Shortage of pharmacists leaving customers in peril

With pharmacists around the country walking off the job or threatening to do so, Maine pharmacies have experienced sudden closures, infrequent hours and frustration from customers who say they’re unreliable.

Over the past several weeks, employees at Walgreens and CVS, the nation’s two largest pharmacy chains, staged walkouts or did not show up for work to protest what organizers told The Washington Post are conditions that threaten the safety of employees and patients.

The walkouts show pharmacists feel “safety is so compromised that it’s actually better to not open the pharmacy,” than to open it, said Emily Dornblaser, a founding faculty member of the University of New England School of Pharmacy and director of interprofessional education.

“They just can’t meet the needs of the people that need them. And in doing so, they’re potentially putting other people at risk.”

There have been no reports of walkouts at Maine pharmacies as of Friday, but national organizers told CNBC that Walgreens walkouts are scheduled for Oct. 30 to Nov. 1. It is unclear whether any Maine pharmacists will participate.

Meanwhile, at least eight Walgreens have closed since 2020.

There is a shortage of pharmacists in Maine and nationwide, Dornblaser said. It started in the mid-2000s, when a shortage prompted a number of pharmacy school openings. But then the 2008 recession hit, and pharmacists who may have otherwise retired continued to work, she said.

Starting about six years ago, Maine finally met the demand for pharmacists — and then some. Jobs became more competitive, wages dropped, and so did applications to pharmacy schools.

In the fall of 2018, UNE School of Pharmacy reported 273 students enrolled in its Doctor of Pharmacy program, according to data from the university. By the fall of 2022, enrollment had dropped to 116 students, a nearly 60% decrease over five years.

Maine’s only other pharmacy school, at Husson University in Bangor, admits 65 students per year, according to its website.

“Right in the middle of that, then, is a pandemic,” Dorblaser said.

Complicating the equation is that pharmacists are doing a lot more than filling prescriptions.

“We’ve definitely seen a lot more added to our plate: testing, delivery of vaccines. We’re right now in the introduction phase of the 23-24 COVID vaccine, along with our flu vaccine, along with the (respiratory syncytial virus) vaccine,” said Steve Maki, president of the Maine Pharmacy Association.

“So, I mean, there’s a lot of additional services and things that three years ago weren’t even on our radar of, ‘Oh my gosh, this is now something we have to adjust for and we have to plan for.’”

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Maki, who has been a pharmacist since 1996 and opened Spruce Mountain Pharmacy in Jay in 2009, said the pharmacy landscape “seems like it changes right before our eyes.”

“Three years ago, pharmacists weren’t even considered as providers in the state,” he said, referencing a bill passed during the 130th Legislature that amended wording to the Maine Pharmacy Act to add that a pharmacist is a “provider of healthcare services,” but did not effectively change what pharmacists do.

The additional responsibilities led to “substantial burnout,” Dornblaser said.

Compounding that, wages for pharmacy technicians, who provide critical support by counting and filling pills, stocking shelves, giving immunizations and assisting customers, have remained low for years, Dornblaser said.

Shortage of pharmacists leaving customers in peril
The pressure and focus on generating revenue is demoralizing for a profession that is supposed to be centered around helping people, said a retired pharmacist. Photo courtesy of CVS.

The average hourly wage for a pharmacy technician in May 2022 was $18.12, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Dornblaser said during the pandemic-induced workforce shortage in other industries, she often heard of techs lured from pharmacies for better-paying jobs.

“You had people who had really a large amount of responsibility in the job in terms of keeping people safe, who weren’t compensated nearly as much as somebody working at … a McDonald’s,” she said.

Not only are pharmacists overworked and pharmacies understaffed, but there are fewer brick-and-mortar locations for people to get prescriptions filled.

Since 2020, Walgreens has closed locations in Auburn, Bangor, Fort Fairfield, Guilford, Millinocket, Newport, Pittsfield and Portland, according to pharmacy board licensing records that were confirmed by a Walgreens spokesperson.

Walgreens, CVS and Rite-Aid, which had already closed hundreds of stores nationwide before the pandemic, have since announced hundreds more closures.

