CITY health officials went before aldermen last week to discuss a grant that could fund two new positions, and hopes for a dashboard offering real-time data related to the opioid crisis.

“Our goal is to actually start producing a dashboard any of you (aldermen) at any time could access,” said city health director Anna Thomas. “At any time if you wanted to know how many people were turned away from the shelter last night, you should have that number, or how many people were waiting in the ER, in real time. We have had some nights where we have had 85 people at Elliot Hospital’s ER and there is an 8-hour wait. We will reach diversion levels because of the size of the city and that gets really concerning because we are going to have some nights coming up — just be prepared — that the shelter will be full and overflowing and we will have both hospital ERs at diversion levels and we will have people living outdoors in encampments. We are now proactively devising strategies to go do welfare checks on people in encampments basically for fatality prevention because we don’t want people out there freezing to death. It’s kind of a new era.”

Thomas and Phil Alexakos, chief operating officer of the city health department, and Fire Chief Dan Goonan went before the Board of Mayor and Aldermen last week seeking permission to accept $720,000 in grant funds for two positions — a community epidemiologist position in the health department, and an emergency preparedness management coordinator at the fire department.

“This has been a collaboration between the state and local level,” said Thomas. “We have been working with the Department of Health & Human Services now for several months trying to devise a plan for both homelessness and addiction and combating that as a unified front.”

“We put together a proposal to piggyback on a federal grant that the state was getting specifically to build partnerships with public health and first responders.”

Alexakos said one of the things officials found across the board are discrepancies or disparities in what the data is showing, and a community epidemiologist will be trained to analyze data, track progress and help with data sharing across different entities such as hospitals, health care and social services.

The funds are available in the form of a three-year grant, $240,000 for each of the three years to cover both positions.

Eyeing software

Thomas said state health officials are eyeing the Unite Us software platform, which enables real-time coordination between health care and community services for vulnerable populations.

“What that would do is, you would populate it with real time information,” said Thomas. “Another gaping hole that we have is that we have all of these shelters in the state that are really designed for different purposes. Some are for emergency sheltering, some are for domestic violence, some are for transitional housing, and some are for individuals struggling with substance abuse. Other states have used this one particular platform (Unite Us).

It is wildly successful and when it is populated well then the user can literally go on their phone and find an available bed, or report out a homeless encampment in the city, or find other needed services if somebody is in crisis, and it is all done electronically and tied into a statewide system. You are not just limited to the local resources that might be available to that individual, but you are also tapping into statewide resources.”

Thomas defined an epidemiologist as “someone who can use rigor and science in their decision-making and quantitative methods to actually inform good decisions for public health action.”

“This is somebody who could bring a skill set and quickly look at lots of data that we are looking at,” said Thomas. “Like Doorways data vs. Safe Station data and the hospital ERs, and quickly pull data out real-time so we have a better handle on what the current state of affairs is. That is one of our limitations. We don’t have enough real-time information that is all making sense.”

Thomas said the two new employees would be temporary under the terms of the grant.

“We will go into it and see how it works for three years,” said Thomas. “We hope three years is enough time to really combat this head on. We will have to reevaluate in three years where that goes or if there are other funding sources beyond that.”

“I am all for it while the money is coming in but if we have an epidemiologist and it is a city position, and all of these resources that you are talking about are statewide, shouldn’t that be a state level function rather than a city function?” asked Ward 5 Alderman Tony Sapienza.

Thomas said there are state level “epis,” but they handle statewide analysis, not data for a specific city.

“We have been having conversations with Nashua for example and we have talked about sharing an epi position if we both co-invested, because we both have the same level of need,” said Thomas. “We are having more conversations about a sharing model in the future and that would be something. … Again, in the three years we are just going to focus on Manchester and see what that looks like and then reevaluate it. If it has proved its weight, then we will look into other ways to continue to fund it. It might be something that the hospitals might want to invest in because there is a benefit to them. We don’t want to leave the city on the hook for it.”

“The thing I liked about what you said was having real-time data as to how many people are turned away in terms of shelter,” said Ward 4 Alderman Chris Herbert. “It would give us some sort of sense of how much we need to do in terms of constructing more shelters.”

Aldermen voted to OK officials accepting the grant money for the positions.

Plan Manchester, the master plan update project for the city, is set to roll into 2020 with two neighborhood meetings.

Planapalooza was held in mid-September, and the feedback from residents and business owners is being reviewed by organizers.

Studying market trends

The city’s planning team will now launch a more targeted analysis of existing conditions related to specific issues and future goals identified by the community during Planapalooza. Over the next several months, the team’s economic development specialist will study current market trends and develop strategies for Manchester, while the transportation team will research and prepare an analysis of transportation needs in the Queen City. The rest of the team will develop recommendations and strategies to create a public Draft Master Plan.

The consulting team will submit the Draft Master Plan for review by stakeholders, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, city boards, and the general public around April 2020.

The city is preparing to host a series of neighborhood meetings, focus groups and a community survey to collect residents’ input. During the third week of January, several HUD focus groups will be held. Some of the topics to be discussed include healthy neighborhoods, economic development, homeownership and affordable housing, health and human services, homelessness, recreational opportunities, infrastructure improvements, planning and public management, and education and skills development.

Community meetings

Officials invite the public to attend two upcoming community meetings to voice concerns and express opinions on the needs of the city and to help plan for its future:

• Community Meeting 1 is Tuesday, Jan. 21, from 6-7:30 p.m., at Hope Tabernacle, 222 Cedar St.

• Community Meeting 2 is Wednesday, Jan. 22, from 6-7:30 p.m., at Kelley Falls Community Center, 431 Kimball St.

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at pfeely@unionleader.com.

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