Local officials working with each other on response to coronavirus

In the wake of concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, local officials around the region said they are stepping up their communication with each other and working across town and city borders.

Officials say they are responding to the rapidly evolving situation by sharing information on a regional level, from the best platform to host online meetings to avoid large gatherings, to plans to encourage social distancing among employees.

The Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, the area’s regional planning agency that typically meets once a month, will now hold a weekly teleconference to ensure, as Waterford First Selectman Rob Brule said, the local officials are “moving in unison and lockstep.”

Health districts also are coordinating with municipalities throughout the region, and groups from superintendents to emergency management directors are holding regular discussions.

Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments Chairman Mark Nickerson, East Lyme’s first selectman, said that direction is coming from the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the implementation is happening at the local municipal level.

Working together as a region ensures the towns are all handling the situation appropriately at the same level, he said. It also provides reassurances that the communities will be there for one another if they need help on a regional level.

“The bottom line is we do work together, and I think that’s good for everybody,” he said.

Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments Executive Director James Butler said the municipalities have been collaborating with each other on issues, from minor ones to larger efforts.

The council has been distributing information to its members, such as a document explaining Gov. Ned Lamont's order on public meetings endorsed by the Connecticut Association of Councils of Governments, Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the Connecticut Council of Small Towns.

As the towns shift meetings to a virtual platform, Ledyard Mayor Fred Allyn III during a recent roundtable at a Council of Governments meeting said that his town used Zoom video conferencing for a meeting and found it to be "very effective."

Recently, when officials shuttered many town facilities and several issued emergency declarations, they communicated with one another about what closings they started and shared documents with each other, he said.

Despite the lack of county government in Connecticut, the councils of governments represent a platform for elected officials to work together along with health districts and other entities, which they have been doing on a daily basis for more than two decades, Butler said.

“I think that’s fortunate because it’s prepared us to work together now which is critical during this health crisis, which is COVID-19,” Butler said.

City of Groton Mayor Hedrick said the Council of Governments is sending out emails with inquiries on different topics, so local officials can share and compare their best practices, such as steps they are taking to minimize exposure for public works employees. For example, the city says there should be no more than two employees in a vehicle to maintain social distancing. Some municipalities are implementing a one-person per vehicle policy.

Hedrick said he is communicating frequently with other local officials so they are all consistent in the precautions they are taking for both employees and the public.

Hedrick said a regional approach is important to not only ensure consistency among actions taken by local officials, but also because people may live in one town but work in another.

“If regionally we’re doing things similarly across municipalities, then the protective measures are there and you minimize the risk of cross-contamination and of undoing the good that is being done in a given neighborhood,” Hedrick said.

Health districts

Health districts have been working with muncicipalities. For example, Ledge Light Health District Director Stephen Mansfield said he distributed guidelines to the municipalities about what steps they should take if they have an ill employee.

During the recent roundtable, he stressed that: “This is truly a regional effort from a public health perspective.”

He said he was working closely with Uncas Health District Director of Health Patrick McCormack.

“This is going to be a long-duration event, and we’re going to need to work together to meet the needs of our community,” McCormack said in a phone interview.

McCormack also said organizations within the community have been supporting each other. For example, Norwich Public Utilities created a video on behalf of the Uncas Health District on how to protect oneself from the coronavirus.

Mansfield added in a phone interview that it’s important for Ledge Light and other health districts to provide clear and consistent communication to the people they serve.

For instance, when superintendents had to send out notices about closure of schools to parents and guardians, Ledge Light Health District in cooperation with Uncas Health District and other health districts, helped craft a template to send out a consistent message, he said.

Emergency management planning

East Lyme Police Chief and Emergency Management Director Michael Finkelstein stressed that communication is key, whether it’s with state, federal or regional parties. 

Emergency management directors are participating in multiple conference calls with their counterparts in the region and agencies, he said. They are constantly in conversations about what’s happening and how the situation is evolving.

“This is something that hasn’t happened before, and we’re evolving as this evolves,” Finkelstein said.

From an emergency management standpoint, a major goal is to ensure towns and cities across the region all “have a deep enough bench” and are able to continue to provide police, EMS and fire services, he said.

Emergency management directors are looking at how communities are staffed and the resources they host and how they could share equipment and personnel, not just within towns, but across the region and state, if the need arises, he said.

Across the state, each region has a Regional Emergency Planning Team to help with that area’s preparedness, according to the state Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security website. Connecticut is divided into “emergency preparedness regions” “to facilitate emergency management and homeland security planning and regional collaboration.”

Education

School superintendents in the region also have been communicating regularly.

During Thursday meetings that began two weeks ago, superintendents, either in person or virtually, have been discussing their approaches to providing alternative learning opportunities during school closures, as well as how they are handling food and technology distribution and various human resources concerns, LEARN Executive Director Kate Ericson said by email.

“Since the districts are governed by their Boards of Education, the regional conversations equip the school leaders with examples from across the region of the various options for the challenges everyone is facing,” Ericson wrote. “While the region cannot be in lockstep, the professional support provided through ongoing communication helps everyone make the best decisions given the situation as it is, at the moment.”

k.drelich@theday.com

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