Walgreens announced in June it would close 150 stores and in 2021, CVS said it would close 900 stores by next year.

Rite-Aid, which closed its Maine locations by early 2018, announced earlier this month it filed for bankruptcy and will close hundreds of stores.

In rural areas, inconsistent hours, staff shortages and closures mean residents can’t depend on their local pharmacy to get their medications — if they even have a pharmacy near them.

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Peter McCormick spends his summers on Campobello Island, just over the bridge from Lubec, in Canada. When he’s there, he transfers his prescriptions from a Walgreens pharmacy near his primary residence in Vermont to the one closest to his summer home, 40 miles away in Machias.

One Friday last summer, he received a notification two prescriptions were ready for pickup and made the 50-minute drive to Machias. When he got there, he said, the pharmacy was closed. A clerk told him, “We don’t have enough pharmacists,” and he could try the Calais Walgreens an hour away.

“A woman standing nearby said to me, ‘Don’t bother going to Calais because the Walgreens there is closed, too,’ ” McCormick said.

“Thankfully I had enough medication to get me to Monday, but the episode caused me an unnecessary three-hour round trip and would have been a much bigger problem if I hadn’t ordered my refills somewhat early. Overall, very disappointing,” he said.

Last month, Walgreens signed a consent agreement with the Maine Board of Pharmacy that said the chain’s Machias and Calais locations closed without notification and did not meet the state requirement that pharmacies are open for at least 40 hours per week on multiple occasions. It agreed to pay a $10,500 fine.

Walgreens paid at least $68,000 in penalties last year after failing to meet staffing requirements.

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“There are times when we must adjust or reduce pharmacy operating hours, or temporarily close a store, as we work to balance staffing and resources in the market to best meet customer demand. When this occurs, we make every effort to minimize disruption for patients and customers by selecting days with the lowest prescription demand to ensure that there is a nearby pharmacy to meet immediate prescription needs,” Walgreens spokesperson Kris Lathan said in an email.

“We also provide patients as much advance notice as possible through signage, automated phone calls, updates to our online scheduler, and adjustments in refills,” she said, but did not respond to specific questions from The Maine Monitor about the penalties, store closures or walkouts.

Lance Keen of Cooper said those stores are a “mess,” with “sporadic closures and can’t be relied on.”

He, too, experienced an incident where he ran out of a prescription and was unable to get it refilled in a timely manner, causing him “physical distress.”

With his usual pharmacy being 20 miles away, Keen said he has to be more attentive to when he needs to send in refill requests. He has also started to get his prescriptions delivered through Express Scripts, a prescription benefit manager that offers home delivery.

Mail order services offer convenience and consistency, especially for people in rural areas, like McCormick or Keen in Washington County, but Dornblaser worries an overreliance on them is a missed opportunity to develop “that community relationship.”

“Often it’s the pharmacist that you sort of casually mention something to and they can sort of say, ‘You know, that sounds like this,’ or, ‘You should go get that checked out,’ ” she said.

They can catch potential drug interactions, administer vaccines or serve as an easily accessible healthcare professional to answer questions.

The possibility of more closures worries her.

“We are a very rural state and, you know, having access to a healthcare provider can be such a lifeline for people,” Dornblaser said. “And the loss of a pharmacist or a pharmacy in a community has a pretty big impact overall.”

The story Shortage of pharmacists leaving customers in peril appeared first on The Maine Monitor.

Mississippi Officials Made 161 Voting Precinct Changes Since November 2022

Mississippi election officials have made 161 voting precinct changes since November 2022, leaving voters with slightly fewer voting precincts statewide and dozens moved after the completion of post-Census redistricting efforts, a Mississippi Free Press investigation has found.

The post Mississippi Officials Made 161 Voting Precinct Changes Since November 2022 appeared first on Mississippi Free Press.

Votantes en áreas rurales: con menor acceso a un ID para votar en 2023

ID para votar

A partir de este año los votantes deberán presentar una identificación del estado para poder votar, y existe una lista de identificaciones válidas que pueden presentar, pero dos de ellas (licencia de manejar e identificación estatal) requieren ir a una oficina del NCDMV

La entrada Votantes en áreas rurales: con menor acceso a un ID para votar en 2023 se publicó primero en Enlace Latino NC.

