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EH Heroes in the time of COVID-19: Patrick Maloney

August 27, 2020

In November 2019, Patrick Maloney, MPAH, CHO, RS, retired as the Assistant Commissioner of Public Health – Chief of Environmental Health for the Brookline, MA Public Health Department, after 40 years of practice. Maloney has been a member of NEHA for almost the entirety of his environmental health career. In his blog story, Maloney discusses coming back to the health department to assist with COVID-19 response and shares a personal experience that helped him better understand the urgent needs of his community. Brookline took an all-hands-on-deck approach to the pandemic from the beginning, partnering with not only the public health community but also small businesses and local politicians.

When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, I was asked if I could return to my former position at the Brookline Health Department to assist with the challenge. The Health Commissioner also appointed me as the Deputy Commander for Public Health at the Emergency Command Center (EOC) for the community. We had a great team representing all Public Safety and Community Service Departments in the city. We set up a call center at the EOC that handled and triaged many inquiries from the public. I assisted the center with daily training and updates on the questions being received by the call staff. For the first few weeks, the demands were never-ending. Complaints of face-covering non-compliance and nonessential or essential establishments violating required protocols were a constant theme. The call staff did an outstanding job under high-stress conditions and became experts on COVID-19 response in a condensed timeframe.

Many policies and procedures had to be developed in the early stages of the pandemic. The Health Commissioner and I worked together on these documents in amazingly short order. The state was urged to create guidance so that all communities in Massachusetts could be on the same page. Many of the early manuscripts and procedures that we developed in Brookline are still being used to implement Phase 3 in the state today.

While this has been the most challenging time in my 40 years of practice, I was fortunate to have a vast toolbox of public and environmental health knowledge to draw upon. Years of experience helped me lead my team during this unprecedented time. Dedicated staff members from Environmental Health, the Front Office, Public Health Nursing, Community Health, and Emergency Management all stepped up. They rose to the challenge of this pandemic with admirable grace and skill.

I was humbled to participate in a weekly webinar that the Planning and Economic Development Department held for the struggling business community. In addition to the Economic Development staff, representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and other industry leaders also participated. One of our elected officials moderated each meeting.

My role was to give weekly updates on the new requirements for businesses to operate during the pandemic. The business community was hungry for knowledge and guidance during this challenging time, and they had many questions about public and environmental health. At some of the sessions, I demonstrated what a sanitizer was and how and where to disinfect. This information was well received, and I had constant positive feedback from the business owners on my presentations and demonstrations.

During a webinar Q&A session, one of the operators of a small children's clothing & consignment shop participated by asking technical questions on requirements to operate safely. She then went on to tell us about the many pressures and anxieties that COVID-19 and the related shutdown have caused her family, staff, and store. As she stressed that this is not just her pain but that all community establishments are suffering, her voice started to break, and she began crying. She said if things don't get better, she will have to close the store that she worked so hard to build for many years. We were all taken back by the emotion of this event. I started choking up and struggled to continue. We all did. We told her we would do everything we can to help.

After this session, I informed the Environmental Health staff of what happened. I then told them that we are to do whatever we can to assist any business that needs our department's guidance, as they are all in troubling times and on the brink of closing. This experience demonstrates the importance of coming together, listening to each other, and helping one another out during this time. If we show compassion and work together we will see our way out of this pandemic as stronger communities.