Healthcare workers in Haverhill, region thrilled to receive vaccine

Day and night since mid-March, they have been in the trenches: Overworked, overtired and, in many cases, underpaid.

The region’s healthcare heroes have treated neighbors and community members stricken with the coronavirus with compassion while putting their own health, and that of their loved ones, at risk.

Now, with the recent emergency approvals of both the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, there’s a glimmer of hope to signal the potential end of a hard-fought battle. Since mid-December, Merrimack Valley hospitals including Holy Family Hospital in Methuen, Lawrence General Hospital and the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, have started to vaccinate frontline workers — those with direct patient contact most vulnerable to picking up the virus or being an asymptomatic carrier.

“It feels good, first of all, having survived all this (COVID-19 pandemic),” said Dr. Eduardo Haddad, chief of medical affairs at Lawrence General Hospital. “We are saddened by the people we lost and are still losing. Now is a time to celebrate progress and science and move on to a stage of safety where we can do all the normal things again.”

The normal Haddad refers to for healthcare workers will return after having paid a steep price. Over the past nine months, hospital staff have had to ride the rollercoaster of coronavirus surges and adapt several times over to best care for the community.

Holy Family Hospital, for example, quickly shifted operations to treat COVID positive patients at their Methuen campus, diverting personnel and resources from the Haverhill campus in April.

Maintaining some COVID-free medical facilities is particularly important for patients with heart disease, blood clots, cancer and other pre-existing conditions, so that they may be treated while minimizing the risk of contracting COVID-19, according to a statement from Holy Family Hospital, which kept its Haverhill campus available to treat COVID-free patients.

To deal with an increase in cases, nurses from hospitals as far away as Arizona and Utah began arriving in Massachusetts in early April to assist with care at Holy Family locations. More than 100 nurses from other hospitals in Massachusetts owned by Holy Family parent company Steward volunteered to be temporarily reassigned to hospitals with greater needs.

“In this unprecedented time, we all owe so much to our frontline workers and healthcare workforce,” state Rep. Andy Vargas said. “We continue to find ways to ensure they have what they need and feel appreciated.”

At the height of the pandemic, Vargas aligned with Nurse Mates, an Andover-based medical shoe and accessory company, to donate 300 pairs of shoes and 150 pairs of compression socks to frontline medical workers and hospitals in Greater Haverhill.

In Lawrence, staff from Lawrence General Hospital manned an eight-lane drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at the main hospital campus as part of Governor Charlie Baker’s Stop the Spread free testing program. Lawrence has several other sites around the city where residents can get tested through the free program, as does Methuen.

The Greater Lawrence Family Health Center’s team of nurses and other medical personnel have been among those swabbing patients for coronavirus.

Last week, the community health center was one of the first such facilities in the state to receive doses of the Moderna vaccine, the second immunization cleared for use to vaccinate against the virus.

For GLFHC’s Rich Napolitano, senior vice president of external relations, while the car parades of support and other kind gestures have been appreciated, providing the vaccine to staff is something truly thrilling.

“Our frontline staff of medical assistants, clinicians, nurses, pharmacists and facilities workers (who received the Moderna vaccine) are our fellow employees who have been providing countless hours of healthcare to our sickest and most vulnerable patients during this awful pandemic,” Napolitano said. “They truly are our healthcare heroes”

— Allison Corneau

 

Quilters donate handmade work for Valley foster children

Foster children across the Merrimack Valley are getting some handmade quilts to snuggle up in.

Members of the Merrimack Valley Quilters Guild recently donated 81 quilts to Foster Kids of the Merrimack Valley, a nonprofit that supports foster children living throughout the region.

The quilters guild also donated 58 personal pillowcases and two decorated pillows to Larry Giordano of Methuen, founder and president of Foster Kids of the Merrimack Valley.

Giordano stressed how important it is for foster kids to know that there are people in the community with support them.

"A personal gift such as these quilts will surely help our kids feel your love and support," he said.

Giordano initially met with the quilters guild in November 2019, at its annual meeting, to discuss the mission of Foster Kids of the Merrimack Valley, he said. At the time, the guild said they would make quilts to donate a year later to foster kids.

Since then, the quilters were hard at work creating "one of a kind quilts" in all sizes for the foster kids, he said.

Beverly Valle, vice president of the quilters guild, and members Betty Hastings and Stacey Caruso, delivered the quilts, pillowcases and pillows to Giordano in late November.

Foster kids plans to "gift" the quilts to children starting early 2021, possibly around Valentine's Day, Giordano said.

More information about Foster Kids of the Merrimack Valley can be accessed at fosterkidsmv.org.

The Merrimack Valley Quilters Guild was formed in 1980 for the purpose of encouraging and developing the art of quilting. Members come from all age groups and live in Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire towns in the Merrimack Valley. The guild's website can be accessed at mvquilters.org.

