Board of Health: COVID Situation In Amherst Much Improved. High Level Of Gun Safety In Town

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Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Board Of Health, January 12, 2023

The meeting was held on Zoom and was recorded.

Present: Nancy Gilbert (Chair), Premila Nair, Maureen Millea, Lauren Mills. Absent: Timothy Randhir

Staff: Jennifer Brown, Health Director

New Board Member
Chair Nancy Gilbert opened the meeting by welcoming Premila Nair to the board. Nair was nominated for a three-year term by the Town Manager in December. The Town Manager provided the following biographical profile of Nair.

Premila Nair is a nurse practitioner who has been working at Smith College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the Springfield Southwest Community Health Center for nearly 20 years. She has also worked at other community health centers and served as a refugee resettlement case manager for refugees from Indonesia, Philippines, Sudan, Thailand, and Costa Rica. She brings strong skills in language, speaking English, Spanish, and Malay. She serves on the board of directors of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst. She has experience and knowledge of many key public health issues including COVID-19, EEE, and other vector-borne diseases. She was drawn by the attention the town is dedicating to the role that systemic and unconscious racism plays in public health and hopes to contribute to that conversation.

Director’s Report
Health Director Jennifer Brown reported that overall, the COVID situation in town is much improved though the pandemic is still with us (see also here and here). She said that a year ago, there were 320 active cases of COVID in Amherst with an incidence of 191 cases/100,000. The figures for this last week were 23 active cases with an incidence of 7.3/100,000. She reported that since the start of the pandemic, we’ve had 62 COVID deaths in Amherst among people aged 35-100 years old. She suggested that the town ought to think about how it might commemorate those losses.

Brown reported that the dominant variant in the Northeast is the Omicron variant XBB.1.15 (also known as Kraken). It now comprises 60% of new cases in the Northeast. It is more immune evasive, and shows a greater trend toward producing disability than the preceding Omicron variant. But it is still an open question as to whether it will be more severe than previous variants. Massachusetts is still reporting 14 COVID deaths/day. The Board of Health reports that they aren’t able to follow the case counts as closely as we used to because testing and reporting have all but stopped, but they are tracking viral load in the town’s wastewater. They sample three times/week and post and archive the results on the town’s web site (look here). Right now the viral load in local wastewater is decreasing. 

Flu and RSV are also circulating in town. We had higher numbers in previous weeks and case counts are now leveling off. People are getting really sick with these other viruses. But the tools for protecting ourselves are the same. People should get vaccinated for flu and COVID. Use rapid antigen tests for COVID (available for free at the Health Department). (See https://www.amherstma.gov/65/Health-Department) There are tests for flu and RSV, and there are treatments for flu. Paxlovid works well to ameliorate the effects of COVID, even with the new variant. The bivalent COVID vaccine is still regarded as effective but 63% of Americans have not had the bivalent booster. The rate of people in Amherst fully vaccinated for COVID is 91%. The Department of Health continues to run vaccine clinics at the Bangs center and has 10,000 rapid antigen kits ready for distribution.

For those wondering whether there will be a new booster in the spring, the CDC’s advisory committee will be meeting on January 26 to consider next steps in vaccination.

An article on long COVID in Journal of the American Medical Association offers a longitudinal observational study and reports that vaccinated people have lower long COVID prevalence.


The town has received a report on a recent town tobacco compliance check. It reported that Amherst had no recorded tobacco sales to minors.

Firearm Safety Review
Given the prominence of gun violence in the news, Gilbert invited Police Chief Scott Livingstone to provide an overview of what is being done in Amherst to promote gun safety and what are the gun risks faced by town residents.

Livingstone reported that Amherst is a safe community and the incidence of violations involving guns is low. He said that each year that department receives about 100 calls that are gun related but most of those end up being residents reporting having heard a gunshot, and, it’s usually not a gunshot but rather a car backfiring or something similar, or it’s a gunshot heard during hunting season. Very few calls involve the use of a weapon in the commission of a crime. He said that about 5% of the population of Amherst or about 1,500 individuals are licensed to own or carry a gun. That number does not include students who do not list Amherst as their primary residence, but no weapons, even if licensed, are allowed on the local college campuses. Livingstone said that the Amherst police do not have the ability to track how many weapons licensed individuals have. Licenses cover the right to use a particular kind of weapon and not the number that can be possessed. 