Disparities persist in California’s transfer process

The community college system is falling short of one of its most important benchmarks: the number of students who transfer to a four-year college or university. It remains well below the system’s own goal, and lawmakers have taken notice.

“Although most students intend to transfer to a four-year university, few do,” wrote a group of state legislators this year as they asked the state to audit community college performance.

Set in 2017, the goal was to increase the annual number of community college students who transfer to the University of California and California State University from nearly 89,000 to more than 120,000 by 2022. In the 2020-21 academic year, the most recent data available, nearly 99,000 community college students transferred to a UC or Cal State.

The Community College Chancellor’s Office responded to questions regarding the transfer goal by forwarding a letter that former interim Chancellor Daisy Gonzales wrote to legislators in March as part of an internal negotiation regarding the audit. In it, she wrote that the goal “has not been fully achieved.”

She wrote that the UC and Cal State system rejected nearly 30,000 eligible community college applicants in fall 2020 — more than enough transfers to meet the community colleges system’s goal. She wrote there was “insufficient capacity” at the UC and Cal State campuses and asked the auditors to include equal scrutiny of those systems, since everyone is mutually responsible for coordinating successful transfers.

However, there are many ways to measure transfer. To get a clearer picture, CalMatters looked beyond the chancellor’s office goal and analyzed the raw number of students who transferred every year, which includes but is not limited to those who transfer to a UC or Cal State. Those numbers are reported by four-year institutions across the country and analyzed by the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. Undocumented students are not counted because they lack a Social Security number. It’s the methodology that most closely aligns with the state’s funding formula, which pegs the transfer numbers to the amount of money a college receives.

CalMatters then compared those numbers to the total number of students who, upon starting community college, said they eventually wanted to get an associate degree or transfer.

Of the students enrolled in a community college in California who said they wanted to transfer to a four-year university, an average of 9.9% went on to enroll at a four-year institution in 2021, the most recent data available.

There are many reasons why students never transfer. The state’s roughly 1.8 million community college students are predominantly low-income, first-generation students of color. Many students, especially older students, must juggle work, children, and for some, even homelessness while attending school.

But certain populations and colleges have a harder time with transfer than others. CalMatters found:

  • Students at rural community colleges are less likely to transfer to a four-year university than students who attend school in affluent parts of Ventura County, Orange County, the San Fernando Valley, and Bay Area suburbs like San Bruno, Pleasant Hill, and Redwood City.
  • Colleges separated by only a few miles show stark contrasts in transfer rates. In 2021, the most recent year available, the transfer rate at Irvine Valley College was 16.7%, but just 10 miles away, at Santa Ana College, the rate was 5.4%.
  • Younger community college students were most likely to transfer, and  the rates drop off the older a student gets. In 2021, students over the age of 50 were more than four times less likely to transfer than their peers between ages 20 and 24.

Rural, unprepared students face biggest hurdles

Lassen College has one of the lowest transfer rates in the state — 4.5% in 2021. It’s more than 10 percentage points below the highest performer, Irvine Valley College.

The reason is easy to see, said Roxanna Hayes, the vice president of student services at Lassen College in Susanville: The nearest four-year institution is over 80 miles away at the University of Nevada in Reno.

“It feels like we’re 2 hours from anything…when you come up to Susanville and you look around, there’s no other educational institution besides us.”

“We don’t have the sort of income that other counties have,” Hayes said. “It’s not just getting accepted to school: I’ve also got to live there and afford it.”

Among the community colleges with the lowest transfer rates, 60 percent are rural, and some are hours away from the nearest four-year institution.

Airplanes and helicopters in the Aviation Technology building at West Los Angeles College Campus in Culver City on July 17, 2023. Photo by Julie A Hotz for CalMatters

Because of its proximity to numerous four-year institutions like UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton, students at Irvine Valley College come to school already familiar with their transfer options, and most students don’t have to move if they want to pursue a bachelor’s degree, said Loris Fagioli, the director of research at Irvine Valley College.