— Jill Harmacinski

 

More COVID-19 deaths at Valley elderly home

Three more people are dead from a COVID-19 outbreak at Atria Marland Place, bringing the total number of fatalities at the assisted living and memory care complex in Andover to 16, according to an official at the company that owns the facility.

Since the first case was discovered Oct. 27, the facility has not only tightened restrictions on activities aimed at stopping the spread of the virus, but family members of its residents say the facility has also clamped down on communications.

The daughter of an 89-year-old resident who died from the coronavirus said the staff should have been more transparent when her mother began having symptoms.

“I felt looking back that they were telling me she was fine, but she wasn’t,” said Christina DiBitetto, whose mother, Bessie Kenney, died Nov. 30. “If they had sought help sooner for her, would the outcome have been different? I don’t know.”

Nursing homes and long-term care facilities such as Marland Place are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, with senior populations at higher risk of developing serious symptoms and dying from an infection. COVID-19 has ravaged many such communities in Massachusetts and around the country.

In all, Marland Place has reported 74 cases of COVID-19 — infecting 52 residents and 22 employees — since late October.

Kimberly Codair, regional vice president for Atria Senior Living, a company with more than 180 facilities in 26 states and Canada, said in a recent email that multiple weeks of testing have detected no new positive cases.

“We send sincere condolences to their family, and we will be thinking about them during this hard time,” Codair wrote of those who died from COVID-19. “We will be holding a memorial service in the future to remember all of our residents who passed during the pandemic.”

DiBitetto said she last saw her mother on Oct. 24. A visit the following week was canceled because of the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases.

After the outbreak at Marland Place was first reported, DiBitetto said she kept tabs on her mother, who lived in the memory care unit, via an app that reported her mom’s temperature and potential symptoms twice a day.

Then, in the second week of November, she said the app wasn’t updated for two days.

DiBitetto called on Nov. 9 and an aide reported her mother had a low-grade fever and other flu-like symptoms, she said. The app didn’t show Kenney had symptoms until four days after that — the same day Kenney was rushed to Lawrence General Hospital.

“No one communicated to me that there was a case on that floor, or she was possibly exposed," DiBitetto said. "They kept telling me she was fine."

By the time Kenney got to the hospital, she was suffering severe symptoms of bacterial pneumonia, DiBitetto said. A COVID-19 test came back positive later that evening.

On Nov. 16, after her mother had been in the hospital for a few days, DiBitetto said she learned from an email sent by the facility that 33 more residents and four more employees had tested positive at Marland Place.

Codair did not respond to questions about the facility’s app, and she would not comment about specific patients.

“We remain committed to keeping all our residents and families informed regularly,” she wrote to a reporter. “While private health information cannot be disclosed, we communicate each positive case to everyone and individually notify those identified through contact tracing.”

Families were notified of COVID-19 cases in the facility on Nov. 7, according to an email that reported one resident, seven employees and two private duty aides had tested positive. Following the first positive case, on Oct. 27, the facility conducted several rounds of follow-up testing, Codair said.

“Then, a full-community testing clinic was performed on Nov. 11," she said. "Full community testing continued until ... two rounds of all-negative results were received from residents, staff and private duty aides.”

The facility sent additional emails to families as additional positive cases were discovered. But family members say they didn't receive information about the total impact of the outbreak at the facility until this past week — after The Eagle-Tribune contacted Marland Place for this story.

Marland Place didn’t have any COVID-19 cases prior to October.

“After months of relative success with keeping COVID-19 out of our community, this outbreak happened unannounced, quickly and silently, as the virus has done everywhere it exists,” Codair said.

DiBitetto said she was impressed by the facility. She chose Marland Place for her mother about a year prior after touring the facility and meeting its staff. It was also close to her family.

DiBitetto said her mother had four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and the "highlight of her life" was spending time with them and other members of her family.

Prior to the outbreak, “I never felt uncomfortable,” DiBitetto said. “I always felt she was in good hands and being looked after.”

Throughout the pandemic, DiBitetto visited the facility weekly to organize her mother’s medications while sitting in the lobby. Staff reported that her mother was socializing, walking the halls and helping others to interact.

"All of that made me happy," she said.

However, even after an email announced limits to family visits, DiBitetto said she continued to see residents and family members interacting while she sat in the lobby and couldn't see her own mother.

On Oct. 31 and again a week later, she noticed "a lot of people coming and going, and people who had definitely been outside of the facility, whether outside with the family or away for a few days," she said.

Asked about the policy for visitors, Codair said Marland Place temporarily suspended family visits during the outbreak, in consultation with the town Health Department.

But the state Office of Elder Affairs requires that indoor family visits be allowed to continue — with restrictions.

“All visitors must answer our screening questions and wear a mask at all times," she said.