Livingstone was asked what the town and the board can do to promote gun safety. He responded that by law, all weapons in the home must be secured  and that the APD provides free gun locks to residents on request. He noted that Governor Maura Healy is making gun safety and gun law enforcement a priority of her administration, so we’re likely to see more initiatives around this in the coming months. He noted that gun licensing in Massachusetts is already pretty strict, requiring multiple background checks including a personal interview. In Massachusetts, the police chief is the designated licensing authority and has the power to revoke licenses, although revocations can be appealed before a judge. He noted that he has suspended licenses, for example, in cases of domestic violence. He noted that there clearly needs to be more attention given to the mental health field, and that we see mental health implicated consistently in mass shootings, and that there is always room for more work in this area. He concluded, “We do a good job of licensing legitimate weapons. But there’s a new trend of people making their own weapons — ghost guns — and there is really no way to track them.” He sees this as an emerging serious problem nationally, although he noted that the APD has not yet come across any ghost guns in Amherst.

Maureen Millea asked if there’s been any change in the number of people who apply or in the kinds of applications the town is getting. Livingstone responded that while we may see an uptick in license applications nationally close to elections, when the GOP suggests that “Democrats want to take your guns”, we don’t see a lot of change in Amherst from year to year.

Livingstone reported that the APD is proactive in preparing for gun crises. APD conducts its own active shooter training that includes each of the area colleges and the Amherst public schools, and offers trainings for any venue where the public assembles, including the library and Town Hall. APD also provides active shooter training for other communities. 

Toxic Chemical Regulation Update
The Board of Health is in the process of reviewing and updating its Toxic Chemical Regulations. Gilbert observed that apparently no other town in Massachusetts has such regulations, and suggested that time be set aside at the next meeting to discuss the possibility of eliminating them. Mills said she thought the regulation was meant to ensure the safe use of toxic substances that are clearly present in a town that has research laboratories as well as lots of public buildings requiring institutional maintenance. Gilbert suggested getting guidelines from the Toxic Use Research Institute (TURI) at UMass Lowell and considering whether such guidelines should be included in a town bylaw or  regulations.

Brown said that the current regulations here do not seem to ever have been enforced. The town has other regulations such as green purchasing guidelines.

Mental Health Awareness 
Gilbert noted that mental health awareness is something that can’t be addressed by promulgating regulations but can be addressed through Health Department initiatives in response to the ongoing community health assessment. Brown reported that there will be a lot of room for promoting mental health awareness when the board completes its community health assessment, now in its final phase, and starts to develop a community health action plan. Mills asked what process is in place for when members of the community have mental health concerns that they want addressed. Gilbert suggested that people start by bringing their concerns to the Department of Health.

Geothermal Well Applications
Gilbert introduced guidelines for the installation of Ground Source Heat Pump Wells (Geothermal Wells) from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Bureau of Resource Protection. The Board of Health is responsible for approving applications for geothermal well installations and currently has three applications under consideration. She noted that the guidelines provide concrete criteria to be applied in evaluating applications but generally the board wants to know where the wells are going to be installed, whether they are installed properly, and whether they pose a threat of pollution or encroach on wetlands. Public Health Inspector Ed Smith checks that the installer is certified and checks with the wetlands administrator to make sure that they do not pose a threat, and verifies that there will be proper buffers. He checks during and after the installation.

The board unanimously approved (4-0) two applications for permits to install new geothermal wells,  one on Station Road and one on Berkshire Terrace.

Zero Waste Amherst
Gilbert mentioned that Zero Waste Amherst (ZWA) is conducting a survey on trash disposal practices of Amherst residents. She encouraged residents to fill out the survey so ZWA will have “good data to help improve waste and compost collection in town and possibly save residents some money”. The survey can be found here.

Change of Meeting Time
Henceforth, Board of Health meetings will begin at 5:30 p.m.

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