The rural-urban divide is part of the problem, but it can’t explain everything, said Darla Cooper, the executive director of the Research and Planning Group of the California Community Colleges, a separate nonprofit organization that is funded in part by the chancellor’s office. The income of the student body, the focus and “culture” of the school, and even the economics of the surrounding town or city impact the transfer rate at any community college.

In the 2014-15 academic year, Los Angeles community colleges had some of the lowest transfer rates in the state, but that’s because many of its students were coming to community college unprepared, said Maury Peal, the community college district’s associate vice chancellor for institutional effectiveness.

The colleges enrolled those students in remedial courses, which can take years to complete and can reduce the likelihood of graduation. Backed by research that shows remedial classes to be ineffective, a law passed in 2017 and another in 2022 asked colleges to start placing students directly in college-level courses. Pearl said these reforms, plus other efforts like special degrees that guarantee a transfer to a Cal State or UC, have led to an uptick in transfer rates across the L.A. colleges.

West Los Angeles College, for instance, had a 5.4% transfer rate in 2015, among the lowest in the state. But by 2021, it was up to 12.3%, well above the statewide average.

“The fact that it’s improved is something we’re proud of, but it’s still not where we want to get to,” said Jeff Archibald, vice president of academic affairs for West Los Angeles College.

‘Swirl,’ prisons, and ‘transfer-oriented culture’ set schools on different paths

Unlike four-year institutions, which are often singularly focused on bachelor’s degrees for young adults, community colleges offer a range of educational opportunities depending on the demographics in the surrounding towns or cities, which can make it hard to compare one community college to another.

Located in Blythe, a rural town near the Arizona border, Palo Verde College has consistently had the lowest transfer rate of any community college. In 2021, just 1.1% of Palo Verde College students who indicated they wanted to transfer succeeded in doing so — but roughly half of the college’s students are in prison. Other rural colleges with low transfer rates, including Lassen College and Feather River College, also enroll a high percentage of incarcerated students relative to other schools.

Rural areas also come with different job opportunities, especially compared to the state’s highly educated coastal cities, Cooper said.

“Do the jobs where you’re located require a bachelor’s degree?” she said. “Because if they don’t, you’re probably not going to have a lot of transfer.”

In dense urban areas like Los Angeles, students tend to take classes at multiple  community colleges, creating a “swirl” in the data that can mask some long-term outcomes,  Archibald said.

But disparities still persist, even within the same city. Los Angeles Pierce College and Los Angeles Valley College, which are located in the San Fernando Valley, consistently outperform other Los Angeles community colleges.

Pearl said Pierce and Valley College have developed a reputation for preparing students for four-year colleges or universities. He pointed to other Los Angeles community colleges, such as Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, which are geared towards career and technical training.

A 2008 Research and Planning Group report found that a “transfer-oriented culture” was a recurring reason why certain community colleges had higher-than-expected transfer rates. The report also said those colleges had close relationships with local high schools and four-year institutions, along with support services for students.

Although the report was done 15 years ago, the transfer rate patterns have persisted. Many of those schools profiled by the Research and Planning Group in 2008, such as Irvine Valley College, continue to outperform their peers today, according to the CalMatters analysis of recent data.

Community colleges in wealthy areas or those with high-performing high schools have higher transfer rates, too. “We know this with almost all educational outcomes, there is an economic or socio-economic driver behind it,” Faglioli said.

Pearl said Los Angeles Pierce and Valley colleges benefit from “high-performing” charter schools nearby, which can boost transfer rates if community college students start school better prepared.

Why transfer still matters

To encourage colleges to meet the system’s goal of increasing transfers to a UC and Cal State, community college officials put forward a new formula that pegged a portion of a community college’s funding to its outcomes. One of those outcomes is the number of people who transfer to a four-year institution.

But Lizette Navarette, interim deputy chancellor of the community college system, said that community colleges with low transfer rates are not getting penalized.

That’s because the new funding formula also takes into account the percentage of low-income students who meet certain benchmarks for success and the number of students who complete career-oriented programs. Navarette said rural colleges and other schools with low transfer rates have the opportunity to make up any potential gaps in state funding.

