In our current health crisis we all have to do what we can to make our country and our state as safe as possible for everyone; this civic responsibility includes a special duty to the poor, homeless and elderly. Your Belknap County commissioners are obligated to do everything we can to make our county as safe as possible for all residents, including the most vulnerable. Because of this local responsibility, we have voiced our objection to the state’s plan to house at the State School site in Laconia up to 50 homeless individuals from around the state who have tested positive or have symptoms of COVID-19.
Our concerns about the state plan were intensified by the fact that the state was well along in its planning without any consultation with either county government or the mayor and governing body of the City of Laconia. We all learned of the plan from sources other than the state.
Moreover, the basic idea of the plan seemed questionable at best. Importing sick people from areas where the virus is more prevalent and placing them in a community with relatively few cases seems contrary to the concept of social distancing which is being emphasized by every level of government in our country.
More specifically, we initially had three major concerns. First, that some of those brought in would leave their temporary housing and circulate in the general community, thereby spreading the virus. Second, that those hired to staff the facility will be from the community, which will inevitably increase the risk of infection locally. Those who provide daily care for the residents and those who do routine cleaning for the facility will be at risk, as reflected by the large number of caregivers nationwide who are currently infected.
It is clear that the state recognizes the high degree of risk. Staffing of the facility is being sought from Lakes Region Community Emergency Response Team (“CERT”). CERT is a volunteer service group trained to assist in disaster responses and various non-emergency projects that help improve the community safety. Clearly, the state recognizes the high degree of risk inherent in the State School project. CERT members, who normally are unpaid volunteers, are being offered $500 per 12 hour shift. According to the announcement sent out to CERT members, the “anticipated go-live date is April 15, 2020.” Those who provide the staffing will, at the end of their shifts, return to the community, presenting a significant additional local risk.
Both of these concerns feed into our most serious concern, namely the issue of hospital care. The only hospital in our county is currently in a significantly weakened position, with 42 percent of the staff, including doctors and nurses, furloughed due to economic reasons. Any plan that increases the likelihood of a serious epidemic in Belknap County at a time when the hospital is on life support has to be questioned.
Using conservative numbers, based on national averages, we can anticipate that 10 percent of the homeless residents will need a higher level of medical care while residing at the State School site. Of greater concern is the potential impact of staff who are back and forth between the site and the community. Clearly, the potential spread of the virus into the general community is significantly increased by this factor and again, using conservative numbers, 10 percent of those who become infected will require hospital care.
We have been assured by the state that those brought to the State School site can, under existing state laws, be forced to remain there. Thus one of our three points of concern has been addressed. The other two have not. Unless the hospital issue is solved, the current state plan is, in our opinion, dangerously flawed. Without such a solution, we strongly urge the state to make the State School site a temporary facility for our county homeless and those Belknap County residents who need temporary housing because of the COVID-19 crisis.
(David D. DeVoy II of Sanbornton and Hunter Taylor of Alton are two of the three members of Belknap County Board of Commissioners.)