Four Board of Health Candidates but Few Policy Differences

The differences among the four candidates seeking two seats on the Board of Health in the March 13 town election are not about policy.

That was clear Sunday afternoon following a high-level round-table among the four candidates as they answered questions presented by a moderator from the League of Women Voters during a candidate forum.

The virtual event was broadcast live by Bedford TV; it is still available through this link,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofdYRAnOSMI&t=6103s.

Incumbent Anita Raj and newcomers Alison O’Connell, Maureen Richichi, and Catherine Van Praagh agreed that dealing with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic remains the top issue for the board. They all anticipated challenges of managing the recovery from the pandemic and concurred about the effectiveness of the board’s performance. They also were in step about the importance of dealing with mosquito- and tick-borne illnesses.

There will be at least one new board member as Sarah Thompson chose not to seek re-election.

Raj, seeking her fourth three-year term, talked about the board working as a team with the town Department of Health and Human Services and gave some non-Covid examples, such as enforcing food code and education about the danger of ticks. She also said the town was poised to deliver 1,000 vaccinations a week before the state pulled the plug on supply. “I love the work the board does,” said Raj, noting how informal and accessible the actual meetings were.

O’Connell works in health-care compliance strategy and project management, and she said that her professional experience is transferable to the board’s work. She pointed out that she has lived in Bedford for fewer than six months. Her motivation for running is an ethos that “you should always be serving your community” and “an honest desire to serve and get to know the people here.”

Richichi said she would bring “knowledge and skills to help complement current board members’.” She cited her more than 40 years’ experience as a nurse, including service as the Bedford schools’ coordinator of programs to combat alcohol and drug abuse. “My whole career has been in community health settings. I understand a lot of health issues and challenges.”

Van Praagh, a microbiologist currently the laboratory manager of the Group 23 Biological Labs at MIT Lincoln Labs , noted her “very broad, diverse background, scientifically and in public health, including in vaccine development and teaching.    “I felt my skills are really well suited” to the board, she said. “There are going to be a lot of people who struggle and are going to need help from organizations like the Board of Health.”

Richichi emphasized the work ahead in recovery and the need to “pull together as a community.” O’Connell prioritized making sure “people who have been suffering” are served. Van Praagh said Covid messaging has been weak nationally, and locally the board has to “let people know there are resources available.” Raj highlighted the health board’s efforts to relieve “food insecurity” as well as ensuring safety in regard to biomedical companies.

A question about the relationship between the Board of Health and other town staff and boards reflected some concerns that have been expressed during the past pandemic year.

Raj said the board and town agencies have worked collaboratively. She pointed out that one challenge is that residents have many different needs, and said she advocated not only making more data available but also outreach to the elderly and to residents in apartment complexes, who “don’t always feel they are members of the community.”

Isolation contributes to any lack of communication, Van Praagh observed. “Some people might have been hoping that one group would be the boss of everybody else.” The Board of Health sets policy, with the department the “active arm. We can support and give knowledge to and assist other committees.”

O’Connell commented that there needs to be “clear boundaries and lines of communication.” It is important to understand what residents’; expectations are and to avoid redundancy. Richichi said it’s a good thing that boards and department s are defining their roles. She praised the diligence of the town’s Covid task force but would have preferred more community meetings or forums. “It’s vitally important to have input from residents.”

The candidates were asked to reflect on “lessons learned” after a year of dealing with the pandemic in Bedford.

O’Connell said she has been impressed that “you need people with strong opinions,” but “even when people disagree they still collaborate and remain amicable.” Raj praised Director Health Director Heidi Porter and her staff. People, she said, “often don’t feel like they are being heard because change isn’t happening fast enough.”

Richichi agreed about the strength of the department. “The best decisions result from evidence-based data and hopefully reaching consensus. We should have a town-wide evaluation on Covid response and outcome so we can learn from it.” Van Praagh also applauded the town’s response and still pointed out that “there is a lot of feeling of disconnection because everyone has a different perception of risk.”

The moderator asked each newcomer about the skills and expertise she would bring to the board that would help monitor emerging health needs. Van Praagh cited her broad scientific knowledge and interest in public health “as we move from pandemic crisis into pandemic recovery.” Richichi pointed to her community health and school nursing background and “ability to work with people to solve problems.” O’Connell said that as a compliance officer she can manage “how we take the information we have and disseminate it to the community, as well as the experience to work closely with clinicians..”

The moderator did not ask Raj to answer the question, and the incumbent did not point out the omission.

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763

 

 


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