Lassen College, for example, received nearly $3 million more dollars last year than it would have under the previous funding formula, despite having some of the lowest transfer rates in the system.

However, the greatest impact of low transfer rates is not on the community college but on the student, Cooper said.

“For most people of color, most people who are low-income, community college is their only way into higher ed,” she said. “Even if what they want to pursue requires a bachelor’s degree, not everyone can go straight to a university.”

Four-year colleges and universities are selective and can be expensive, she said. While some community college students can earn more with a certificate or an associate degree than those with a bachelor’s degree, she said those students are the exception, not the norm.

“Everybody wants to bring out Bill Gates,” Cooper said. “He didn’t graduate college….If you can be that, awesome, great, fantastic. But for most people, it’s beneficial for life.”

In the internal letter to the state auditors, former interim Chancellor Gonzales pointed to areas where the community college system has seen significant gains toward its 2017 goals. More students are completing their courses and gaining degrees, for instance.

In general, more students are transferring to a four-year college, according to the CalMatters analysis, which includes upticks in the number of students transferring to a UC or Cal State. But the progress remains less than third of the goal that the chancellor’s office set out to accomplish by 2022.

A spokesperson for the Community College Chancellor’s Office said the system will deliver a new transfer goal “in the coming weeks.”

Data reporter Jeremia Kimelman contributed to the reporting for this story. 

Adam Echelman covers California’s community colleges in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education.

In rural Vermont, reaching residents with flood damage takes a village

a woman standing in front of a room full of boxes.
a woman standing in front of a room full of boxes.
Inside the resource center organized by The Civic Standard and other groups at the Hardwick Senior Center, volunteer Sara Behrsing of Hardwick sorts through donations. Photo by Kristen Fountain/VTDigger

Kristin Atwood, the town clerk and treasurer in Barton, spent most of her waking hours last week subbing in as part of the town’s road crew. 

This week, she’s leading the municipal outreach to affected residents, trying to persuade neighbors she’s known since childhood to accept help recovering from the worst flooding to hit this small Orleans County town in living memory. 

As the only full-time town employee who’s not able to operate heavy machinery, Atwood took on the tasks of driving all the back roads to find washed-out sections and place orange cones around them, so that others could get to work fixing them, she said in an interview on Wednesday. 

That’s why, when representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived at her office without warning the previous Saturday morning to visit residences damaged in last week’s historic flooding, the homes she knew of to show them were those of people who had posted pictures on social media, she said.

“I only got a call when people were outside my door,” Atwood said. “I didn’t have time to organize a list.”

With new Vermont counties added to the major disaster declaration Friday morning, Atwood hopes the federal assessors will come back to Barton. 

Going door to door on Monday and Tuesday, she’s found a lot for them to see — dozens of residences that were severely flooded in town, both on both the north and south side of Barton Village and in downtown Orleans Village.

In Barton, and other small towns across the state impacted by flooding, municipal officials and nonprofit groups are realizing that the people who may need the most help are often the least willing or able to reach out and request it. You have to talk to them, and even then they may not reveal the full extent of what they are facing. To know that, you have to visit and see for yourself.

In Glover, another Orleans County town, the new town administrator, Theresa Perron, coordinated with Glover Rescue volunteers and other townspeople late last week, trying to reach every affected household. At least 10 and likely “well over” suffered damage she called “extensive” to their living space, some of which she was able to show FEMA representatives. 

In addition to the door-knocking, Atwood has asked the owner and clerks at the nearby C&C Supermarket to try to engage anyone buying large amounts of cleanup supplies, such as garbage bags and bleach, to find out where they live. 

In Greensboro Bend — a village in the Orleans County town of Greensboro between Glover and Hardwick — Jen Thompson, who co-owns Smith’s Grocery with her husband, Brendan, is taking on that role. 

The store is up and running, although it took on water in the basement. Thompson is coordinating with another small business owner in Stannard who is trying to visit and check on every home. 

“A lot of people, particularly in these areas, do not have internet and social media,” Thompson said on Thursday. “I feel like the damage is out there and I feel like it is a lot more than we know. It’s just trying to figure out who they are.”

