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Town of Sandwich Hires Public Health Physician to Manage and Plan for COVID-19 Cases

Town of Sandwich website

The town of Sandwich hired a part-time physician this summer to help with COVID planning, from procuring tests, managing staff outbreaks and planning to distribute an eventual vaccine.

CAI's Kathryn Eident talked with Fire Chief John Burke about why the town felt it was necessary to hire a doctor and why they have what he calls a "Doomsday Plan."

Burke So, one of the things that we looked at early in the process was acquiring a vaccine. And you do need a physician to sign off on the acquisition of that for your community. So, we are one of the only two or three communities on the Cape that actually have a public health nurse on staff. We do not utilize the VNA. So, talking with our public health nurse, she thought would be a good idea that we had a like a public health physician that would handle everybody in town. So, he was brought on as of June 11 and his initial focus was advising us on COIVD testing. So, what testing processes were out there that would be beneficial for the town. And, he's also advising us if we have employees that have been exposed, and or, are COVID positive. He helps us with quarantine and isolation. He also tracks those individuals that are in the hospital for us.

Eident Does that mean you are already putting plans in place to distribute a vaccine? We could be months away from one, but are you laying that groundwork now?

Burke Yes. So, September 16th, we did our first drive through clinic at the old Henry T. Wing School in Sandwich. Even though we're giving flu shots, we can kind of do the logistical things that we need in the planning; things that we can see how things work. And, it's been good so far. The first one was excellent. We learned a lot from it. We're making some adjustments and we feel we're in a good position that when a vaccine becomes available, hopefully at some point in 2021, we can use the same system for distribution.

Eident How about when it comes to test? How available are they to you? And can the physician help with procuring them or at least managing that?

Burke So what we ended up doing is we contracted with a private laboratory, Atlas Genomics, they're out of Seattle. And so, if we have to do nasal PCR testing of our employees, we have about 50 kits that are available. Dr. Bemis, our physician, signed off on that. So, we have access to those kits and the lab can evaluate and analyze those samples within 24 hours, which is very good in public safety, because you want to make sure you have enough staffing to handle everything. And if you lose a bunch of people, you just want to make sure you're able to test that swiftly, ethically.

Eident As fire chief, have you had to rethink staffing plans or at least backup staffing plans in the event that there was an outbreak among fire department staff?

Burke Yes. So, we call it the “Doomsday Plan,” but we have four levels of staffing based on how many people are out. So, we go through different tiers, it’s by percentages. So, you know, when there's 25 percent of the department out, this is what the staffing looks like. If is 50 percent of the department out, this is the staffing. So, we can plan accordingly. And the first threshold is we're fully staffed. And then once we get that 25 percent, you're already looking to the what the next level is going to be; it prepares you.

Eident And, you talked about this before, Chief, you have a background in pandemics. I imagine this study has come in quite handy for you in this time.

Burke Yeah, I was very, very lucky. I got my Master’s degree from Boston University back in 2011. So, at that point, H1N1 was prevalent in the country. So, I focused on pandemics and mainly on testing and distribution of vaccines. So, like drive through vaccines was really one of my main focus areas. But the other piece that I looked at extensively was continuity of government. So that's come in very handy. You know, we've set that up here in the town of Sandwich with four teams. So, if the town manager and his assistant go out sick, we have another team that will rise up or put that particular position and then it goes all the way to a total of eight individuals. So, having that background of working with that over the last ten years, that part came in very handy.

Eident Oh, I imagine. Do other towns look to you since you have this really special background?

Burke I do lead a weekly call with all the fire chiefs on the Cape. We've been doing that since April. And it gives us a chance to compare notes. And if there's anything going on in one particular community that we can help out with. And then here there are a few communities have asked certain questions, and I'm more than happy to let the assistance as needed.

Eident We also heard news this week, Chief, that there is a case of COVID-19 at the Oakridge School that's a school for children in grades three to six. Do you work with health care and schools when things like this happen?

Burke Yes, the Oak Ridge school did have a positive case. Not surprising. You know, the expectation is we are going to have positive cases. It's how we manage them. And it's how the parents manage them—I think that is the most important.

If your child is ill, or your child has got to get a COVID test, do not assume it's going to come back negative and send your kids to school. We're trying to keep the schools open as long as we can. And again, I think people need to be patient. I think we still have another six months or so of some restrictions. And I'm hopeful we get through the we're doing in the spring and we're on the back. This and, you know, we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Eident Chief Burke of Sandwich, thank you so much for talking with us. Appreciate it.

Burke Thank you, Kathryn.

Kathryn Eident was the Morning Edition Host and Senior Producer of News until November 2022.