Once again, experience made the difference in a decision to fill a health-related position in Marion.
Earlier this year upon the dissolution of the Marion-Rochester Health District and the retirement of Karen Walega from service to Marion, the town hired Dave Flaherty as its health director. He was selected by the Board of Health in large part because he had matching experience during a pandemic. Flaherty has, by all accounts, been a success in Marion.
After lengthy debate during Tuesday afternoon’s public meeting over the two finalists for the full-time, public-health-nurse position that Kathy Downey will vacate on August 19, Board of Health Chairperson Ed Hoffer and board Clerk John Howard, both physicians, appealed to the same reasoning and established a majority for the three-person board to authorize Town Administrator Jay McGrail to offer Lori Desmarais the job.
“Lori would hit the ground running. She knows exactly what she’d be doing and how to do it. If there’s any hesitation in making her No. 1, it would be in her burning the candle at too many ends,” said Hoffer.
Despite Downey’s commitment to the transition process, Howard expressed concern over finalist Kristen Meigg’s lack of experience with too many aspects of the job. “It’s unfair to ask Kathy after she retires… to be responsible for getting Kristen up and running,” he said.
Desmarais works full-time at a nursing home and on top of that, serves three towns as public health nurse: Freetown, Lakeville, and Dighton.
“I love working with the public. I’m looking to make it a full-time position,” said Desmarais in her interview with the full board on Tuesday. “I love to be with people and educate people. Sometimes they just need someone to bounce some ideas off of.”
Desmarais works eight hours every Tuesday for Freetown, and for Lakeville and Dighton acts on notices received through the state’s Maven software. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, she was “quite busy,” working evenings and weekends on cases and follow-up. She is also a call firefighter and an emergency medical technician.
“The Maven system is very… tedious, a huge time sink, and very clearly I can easily see that would take all of Kristen’s time,” said Hoffer.
Desmarais’ educational work in Freetown has included tick-borne illness and community events. She has been on Freetown’s cultural council the past six years but her term is up. She indicated that taking the Marion job would result in leaving her job at the nursing home but not necessarily her other public health positions.
Both McGrail and Board of Health Vice Chairperson Dot Brown preferred Meiggs for the spot.
“Kristen has a big passion and an allegiance to the community,” said Brown. “She’s already here, and I think that might help her as she learns (the job). I like Lori and I do think she’d hit the ground running, but I think she has a lot of allegiances.”
Meiggs is a nurse practitioner with Southcoast Hospitals working in surgery. Beforehand, she had worked community-based jobs in Fall River and aims to get back to that type of work.
“Kristen is clearly the less-qualified of the two candidates, but just how she handles herself… her answer on how she would handle difficult situations; that was a home run,” said McGrail.
The two finalists were interviewed for the second time in Tuesday’s public meeting, and during Meiggs’ interview Brown noted that “in public health role, we end up at odds with the community” and asked Meiggs if she could recall a time when she had to bridge a gap between different perspectives.
Meiggs said that, in her work as a nurse practitioner in a jail, inmates sometimes don’t like each other and officers ended up being patients after scuffles. “They would try to keep me out of the scuffle itself, but there needs to be a cool head,” she said. “Everybody’s mad, and (I try to) work on the primary issue and go from there.
“The public health position comes with the challenge of people not agreeing. That’s not something you learn from a book. You learn from experience, but your approach… the grand scheme of things is you can’t make everybody happy all the time.”
Meiggs left a very positive impression, and the decision to offer Demarais the job came with the provision that, should negotiations be unsuccessful, the town will offer Meiggs the job.
In his Health Director Report, Flaherty said that the town’s bathing beaches required no closings for last round of testing and that aerial spraying for insects will continue by Plymouth County.
Despite the close proximity of Carver and Middleboro where cases abound, Marion is still under low threat for the EEE and West Nile viruses. But Flaherty said, “It seems like just a matter of time before Marion’s level is elevated.”
There have been no recent complaints in the food-service area, but board members asked Flaherty to resume restaurant inspections during the height of the summer season.
“I might be the burnt toast that walks into the room,” joked Flaherty of restaurant visits. “I just don’t want to put more pressure on them. I can certainly do (inspections) again, but… I don’t want to bring the anxiety level above what it already is.” Nonetheless, Flaherty cheerfully accepted the request of the board to resume inspections.
Flaherty reported to the board the story of a goat with an odd neurological disorder. Animal control and the Police Department were involved. The animal was euthanized and test samples were brought to a laboratory in Jamaica Plain. The goat was up to date with its rabies shot so now he is waiting to find out from the state if the goat had the EEE virus.
Hoffer alluded to the youngster who contacted EEE in Middleboro. “I do think we need to be cautious,” he said. “I don’t want to get heavy-handed about what you can and cannot do after dusk, but we’re getting near that.”
Downey has met with officials at Tabor Academy and Chief of Police John Garcia about the prep school’s return-to-school plan. She has also been meeting with Old Rochester Regional School District and had planned to meet Wednesday morning with Sippican School.
As widely expected, ORR will have a hybrid return-to-school model for all schools, rotating students between in-person and remote learning.
Downey reported over 400 COVID-19 tests, all negative, something she considered “a positive.” Downey reported having met earlier Tuesday with Katie Brown, the state epidemiologist, about EEE and said there are fewer bird-biting mosquitoes this year.
Marion is looking for a new vendor for personal protection equipment (PPE) after a shipment previously assured by McKesson failed to materialize.
McGrail reported to the board that there is no precedent in Marion for sheltered large groups of people in hotels, as may become necessary should there be a severe hurricane during the coronavirus pandemic.
The next meeting of the Marion Board of Health is scheduled for Tuesday, August 18, at 4:00 pm via Zoom.
Marion Board of Health
By Mick Colageo