‘People don’t like to ask for help’

For town leaders and social service organizations, finding those most impacted by the flooding is only the first challenge. The second is getting them to agree to accept assistance from people outside of their immediate family and friends.

“People don’t like to ask for help. They think their issue is nothing compared to somebody else’s,” said Thompson.

Atwood echoed that sentiment. “Asking for help is hard, especially for a lot of Vermonters. It’s an independent group,” she said in an interview on Wednesday. 

When she visited, people smiled and shrugged and told her, “We made out fine” and “What can you do?” when she asked them how they were doing, she said. 

At that point, the people she spoke with hadn’t called 2-1-1, Vermont’s flood damage hotline, but they promised to do so once she explained that reporting damage could help their neighbors access federal funds. 

“Many of these houses are just over that line of acceptable” for safely living in, Atwood said. “A lot of the folks are older people used to doing for themselves and they are plugging away.”

Over the course of those two days, she gave out four dehumidifiers and 22 industrial-strength fans — everything that had been delivered the previous week to the town hall by the Vermont National Guard. 

She wasn’t sure on Wednesday morning how many would actually stop by the “Multi Agency Resource Center,” a gathering of state and regional resources that was going to be set up the following day beneath the town offices on Barton’s village square. If people heard about it, some would need to get a ride — many personal vehicles were damaged by flooding. 

two red cross vans parked in front of a brick building.
Salvation Army and Red Cross vehicles signal the location of the state’s Multi Agency Resource Center at the Barton Memorial Building. Photo by Kristen Fountain/VTDigger

On Thursday afternoon, a modest but steady stream of visitors was passing through the MARC, as it’s called by Vermont Emergency Management, in the basement of the Barton Memorial Building, which was flanked by large vehicles showing the logos of the Salvation Army and Red Cross. The pop-up center is scheduled to remain until 5 p.m. Saturday. 

Outside, most of the people were gathering to pick up cases of water and a bucket of cleaning supplies from the Salvation Army, and a hot meal of sauerkraut and kielbasa from the Red Cross. Nearby, staff from the Vermont Food Bank and Northeast Kingdom Community Action, or NEKCA, answered questions and distributed food boxes, diapers and flashlights.

The Vermont Department of Health also had a table there, with free water-testing kits available for those with household springs and wells, as well as informational flyers that outlined the risk and potential health impacts of mold growth and how to safely clean out your home following a flood. 

But several people had also made it inside to consult with the state Agency of Human Services about the loss of items purchased through the Three Squares food assistance program, said regional field representative Chris Mitchell. Nearby staff from the Department of Labor said they also had assisted a few people with information about unemployment insurance. 

Momentum seemed to be building throughout the day as people in and around Barton told each other about what was there, Mitchell said. He knows they need to do more than simply tell town officials and state representatives, and announce the pop-up center on social media.  

“We’re hoping word of mouth works,” Mitchell said. “We’re trying to spread the word.”

two people sitting at a table with laptops.
Cindy Grenier, a benefits program specialist with the Vermont Department of Children and Families, and Chris Mitchell, regional field supervisor with the Vermont Agency of Human Services at the AHS table inside the Barton Memorial Building. Photo by Kristen Fountain/VTDigger

NEKCA is also aware that personal outreach is essential, said Casey Winterson, the group’s director of economic and community services. That’s one reason the nonprofit purchased two mobile units of their own, so they could provide direct services outside their offices in Newport and St. Johnsbury. 

On Wednesday, his staff were in Groton, where they made contact with one family with young children who were without shelter and no longer able to stay in a campground that had been closed due to flooding, he said. 

‘We need to go to them’ 

Consistent engagement is needed to reach many of the residents of the Northeast Kingdom and other rural regions who need the most help to recover after the flooding, said town officials. 

These are households headed by elderly or disabled people, and those that have taken in extended families impacted by substance abuse, many including young children. Many could use a hand in clearing out the water and cleaning up what was left behind.

There were a few homes in Glover where cleanup appeared to be challenging the residents’ resources, whether financially, physically or emotionally, said Perron, the town administrator. “Some were overwhelmed with how to do it and what to do, or can’t do it. Some people do not have the capacity to make that happen,” she said.

