The American Rescue Plan Act has delivered a one-time COVID-era windfall of just over $6 million to the town of New Canaan. While some of these funds have already been spent or earmarked for specific projects, we are fortunate to be able to have a public debate as to how a portion of the remaining funds should be spent.
The current spike in infections from the Omicron variant tells us two important things: first, this virus will continue to mutate and is not going to disappear overnight; and second, the economic and health related effects of the pandemic are likely to linger for some time. That makes our choices as to how to spend the one-time Federal ARPA funds so critically important.
Thanks to exceptional local leadership during the pandemic, coupled with our town’s consistently prudent stewardship of municipal finances, it is my hope that we can wisely invest these funds in a way that has a positive impact on life, wellness, and healthcare services for our New Canaan residents.
Before I make any suggestions, I need to cover some background.
I write to you wearing many hats; I am a local resident, taxpayer, business owner, volunteer, former Board Chair of the New Canaan Community Foundation, and current Board Chair of the Waveny LifeCare Network. I believe my collective experiences provide a unique and insightful perspective on our community’s needs.
In my work with NCCF during a Strategic Planning process in 2018, we identified Behavioral Health as a specific area requiring focus within our New Canaan Community. At that time, we identified a vast array of resources provided by many exceptional organizations; however, it was not necessarily easy for anyone in need to gain access quickly, efficiently, or effectively to the right services for their specific needs.
Through a series of focus groups and other work, NCCF’s Behavioral Health Committee outlined a series of steps that could help bridge the gap between individuals and families to available services. Access and Education rose to the top of the list and the idea of a Community Navigator emerged. This would be a single point of contact who would be knowledgeable about the field of Behavioral Health and all of the various organizations and services available. What was lacking at the time were two things: A place for this ‘navigator’ to work and a means to pay them. Then COVID hit us.
COVID-19 has sent us all into isolation and brought us all together at the same time. Rarely in history have so many people had such similar, yet unique, individual experiences. From youth to seniors and everyone in between, we have all been impacted by the effects of this pandemic.
From a physical health perspective, our community’s senior population continues to be most at risk with this virus and this population was hardest hit in the early months of the pandemic. Waveny LifeCare Network serves this population in a variety of ways – both in Waveny’s buildings and in individual’s private homes. The pandemic has required significant structural changes to the way healthcare is delivered and received. These months have also highlighted the tremendous strain on our healthcare system, particularly on doctors, nursing staff, and hospital capacity. One bright spot has been the emergence of Tele-Health as a legitimate tool in our healthcare system.
Our town’s Health Department, currently led by Jenn Eielson, and staffed by some of our community’s most dedicated employees and volunteers, has performed above and beyond anyone’s expectations during the pandemic. But this small department has always played a critical role in serving New Canaan’s health needs, as well as, reviewing a litany of building permits and restaurant health department surveys to name just a few.
The Human Services’ Department, currently led by Bethany Zaro, ran a successful Tele-Health pilot program a decade ago, which successfully engaged over 400 clients and conducted over 10,000 phone call ‘visits.’ Fast-forward to today, and significant advances in technology have provided us with some exciting opportunities to implement a community based Tele-Health system. In support of this, Tele-Health has become more accepted by the general public, as well as healthcare providers including physicians and specialists as the technology has become more highly advanced.
Waveny LifeCare is undertaking two major initiatives that will address post-pandemic issues.
• Tele-Health – a direct connection between a nurse and an individual in their home with the express goal of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and pre-emptively addressing healthcare issues before they escalate to become a visit to the hospital. Available 24/7. These interfaces can also include behavioral health related issues.
• Nursing Institute – a unique workplace development program that will help train the next generation of highly trained CNA’s and Home Health Aides for our community.
With Waveny’s affiliation with and merger of Visiting Nurse and Hospice of Fairfield County in 2021, the organization’s breadth of services has been expanded to include more nursing professionals, an expansive home health network, community nursing (which assisted the town throughout the pandemic with testing and vaccinations), outpatient rehab (reopening February 1st), hospice care, and a full range of residential services including memory care, short-term rehab, enhanced independent living, and assisted living. Waveny LifeCare is New Canaan’s largest private employer, with over six hundred employees. We are fortunate to have such a vibrant healthcare organization right in town serving our residents.
From a mental health perspective, I would argue that perhaps two groups – our young students and our senior population – have been impacted more than any other group during the pandemic. Young students as their daily learning and social evolution were dramatically impacted. Seniors, both in their own homes and those residing in congregate living, have endured dramatic isolation and loss of much needed social connections.
Looking back on the past couple of years, I am proud of our community’s response to the public health challenges of this pandemic. From your municipal leadership to the incredible dedication of our local healthcare professionals, to the remarkable response of local volunteers (with both financial support and valuable time), our town of New Canaan has fared far better than most. Looking ahead, I believe we can do even more.
I believe this moment in time offers a clarion call for New Canaan to become a model for complete community health. I urge our municipal leaders to strongly consider using a significant portion of available ARPA funds to make an investment in the future health of our community by:
1. Funding a Community Behavioral Health Navigator for the next 3 years (how this position is filled, where they work, and who they report to are all to be worked out with the help of our local experts in the field) (estimate of $300,000)
2. Funding for an investment in Tele-Health, to be staffed by Waveny LifeCare personnel, and open to New Canaan residents from youth to seniors, with a specific focus on those with special needs, medical conditions, or over the age of 70. (estimate of $400,000)
3. An investment in Waveny LifeCare’s Nursing Institute that will help develop and train our next generation of community CNA’s and Home Health Aides. (estimate of $200,000)
4. An investment in ongoing COVID related testing and monitoring of trends to ensure our community continues to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to all things COVID related. Testing methodologies will evolve and need to quickly adapt as new variants continue to emerge. Waveny LifeCare can help ensure our community is prepared. (estimate of $100,000)
I know there will be many competing interests for ARPA funds; but I do not believe any will offer the comprehensive impact of this investment in our community’s health and quality of life.
New Canaan is known for our exceptional school system, outstanding athletic facilities, a quintessential New England downtown, and the natural beauty of our Parks and conserved open spaces. An investment of one million dollars of ARPA funds in the four areas outlined above will help add a vibrant community health program to this impressive list.
This is our moment to make a difference for residents today and in the future. I encourage your thoughts, feedback, open dialog, and most importantly, your support, of this important subject. Thank you for your consideration.