card or check though the mail.

Police Chief Morency said he is impressed to see how the city, schools, hospital and community are working together. He said the department has some concerns about exposure and has had to change some of the way it performs its duties.

“But I want the community to know that if there is an emergency, we will be there,” he said.

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