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Martha's Vineyard unified front helps pandemic approach


Martha’s Vineyard health departments have collaborated over the course of the pandemic in a way that many regions have not been able to.

They've created an island-wide masks mandate in effect for two years; they've been able to distribute at-home rapid tests to every town on the island, free to residents.

And the island's hospital has not reported one death from COVID-19 over the pandemic.

CAI's Sam Houghton spoke with Tisbury health agent Maura Valley — spokesperson for the islands boards of health — about the unique collaboration and what they've learned these past two years.

Sam Houghton: So rarely do you hear of multiple towns coming together like this, especially health departments. Give us the history here. How did this collaboration come about?

Maura Valley: The island boards of health have been collaborating for many years now, so it was just natural when we were faced with the pandemic to decide that we needed to approach this as one community.

You know, it's easier, being on an island to look at ourselves as one small community rather than six separate towns. And we all know that disease doesn't know town boundaries, so it just made sense to us.

SH: On Cape Cod, There's been frustration about a lack of uniformity when it comes to mask mandates. For instance, some towns have mask mandates; some have versions of mandates; and some don't have any requirements at all. How did the boards on the island find some common ground there?

MV: Again, being one island, it made no sense to have different rules for each town. So right at the beginning, back when we started looking at rules governing worksites and everything in the pandemic, we agreed that any of these emergency regulations should be adopted island-wide.

Sometimes it can be tough to get all of the towns to agree. You're talking about six different elected boards. But in this case, there was strong agreement that it was very important to have consistent rules island-wide. So whenever there seemed to be a need to adopt any type of rules or regulations, we would convene the all island boards to discuss and come to an agreement on what those rules should be.

SH: Now, in terms of the last kind of two years, what are some of the things you've learned working collaboratively with all the boards of health.

MV: I think one one key thing is to share the load of what you need to do. Early on [in the pandemic], when we started working together, we kind of knew that this was going to turn into a lot of work.

We divided up what everybody was going to do and what role everybody would fill, and it made it that much easier. One person would deal with being the spokesperson, like I am. One of the other health agents spent the time poring over all of the regulations as they came out, and they kept us up to date on what was going. Another [health agent] took on contact tracing.

If you can build a good team to work with, then you more prepared to pivot when you need to. Because, as you know, through this whole pandemic, things keep changing.

SH: That is true now. Now, quite remarkably, we can't ignore this. Martha's Vineyard Hospital has not reported one death from COVID 19. There are probably a lot of reasons for that, but anything for you that sticks out, that might be the case? I mean, it's remarkable.

MV: It is definitely remarkable. I think that honestly, it's luck. I think with had we've had a really good contact tracing program from the beginning. Until recently, we would reach out to every positive case. With the recent numbers, that became impossible and we started automating some of our outreach.

But that's not going to prevent deaths. We still have cases. So I don't know what to attribute that to, other than luck. But it is remarkable.

SH: On a personal note, and I guess all of our lives have really changed dramatically the last two years. But or health agents, I'm guessing it's profound. What's it been like running a health department before 2020, and now?

MV: Oh, a huge difference. Pre-pandemic, we would meet and we would talk about pandemic preparedness and planning, but this didn't turn out anything like we expected.

So, before the pandemic, there was a lot of routine things: septic and restaurant inspections, housing and dealing with whatever came up. But then over the past two years, you kind of have to reprioritize. You still need to get your day to day work done. You know, septic systems are still failing, restaurants are still open and need inspections, but you have to figure out how to do that while you deal with the immediate needs of a pandemic.

So it's kind of a juggling act, trying to get everything done, and we've definitely needed to reprioritize what we do.

Sam Houghton left CAI in February, 2023, to become News Editor at the Martha's Vineyard Times.
He worked at CAI since the summer of 2017. Before that, he worked at the Falmouth Enterprise, where he covered local politics.