Board Of Health Welcomes New Public Health Nurse.  Bivalent COVID Boosters Are Here.

Olivia Lara-Cahoon, Amherst's new public health nurse.

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Board of Health,  September 8, 2022
The meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. 

Nancy Gilbert (Chair), Timothy Randhir, Maureen Milllea. Absent:  Lauren Mills
Staff: Jennifer Brown (Health Director), Olivia Lara-Cahoon (Public Health Nurse)
Also: Town Councilor Michele Miller (District 1)

Three members of the public were in attendance

Board Welcomes Town’s New Public Health Nurse
The board welcomed and introduced themselves to the town’s new public health nurse, Olivia Lara-Cahoon.  Lara-Cahoon (previously Peters)  practiced as a public health nurse in Worcester,  then worked for the Edward M. Kennedy Health Center of Worcester until she began her work for the  Massachusetts Department of Public Health with the Division of Global Populations and Infectious Disease Prevention Program through the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Lab Sciences.  She started as a Public Health Nurse in Amherst on July 5, 2022.  

Toxic Chemical Regulations
Health Director Jennifer Brown received the draft of new toxic chemical regulations from board member Timothy Randhir and requested a few more weeks to study the proposed regulations and offer edits.  The board agreed to revisit the draft and edits suggested by board members at their October meeting. A draft of the new regulations can be read here.

Community Assessment
Board Chair Nancy Gilbert reported that data from Phase II of the community health assessment will be presented at the board’s October meeting.  At least one new UMass masters student in public health will be coming on board to help with the assessment.

Gun Safety
Gilbert suggested that with the apparent increase in gun violence nationally and with growing public interest in gun regulation, the board ought to assess risks and protective measures locally.  Citing a recent American Public Health Association report, Gilbert said is clear that Massachusetts is doing well in terms of gun regulation  and gun safety but it would still be good for us to hear from the Amherst Police Department (APD) about our protective factors and risk factors.  Massachusetts currently has the second lowest rate in the nation for gun deaths and ranks fifth for strongest gun regulations. However in 2020 Springfield saw a substantial rise in recorded firearm deaths.  The board heard from the APD in 2012 and it was very helpful. Gilbert said it would be good to hear from APD Chief Scott Livingstone and from CRESS Director Earl Miller to get their take on gun safety and the root causes of gun violence.  Randhir said that he would also like to know how Amherst’s gun metrics compare to neighboring towns.  Brown indicated that she would invite Livingstone and Miller to a future meeting.

Geothermal Wells
Town Health Inspector Edmund Smith reported on applications to dig bore holes for geothermal wells  at three locations in Amherst: on North Prospect Street, Strong Street and Mill Street.  There was some discussion about required buffer zones between bodies of water and bore holes.  It appeared that the regulations are not clear on buffer zones, that they had not been updated in a number of years and that requirements may differ for closed loop and open loop systems.  Hannah Kowalski, the applicant for the installation on Mill street, reported that there is a 200 ft. buffer zone between new wells and bodies of water and that the Mill Street property, which is in the vicinity of Puffers Pond, is apparently not within the buffer zone.  Smith said that he would clarify the regulations with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental protection.

The board approved unanimously (3-0) permits for the wells on North Prosepect Street and Strong Street and said they would revisit the Mill Street application at a future meeting, after they had collected more information.

Randhir wondered if the board would be seeing an increase in applications for bore hole wells. Kowalski,  a contractor who does geothermal installations, said that there is growing interest in geothermal both because geothermal is a carbon neutral technology and because it can reduce home energy costs.  And there are now government incentives for geothermal including rebates from the new Inflation Reduction Act. So costs for doing these installations have gone down for individual home owners.   

Board Of Health Chair’s Report
Gilbert has prepared a report on the board’s activities for the previous fiscal year.  She observed that there doesn’t appear to be a tradition of writing a year-end report for the board and hoped that this would be the start of a tradition of doing so.  Among the many accomplishments of the board in the previous fiscal year  that she noted were: 

  • Jennifer Brown assumed the duties of interim health director and public health nurse until she was appointed as health director last September and until Lara-Cahoon took on the duties of Public Health Nurse this July.
  • The board conducted a couple of listening sessions to get feedback on access to health care in town
  • The board issued a statement that racism is a public health crisis
  • The board is in the midst of conducting a community health assessment and now has three UMass graduate students working on it
  • The board reviewed and revised health regulations. This included completion of the bio- labs regulation, drafting of a new toxic chemicals regulations, and working with Zero Waste Amherst and endorsing their efforts to bring the town a new solid waste bylaw.

Plan and Goals for 2023:

  • Work on new regulations and education and outreach for smoking in the workplace and for wood smoke and wood burning.
  • Continue  updates of existing regulations
  • Look at the infrastructure of the health department including the possibility of relocating the health inspectors in the health department  (they are now located inspection services)
  • anticipate vacancies and the need to appoint people to the board who have the  necessary skill sets  (especially civil engineering, nursing and epidemiology). Think about planning for turnover.

There is currently one vacancy on the board.  Interested residents can apply here by filling out a community activity form.

Health Director’s Report
COVID Update:  The lastest town figures for COVID are posted on the town’s COVID dashboard.  COVID data are updated daily. Case counts are starting to tick up and what we have is almost certainly an under representation of actual numbers due to a  nationwide decline in testing and reporting.  The Health Department is also looking at other public health indicators including tracking waste water and hospital bed counts.  Municipalities are no longer required to do contact tracing but Amherst has decided to continue with the practice, prioritizing the highest risk/most vulnerable cases.  The department will be getting another large shipment of free , at-home, rapid antigen tests for COVID -19.  Check the Health Department testing web site for information on availability.  The Health Department will soon offer a vaccine clinic for the COVID bivalent booster in both Pfizer and Moderna versions.  The vaccine has been ordered and the clinic will be offering it to people 12 years and older who have already had their base doses.  Vaccine clinics are offered on Thursday with expanded hours coming soon. For more information omn COVID vaccines look hereUMass and Northampton are also offering the bivalent booster.

Remote Meetings Authorization Extended – The Governor has extended his remote meeting authorization through March 23, 2023

Public Health Excellence Grant- the department has applied for a grant in collaboration with the Northampton department of health that seeks support for shared nursing services, data collection, and possibly inspection services. 

Childhood Immunization Clinic – The town’s childhood immunization clinic, previously conducted in the schools, was retired in 2019 but since the onset of the pandemic there have been requests to start it up again.  The health department will be starting a small clinic for school age children who are uninsured Amherst residents.  Users of the clinic will be provided information on opportunities to acquire health insurance.  The clinic has already been inspected and audited and vaccines have been ordered and will be starting soon.

Mosquito Control District Update – Amherst has been approved  to join the district and is on the wait list to start.  Incidences of West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis are way down this year because it’s been such a dry year.

Sanitary Sewer Overflow:  The health department gets a report every time there is a sanitary sewer overflow.  The latest incident,  reported in the Indy last week, was the result of a blockage from household grease.  Brown shared that it’s not just grease that clogs up the sewers and that there are several other items including dental floss and “flushable wipes” that can produce blockages that lead to sewage overflows.

Next Meeting
Text meeting will be on October  13

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