Town Prepares for Virus Threat

by | Mar 10, 2020

Above: The Town Council discusses the town’s preparations for COVID-19.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Town Manager Andrew Nota told the Town Council Monday night the town was preparing to cope with possible disruptions caused by the increased risk of the coronavirus COVID-19.

While the number of cases in Rhode Island remains relatively low (5 confirmed, 24 tests pending as of Tuesday), the state is gearing up for more cases.

“What we’re really focused on here is less about the health impact – we have to rely on state and federal health officials to lead there – but we’re really focused on now is continuity of operations,” Nota told the council. 

“It really comes down to communication,” he said. “We may need to be able to function remotely at times. What happens if it’s during tax time? There are a lot of technical issues around communication.” 

He urged town residents to sign up for email, text and phone call alerts on the town’s website. There are two sign ups, one for email or text messages for general town notices. The other is the town’s Code RED system*, which pushes out EMA town and state phone call alerts. You can find the links to both HERE or on the left side of the town website’s home page.

For now, town operations are proceeding as usual – with modified cleaning regimens and additional hand sanitizers available – but that may change, Nota said.

“We are entering the next phase of this event in that we are encouraging those elderly members of our community, those with underlying health conditions and those that may be medically challenged at this time, to seriously consider not attending any local events and/or gatherings that may expose them to a large audience where the potential may exist for them to be exposed to COVID-19,” he said via email Tuesday. “We remain hopeful that we can continue with routine smaller scale gatherings, like the critical senior lunch program at the Senior Center, although further updates will follow in the coming weeks regarding even programs of this more manageable size,” he said.

The town will also be looking at recreation and community-based programs that could put community members at risk, Nota said. “We will be in continual communication … regarding any and all local recommended plans and actions as they develop.”  

As town manager, Nota is head of the town’s emergency management team. In recent years, the makeup of that team has been largely DPW-based, reflecting more traditional Rhode Island emergencies like hurricanes and blizzards. 

COVID-19 and last fall’s cyber attack represent new types of threats; both require more expanded expertise, Nota said.

“Most of our emergency operations documents focus on traditional events,” he said. “In my review in the coming weeks, this group will be refined and may expand to include representatives of both the police and fire departments also.”

Fire Chief Bernie Patenaude Tuesday outlined the fire department’s protocols for patients who may have COVID-19. Right now, he said, rescue personnel are asking people they treat if they have traveled to a place that’s had a large outbreak or have had contact with someone known to have the virus.

Then they will try to minimize exposure by having only one rescue personnel actively treat a patient if possible. If the person needs to be taken by rescue to a hospital, the patient will wear a mask and the firefighter in the truck with the patient will be wearing protective gear. 

Transmission of the virus is mainly through droplets when a person coughs or sneezes, so firefighters will be protecting their eyes, noses and mouths. 

“It’s really low-risk exposure if the patient has a mask on,” Patenaude said.

In the event of a low-risk exposure, the firefighter/s involved will monitor their health for 14 days, taking their temperature and watching for symptoms while they continue to work. 

If a firefighter has a medium-risk exposure – i.e. prolonged exposure to a possible COVID-19 patient not wearing a mask – that firefighter would be restricted from work for 14 days. 

High-risk exposure would be performing CPR on a patient, Patenaude said.  

At this point, absences will be covered by overtime. The town does not yet have any formal arrangement with other nearby municipalities if, say, EGFD couldn’t staff a truck.

Patenaude said the department did order a new piece of decontamination equipment that should be arriving in the next week or two – an ultraviolet light that if put in the back of a truck for 20 minutes would kill all germs.

The $4,000 cost of the light was covered out of Town Manager Nota’s emergency management budget. 

“I think it’s a really good proactive step,” said Patenaude.

He urged people to remain calm.

“This is not something to panic about,” he said. “We’ll take precautions and we’ll do our thing but it’s not a panic situation.”

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