Nursing homes at center of increase in COVID–19 cases, deaths

April 30, 2020 | Sarah Heinonen

WILBRAHAM – Fire Chief Michael Andrews reported to the Select Board at its April 27 meeting that the National Guard is conducting tests at long-term care facilities in town. Fifty of the town’s 68 active cases of COVID-19 are at two nursing homes in town, Life Care Center and Vero Health & Rehab. There have been 16 virus-related deaths in town, 13 of which are from the long-term care facilities.

Andrews urged residents not to be afraid to call 911 if they are having a legitimate emergency. He said that residents are concerned about contracting the coronavirus at a hospital, but he assured people that the fire department and the hospitals have protocols in place to limit the risk of infection.

The popularity of a trailhead for the Rice Nature Preserve, located on Highmoor Drive, has caused traffic headaches for neighbors. The police department has responded to complaints of people speeding and traffic congestion on the narrow road.

Resident Ellen Benben said there had been a “surge” of traffic, via foot, bicycle and vehicle. She said it had “disturbed the quality of life on our street,” and noted cars parking on lawns and the curb.

“Safety issues are the biggest thing,” Benben said, adding that first responders would have trouble accessing homes in an emergency.

Resident Daniel Johnson, whose house is closest to the trailhead, said his “quality-of-life this spring has plummeted,” and that every nice day is “a zoo,” with “more cars on the street than houses.”

Tracy Plantier from the open space committee looked into the issue.

“Because of social distancing, people are showing up in separate cars,” which adds to traffic, Plantier said of the reason behind the problem. She placed temporary signs and cones to delineate the parking area for the trailhead. She also put flyers on cars that were parked along the street, directing them to park in the parking lot or use another recreation area in town. Plantier said it will just take re-educating the public.

“It’s a very tough situation. Both sides are totally right,” Wilbraham Police Chief Robert Zollo said.

Select Board Member Robert Boilard asked if the influx was seasonal, to which Benben estimated a 400 percent increase in traffic from last year.

Boilard said, “Once the world reopens, I would assume things will go back to normal.” Benben thanked Zollo, Plantier and Town Administrator Nick Breault for addressing the situation.

Stoughton Smead, director of Community Preservation, asked for the board’s take on using community preservation funding to aid residents with rental housing costs. Language allowing the use of those funds for grants, loans, and other rental assistance has been in the community preservation regulations since 2012.

Breault said that it would be possible to put together a warrant article for the annual town meeting in June, but we would be a “formidable” project.

Smead cautioned against rushing to put an article on the warrant and doing more harm than good through ignorance of low-income housing guidelines.

Board Member Robert Russell and Select Board Chair Susan Bunnell spoke in favor of a measured approach and perhaps revisiting it at a special town meeting in the fall.

“I’m not for it now and I’m not for it later,” Boilard asserted. He voiced his opinion that the community preservation funds are meant to focus on quality-of-life issues for residents, rather than used to subsidize low-income housing. Boilard suggested supporting seniors with that money instead. Bunnell noted that many of the people in the town’s low-income housing are seniors.

The town plans to purchase two hybrid police vehicles. The cruisers cost approximately $3,700 more than a standard combustion engine vehicle and the town will use green community funds to cover the difference. Zollo said he had been impressed when he had the opportunity to drive a hybrid police cruiser in the town of Ware and said the vehicles would pay for themselves and fuel savings.

“There’s a lot of ups and not so many downs to that,” Zollo said.

On the topic of regional dispatch, the board agreed to receive any proposals from Hampden. Russell said, “It makes a lot of sense and it’s not like we haven’t thought about it before.”

Emergency Dispatch Director Anthony Gentile reviewed with state 911 a proposal to hire one additional dispatcher were the two towns to merge services. He said the state concurred with that adjustment to services.

Breault ran through a rough draft of town meeting warrant articles. They would include a municipal building Insurance Fund, zoning bylaw changes to address mixed-use buildings and abandoned solar arrays, and an economic development tax increment program, among others.

One petition article is to name Memorial School “a historic building honoring our veterans.” Boilard asked if that would restrict the town from selling or razing the building in the future and said he didn't want the board’s hands to be tied. The answer to the question was not immediately available.

During the public comment period, resident Dave Sanders asked about the town building study. Breault said it had been on hold due to COVID-19 but said the proposals will be going out and the project will be moving forward.

Wilbraham Public Library Director Karen Demers reminded people that library services are available online and via social media and added that she is offering to walk people through online services over the phone.

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