PROVINCETOWN – “If you look specifically at Provincetown, we have a high per capita at-risk population,” said Lise King, a member of the Select Board in Provincetown and a co-founder of the Provincetown Covid-19 Task Force.
“We are uniquely vulnerable and we are uniquely in need, and not just in a crisis.” she said.
“Our population skews older, we have a beautiful community of longtime AIDS survivors and other compromised folks. We all know cancer survivors,” she said.
When considering these at-risk demographics together with the remote geography of the Outer Cape and specifically Provincetown, King, her co-founder Alison Dwyer, and almost 100 volunteers have come together to, as Dwyer said, “fill in the gaps and lend a hand.”
“We are very mindful not to cross over into areas that others are already providing,” said King. “We’re not here to interfere or replace.”
“Our strength is in our ability to connect with other organizations and lend a hand,” said Dwyer, a nurse practitioner with a private practice in mental health.
“We didn’t come into this saying, this is what we’re going to do,” said King. “We need to be ready for what needs to be done.”
King, who was co-producer of the 2015 HBO film, “Heroin Cape Cod, USA,” had connections in the public health field and from those colleagues, she said, “In February, I started hearing alarm bells” about the pandemic.
On March 19, King posted on Facebook, “Our healthcare system will NOT be able to handle the extra people and their inevitable healthcare needs. It is irresponsible to not tell people this: that while they may have a “right” to come here it is irresponsible to not inform people LOUDLY that we don’t have the healthcare capacity.”
The post caused a bit of controversy. King is unapologetic. “I would do it again in a heartbeat. This is not a normal political circumstance. It’s a matter of life and death,” she said.
She said she had a friend who said, “You’re scaring people.”
King said her response was, “but it is scary.”
Beyond the controversy, the Facebook post also announced the formation of the task force. “I was just speaking to the void,” said King. “is there anybody out there?”
The first person who responded was a doctor, a part-time resident of Provincetown who lived in Palm Springs, California. “I’m here, how can I help?” was Dr. Scott Adelman’s message. Others had similar offers of What can I do?
Coincidentally, Dwyer and her wife, Mary Ellen Dwyer, a clinical social worker with her own practice in mental health, were also organizing to help. Alison Dwyer and King joined forces, and continued the call for volunteers.
“We naturally, as a community think about how to support each other, said Alison Dwyer. “There are already a lot of organizations for such a small town.”
“We very quickly identified people we already knew that would want to be part of a task force,” she said. “Mary Ellen has colleagues. I have colleagues. We are part the Unitarian Church. There are six or seven members of the church on the task force.”
As King and Dwyer joined together, said King, “This became kind of an organic thing.”
“The dedicated leadership team meets regularly to plan, organize and implement actions consistent with our mission to lend a helping hand in our community during this pandemic,” said Dwyer.
There are three general pieces to the task force, said King, who is using her skills as a film maker and former newspaper editor to help with organization, publicity and administration. Those three pieces are medical, mental health, and anything else that needs to be done.
Alison Dwyer said that, as a nurse, “I was thinking we were going to need to have medically trained people in an active state… Serendipitous to me, I had known the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) existed, but I got an email that they were having a recruitment day.”
The Medical Reserve Corps, formed after 9/11, is a national network of volunteers, organized locally to improve the health and safety of their communities. Coordinating the activities of the Provincetown Covid-19 Task Force with the MRC made sense, said Dwyer.
“All of our task force members are volunteers in the Medical Reserve Corps, whether they are medically trained or not,” she said.
There are a number of areas the medical piece of the task force could be used for, said Dwyer. “We can work to the extent of our license, if we were to be activated,” she said.
Those areas medical volunteers could be used for are testing, helping with a quarantine center if one were needed, or even administering a vaccine if one were developed, she said.
“We do use our medical team to consider what messaging to get out there, and to decipher some of the information that may be out there in the public but may be convoluted.”
But other than the messaging aspect, she said, so far the medical volunteers have not been needed. “We want to be prepared and not used,” she said.
“We’ve all had our levels of hope, denial, despair, cycling back to hope again,” said King. “It’s such an overwhelming, existential crisis.”
“We know that mental health support is going to become more and more important,” she said.
Mary Ellen Dwyer said, “The first thing we decided we wanted to address was the people who were not getting seen or maybe not being attended to.”
“A group of myself and my colleagues check on our regular clients,” she said. Mary Ellen Dwyer said she has about 70 regular clients and another dozen or so that see her occasionally. In addition to herself and her colleagues, there are AIDS support groups, church groups and others reaching out in town, she said.
But, she said, “We wanted to be be able to find out who is falling through the cracks.”
The task force created a stress support line that people can call if they are feeling anxiety. “Every day it is manned by a clinician. Either a psychologist or a social worker,” she said.
Part of the plan is to connect people with a “buddy” to check in on them daily by phone and offer some human contact. “These might be people who aren’t necessarily looking for a therapist, she said, “but just want someone to check in on them because they are lonely.”
“Two things we were looking for, said Mary Ellen Dwyer. “People who wanted a buddy to call every day, and people who wanted to be a buddy.” In a situation like this, someone with a chronic illness can volunteer to be a buddy helping “make it feel like they are offering support to others in the community.”
So far, more have volunteered to be a buddy than have called needing a buddy, she said.
The stress support line, said Mary Ellen Dwyer is “not ringing off the hook, which is great.”
On the other hand, as King pointed out, “it’s only been a little more than a month so far.”
“My 81-year-old Mom has somebody who comes by and walks her dogs,” said King. “There is grocery list shopping. Delivery of food. We have a group of volunteers who have asked, what do you need me to do?”
“We’re talking about a mask campaign, being aware that it is going to be get warmer, and more people are going to be coming to town,” said Alison Dwyer.
“There will be more people coming to town for day trips. Part of the campaign will be to have masks available to people to wear when they walk into Stop & Shop,” she said.
“This community is uniquely challenged and uniquely vulnerable,” said King, “We also have an abundance of riches.” The support for the task force, she said, has been amazing.
And, said King, the idea of a task force has begun to spread to other communities on the Cape, including Wellfleet.
King, like everyone volunteering, has a special connection to the town. She first came to Provincetown when she was four years old and remembers “running down the dunes like I was flying.”
When her parents divorced, her mother stayed in Provincetown and King and her sister divided their time between their father, who was in Sarasota, Florida, and their mother in Provincetown. King’s mother still lives in Provincetown.
King said she knows now, as a member of the Select Board, knows that local politics “can become a mosh pit of opinions.”
But the volunteer spirit during this crisis, she said, has been extraordinary.
Alison Dwyer said she and Mary Ellen came to Provincetown “to live in a more simple way.” And, she said, the fact that Provincetown is a gay-friendly community was also a positive.
“To be amongst the majority” for the first time in their life was appealing, she said.
There are certainly inspiring individual stories from many volunteer organizations across Cape Cod. The truth of it is, it has to do with love and this is just one example in one small town. “People really truly want to help and lend a hand,” said Mary Ellen Dwyer.
“Everybody in Provincetown wants to make sure every one of their neighbors is helped,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they don’t even like each other. They want to make sure every one of their neighbors is okay.”
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