Assisted living facilities like Marland Place received federal and state guidance to help stop the spread of the virus. The recommendations change frequently.

Such facilities don't receive federal funding and therefore don't face the same level of regulation as nursing homes do about communication with families and visitation policies.

 

— Madeline Hughes

 

Groups work to keep up with Valley needs during pandemic

The awaited truck hauling 290 boxes of fresh food backed into the parking lot on a cold morning nine days before Christmas.

The driver bounced from his cab and yanked open the clunking roll-up door and six volunteers unloaded the provisions, setting in motion an informal network that has served as a lifeline for thousands of Lawrence people.

Overseeing and directing the distribution was volunteer Adolfo Rosario, clipboard in hand, an Army veteran familiar with large-scale operations.

In Spanish, he counted out the number of bread loaves to be placed in each bag. He reviewed the boxes of food requested by pastors for hungry households. A help mission was underway.

Vehicles formed a line out onto Essex Street, each car, in turn, getting loaded with bags of bread and boxes with milk, meat, produce, fruit, yogurt and cheese.

If this was a scene from the "Nutcracker," hunger would be the evil Mouse King and the volunteers the tin soldiers battling deprivation.

One by one, vehicles pulled out the opposite end of the lot, the drivers ferrying food to those in need throughout the city and Methuen.

This food drama plays out each day here and elsewhere in Lawrence and in the Merrimack Valley to meet expanding need. The shuttling of food during pandemic distancing restrictions and hardships requires many small steps.

In a larger sense, the hunger relief is like one great big table where people pass bowls and plates to their neighbors.

Pastor Milagro Grullon of Community Christian Fellowship Lawrence, who heads this hunger relief effort for an association of 70 Lawrence churches, has seen need explode during the COVID-19 crisis.

In some instances churches, including her own, have seen the number of people in need since May double, triple or increase by even greater numbers.

Each day, parishioners and nonparishioners text, email and call religious leaders to find out what their specific food needs are. The pastors relay this information to Grullon.

The help includes diapers and laundry cards.

As COVID-19 infections have risen again, more and more people have been shuttered in their homes due to infections, other sickness, childcare and elder-care responsibilities. And also, there's all the unemployment, says the pastor.

"There are a lot of people infected and affected," she said.

Grullon originally comes from the Dominican Republic, a place where many people are familiar with want, but not the kind that she sees now in Lawrence. Here she sees people taking a place in food distribution lines who have never had to do so in the past.

She says she just received a phone call from a woman who has been a stalwart delivery person, bringing food to the elderly and sick. Now, this woman is sick and needs food.

"This hurts," says Grullon.

But pain can be a motivator and rally cooperation.

Major food providers for the region's hungry are the Merrimack Valley Food Bank and Boston Food Bank, which deliver to dozens of sites in Lawrence.

Also helping to fill local food needs are the Lawrence YMCA, the Lawrence School System, the Lawrence Senior Center, the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, Groundwork Lawrence, Bread and Roses kitchen, the House of Mercy, Neighbors in Need, Cor Unum meal center and Lazarus House.

Angelo Boria of the Lawrence Bread & Roses soup kitchen delivers bulk food daily to churches, shelters and pantries. Bread and Roses has delivered 450,000 pounds of food since the pandemic started, a majority of it going to Grullon's network of pastors for distribution, he said.

Among those who receive food are the neediest of the needy, the city's hundreds of homeless people, he said.

Every weekday from 3 to 5 p.m., rain or shine, the Lawrence YMCA distributes grab-and-go meals below the concrete pillars of its four-story building at 40 Lawrence St.

Since March 18, they have served over 78,000 grab-and-go and children's meals, said Cathy Redard, director of child care.

The Lawrence Y operates a food pantry Thursdays, providing food for over 400 people each week.

The Y has also distributed over 61,000 pounds of food at its Mobile Market at the Methuen YMCA, typically held the third Saturday of the month. On Nov. 21, 11,000 pounds of food were distributed, said Frank Kenneally, CEO and president of the Merrimack Valley YMCA.

So many cars were lined up that 100 of them received no food. It ran out. People are worried about having enough to eat, he said.

"When you see that many people in line and you run out of food,'' Kenneally said, ''it is disheartening." 

— Terry Date

 

Residents miss out on week of unemployment

The COVID-19 relief bill signed by President Donald Trump includes $120 billion for unemployment insurance, but about 21,000 people in New Hampshire will miss out on a week of benefits, state officials said.

The massive, year-end catchall bill that Trump signed into law recently revives supplemental federal pandemic unemployment benefits but at $300 per week through March 14 instead of the $600 per week benefit that expired in July.

Richard Lavers, deputy commissioner for the state Department of Employment Security, said gig workers, those who are self-employed and others will miss out on a week of benefits. But they should file for the week prior to the bill being signed, which was a payable week, he said.

— Associated Press

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