I Go to City Council Meetings #41

COVID-19 update, fireworks, additional funding for Health Dept.

By Brian Z. Zayatz

On December 3rd, 2020, the Northampton City Council held its 22nd regularly scheduled meeting of the year. All councilors were present. 

With no members of the public expressing interest in speaking, the Council moved quickly through the first items on the agenda to the evening’s main event, a Covid-19 update from Health Director Merridith O’Leary, which along with Q&A, took up over half the meeting.

Director O’Leary began the presentation with data: since the start of the pandemic, Northampton has had 476 cases, including 146 cases since October after reaching a low of two cases in September. The first surge saw 65% of the city’s cases in long term care facilities such as nursing homes, whereas for the current surge, only 15% of cases are linked to these facilities, meaning that “community spread” has jumped from representing only 35% of cases to 85%. The city’s 14-day average positivity rate is 1.15%, whereas the state’s is over 3%. Director O’Leary noted that 5% was the “scary number,” though it was unclear what this implied, and that the state’s daily rate was over 7%. The city’s EMTs receive a briefing on trends and new data twice a week.

The Health Department is still actively contact tracing, having hired some employees back after letting some go during the summer’s lull. In April and May, the average number of contacts per case was 3.5, but cases during this surge have thus far had many more contacts.

The Department has also employed public health ambassadors, who have given out over 5,000 masks in the city, as well as provided information to residents. These workers are spending less time on outreach now that the city has fewer pedestrians, but will continue to work part time, also assisting with health screening at the schools, until the federal CARES Act funding expires at the end of December. The city is also opening a new 37 bed shelter as a collaboration between ServiceNet and First Churches, where residents will have to test negative to get a bed and will likely be tested at two week intervals after admission. Director O’Leary additionally advises the schools on a weekly basis on whether to stay open or switch to hybrid or remote learning.

Director O’Leary said she has been advocating for a state-run Stop the Spread free testing site for Northampton, but the state has so far not indicated that one is forthcoming. There may be a weekly roving site coming soon to the city, however, which Director O’Leary said in response to a question from Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3) would likely be targeting specific professions, such as teachers or workers in downtown businesses, where she admits there is a good deal of spread. She also predicted that asymptomatic testing would probably become more difficult to obtain, as available tests will be increasingly reserved for those displaying symptoms as case counts go up. The city is, however, already a registered vaccine site, and could have vaccines available for the general public in March, during phase 3 of distribution (O’Leary noted that October’s drive-thru flu vaccine site was very successful and considered a dry run for similar sites in the future). Local healthcare workers will likely have access to the vaccine by mid-December.

A number of other issues were broached during Q&A with the Councilors. To name a few: the city is still looking for people to join its medical reserve corps, and will have even more need during vaccine rollout. Interested parties should contact the Health Department; background in healthcare is not necessary. Director O’Leary noted that, in addition to public health ambassadors, the city has also hired a full-time Covid compliance officer and has received over 2500 complaints, about 80% of which have been regarding individual mask use, which they cannot enforce. This officer will stay on the city’s payroll after CARES Act funding expires, and the department will ask for additional funds for personnel if future circumstances necessitate.

Councilor Marianne Labarge (Ward 6) asked about Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChappelle’s recent decision to close schools until March, to which Director O’Leary responded that Easthampton’s per capita case rate was much higher than Northampton’s. She also noted that Northampton’s schools have not been a major site of transmission, though they did recently transition to hybrid learning. 

In response to a question from Councilor Karen Foster (Ward 2) about communication channels with the public, Director O’Leary admitted that it had been difficult, but hoped to be able to make regular contributions to the Gazette, or host Zoom panels for the public, in the future. Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) asked how the department was communicating to seniors, who may have less access to information and few social contacts, that gathering for the holidays is a bad idea. Director O’Leary said she has heard seniors saying they are “willing to take the risk” or they would “die of loneliness.” To this, she responded that the vaccine is so tangible that it would be a shame to take bigger risks now. She also noted the Senior Center’s technology training and lending program to help seniors stay in touch with loved ones; Mayor Narkewicz chimed in that the Senior Center also has a list of seniors living alone who they call regularly.

Fireworks

The Council also considered an application for the first night fireworks display in the consent agenda, which Councilor Dwight moved to consider separately for purposes of discussion. “Within the context of the conversation we just had, it seems almost crazy to have an event like this,” said Councilor Dwight, adding later, “I don’t want to be the guy responsible for killing the fireworks.” Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) asked Director O’Leary her thoughts on how to mitigate the potential for crowds gathering, to which O’Leary responded that her “bandwidth is about six hours ahead,” but that she generally tries to be very strategic about messaging so that it doesn’t become background noise. 

Mayor Narkewicz offered that the fireworks will be the only event actually taking place in person, and that theoretically there would be many places from which to watch them, and that it would only be 10-15 minutes long. Councilor Dwight wondered if police had the power to break up groups that congregated, though he doubted they did. Councilor Foster asked if it would be possible to take up at the next meeting, to which the Mayor responded that it was, but he wasn’t sure what kind of timeframe was needed for preparations, and that normally someone from the Arts Council would be present to answer these questions. Councilor Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) offered that he was confident Director O’Leary would shut down the event if cases rose sharply, to which the Mayor responded affirmatively. The Councilors approved the application unanimously.

Health Dept. funding and more

The Councilors approved to allocate $60,000 of free cash towards carrying over some of the Health Department’s expanded staff into the new year, which the Mayor introduced with snide remarks towards the federal government’s inability to pass further stimulus. The city’s free cash reserves were just recertified by the state at $5.7 million after rolling over from last year. Normally, this money would be directed towards the city’s stabilization funds, but this year was kept on hand in anticipation of unexpected financial challenges.

The Council also voted to expedite a transaction between the state and John and Faye Omasta, who are looking to permanently preserve their farmland on West Farms Rd. 

The meeting concluded with a request for an extension by the Ordinance Review Committee in filing their final report. The committee has been meeting for three months after delaying their start due to the pandemic, and as a result are asking for a three month extension. The committee, which includes Councilors Nash, La Barge, and Thorpe, as well as members of the public, was tasked with reviewing ordinances to determine if any of them disproportionately impact residents of color, and has expanded its charge to also consider a number of other axes of impact, including sustainability and traffic. The Council approved the request.

Correction: An earlier version of this story wrongly suggested that Councilor Jarrett was on the Ordinance Review Committee. He is not on the committee. The story has been updated to reflect that Councilors Nash and LaBarge are.


Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. 

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