All hands on deck: Inside the city’s response to COVID-19

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Harrisonburg’s deputy emergency coordinator cut his teeth working as a paramedic all over the United States. Paul Helmuth, who is also the fire department’s administrative officer, was working in a Washington, D.C. hospital during 2001 and responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax mailings that fall. 

“Being a paramedic … gives me a background in mass casualty incidents, hazardous materials incidents, lots of trauma,” said Helmuth, who’s worked for the city for 10 years now. “In responding to a pandemic, there are similarities to a mass casualty incident.”

The main difference, he said, is that a mass casualty incident is a “sprint,” whereas a pandemic is more like a marathon. 

But Helmuth wasn’t caught unprepared by COVID-19. While in D.C., Paul Helmuth helped develop emergency response plans in the wake of those terror attacks. And in mid-January this year, he started monitoring COVID-19, and updating the city’s pandemic response plan.

“We’ve used similar plans for H1N1” and Ebola, he said. But of course, the city has never had to enact the response plan to this extent. And a global pandemic stresses emergency response systems much differently than other disasters. Whereas a hurricane might just affect the East Coast, local governments in affected communities could ask for support from inland emergency response departments. But now “every state’s emergency management department has been activated.”

Helmuth is essentially the point person in Harrisonburg for the Virginia Department of Health and other state agencies: conveying information between the two about case numbers, outbreaks, and needed resources. 

Each Tuesday and Thursday morning, Helmuth and City Manager Eric Campbell hold a conference call with the heads of every city department to provide updates and share how the pandemic is affecting their work. The discussions have covered which public facilities need to be closed — such as playgrounds — and what grants are available to local businesses as well as which city employees need personal protective equipment because they are out in public, such as bus drivers and community development inspectors.

Michael Parks, director of communications, said a recent nut-and-bolts decision was to set up drop boxes at city hall and the water department for people who need to pay their utility bills in cash. 

“We’re not cutting off anyone’s water and sewer if they’re not paying their bills right now,” Parks said. But the drop boxes are one way “we’re trying to help address concerns we’ve heard from residents and businesses.”

“We have to dig in”

Helmuth said he’s worried about the life-or-death ramifications if communities resume full economic activity too quickly.

“Pandemics often come in three waves. So that’s something that concerns me,” Helmuth said. “When is the right time that we can start to ease the social distancing and stay-at-home guidelines?”

The Harrisonburg City Council is already grappling with the effects of the economic slowdown, as the council works toward passing a budget by the end of May amid plummeting tax revenue. Meanwhile, construction on the new high school will halt starting April 30, and other cuts are expected to balance the budget as tax revenue becomes clearer in the coming weeks.

“There is and will continue to be insufficient funds, which is a realization everyone is facing,” Council Member George Hirschmann told The Citizen in an email. “A lot of people will not like all the decisions as far as tax cuts, spending, necessary rollbacks, however, it all comes under the heading of ‘survival.’  We have to dig in.”

For Richard Baugh, the longest-serving council member, the current financial climate is reminiscent of the recession of the late 2000s – when revenue took a hit, cash reserves were tight and as the city struggled to maintain basic services, “the last thing you’re looking for is another bill.”

On the most basic level, “water’s gotta come out of the tap; sewers have to work,” Baugh said. Some things, such as rezoning requests, can be put on hold until a semblance of normalcy resumes. But other expenses may increase during hard times. Baugh said during the recession, the city had to increase their funding to the local Department of Social Services office.

“You need those offices to be open. If anything, they’re going to be busier than usual,” Baugh said. “It costs us whatever it costs us.”

Mayor Deanna Reed, Vice-mayor Sal Romero and Council Member Chris Jones did not respond to The Citizen’s request for comment, but Reed and Romero will be responding to COVID-19 related questions submitted by the community later this week.

D+ in social distancing

As Harrisonburg currently leads the state of Virginia for infection rates, the city is trying a number of avenues to communicate the importance of social distancing to area residents. 

“If you don’t have a direct connection to the disease, or you don’t see someone who has it who is in one of those high-risk groups, sometimes it’s hard to realize the effect it can have on you,” Helmuth said. 

The city has worked with the Department of Health to send a glut of emails and physical letters about COVID-19 into the community – tucking flyers into the more than 1,700 lunches distributed by city schools each week, asking houses of worship to contact their congregants, and teaming up with Welcoming Harrisonburg to reach households that speak languages other than English.

“I’m not sure what else the city could do to impress upon people that it’s vital to do these things, because even if you feel well, you could still have COVID, and you could still pass it on to someone who’s maybe more vulnerable than you are,” Parks said.

As of Thursday, Harrisonburg had received a “D+” rating on the social distancing scorecard developed by the mobility data company Unacast. And while that might appear consistent with Harrisonburg’s per-capita rate of infection, Helmuth cautioned that the methodology – based on the proximity and travel patterns of individual cell phones – might not give an accurate picture of total social distancing efforts.

“I can’t verify that their methodology completely makes sense,” Helmuth said. “In any community, it’s going to be hard to sit there and quantify completely how you social distance.”

Parks said the Harrisonburg Police Department has received fewer calls to report large social gatherings since the governor’s stay-at-home order was first issued on March 30. And those calls usually don’t result in citations, Parks said. If the people disperse after social distancing guidelines are explained to them.

Harrisonburg’s reputation as the “Friendly City” may be working both for the community and potentially against it at a time like this. Helmuth said the community’s support for one another gives him hope, such as citizens sewing masks or creating and donating plastic face shields to the hospital, fire department, and other organizations.

“The way the community has come together to help respond to this shows that we as a community can get through this,” he said. “We just have to remember that it’s not a short and easy process.”

Editor’s note, April 24, 2020: Because of an editor’s error, a previous version of this article listed the Smithland Road Dog Park as being closed this week due to COVID-19. It has been closed for maintenance.

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