Atwood estimated that in Barton there are at least 15 homes in town where there still is a significant amount of basic cleanup work to do, removing water-damaged items and housing materials. But for some, she said, “the help that is being accepted is the help that just shows up.”

That was the primary reason David “Opie” Upson, the town manager in Hardwick, declined the state’s offer to put the regional pop-up resource center in Hardwick. After visiting 50 affected households himself earlier in the week, he did not see how the center could help the dozen that still had significant damage they are unable to address, let alone the roughly seven that are not salvageable, he said. 

“These are folks that aren’t going to show up at a crisis center. These folks won’t go to a multi-agency anything,” he said. “We need to go to them.”

He had asked his contact at the Agency of Human Services to provide direct individual assistance to those households. “This is a major construction project for these families,” Upson said. Meanwhile, “where they live is not getting any drier.”

Trying to bridge the gap

Across the Northeast Kingdom and the state, family, friends and neighbors are showing up to help each other and their local business community recover. But in every community, there are people who have lost connections to both formal and informal resources. 

In Orleans County, like elsewhere, two relatively new nonprofit groups have stepped in to try to bridge the gap. 

“The opioid epidemic has destroyed a lot of familial connections,” said Meghan Wayland on Monday afternoon while organizing donated food and cleaning supplies at the NEKO Depot, located in the back rooms of the Orleans Federated Church in Orleans Village. That’s where Northeast Kingdom Organizing set up its own resource center and communication hub within days of the flooding. 

NEKO was born out of a collaboration among regional churches, the Caledonia Grange and the Center for Agricultural Economy in Hardwick, starting in 2017. The Orleans church was not one of the original organizations, but supporting the mutual aid group’s mission by opening up its space is an outgrowth of faith, said minister Alyssa May.

a group of people standing around a table with a dog.
Minister Alyssa May speaks with NEKO lead organizer Megan Wayland and NEKO board member Ally Howell at the NEKO Depot in the Orleans Federated Church. Polly, Wayland’s dog, takes a snooze. Photo by Kristen Fountain/VTDigger

The group has been building relationships with people in the most affected communities for more than four years, said Ally Howell, who works for the agricultural nonprofit and is part of the NEKO leadership team. 

“We were positioned really well to respond quickly in Barton and Glover and Orleans,” Howell said. 

They began checking in with the families they knew as soon as roads were passable, and are trying to be in continuous touch and to understand their goals and needs, said Wayland, who is NEKO’s lead organizer and its primary eyes and ears on the ground. 

“It may not look devastating. The pictures are not catastrophic,” they said on Thursday afternoon. “But we live in a region where people have already been on a tightrope. These people are living in low-lying areas and they have been clobbered by this thing.”

‘A delicate dance’

In Hardwick, the leaders of The Civic Standard, a nonprofit operating out of the former Hardwick Gazette building in the village, have been doing similar things. They mobilized volunteers to staff an emergency shelter that opened afternoon June 10, the first night of flooding there. 

They also say the work is made possible by the presence The Civic Standard has been building in town for over a year. The group’s purpose, as described by co-founder Tara Reese, is simple but profound: “for people to be seen, to no longer be invisible to each other because of their differences,” she said. 

A resource center, set up by The Civic Standard and the Hardwick Neighbor to Neighbor group, opened on the following Monday at the Hardwick Senior Center. By Wednesday morning, it had already given out all its dehumidifiers and more than 30 fans, and provided other kinds of support to 20 families, said volunteer Sarah Behrsing, who was staffing it then.

“It’s something we’ve been building on all the time anyway,” said co-founder Rose Friedman. The organization wasn’t founded to respond to a disaster, but it is able to fill that role because of connections it has made. Supporting a community is varied. “Sometimes that looks like disaster relief and sometimes it looks like trivia (night),” she said. 

Other, older nonprofits are also playing a role. Thompson, the Greensboro Bend shopkeeper, said the Greensboro Association has provided funds for immediate assistance to local families. One family might need nights in a hotel; another one, help with material disposal. 

“Going to the garbage is not cheap,” she said. “It’s definitely heartbreaking to see families who don’t have the means and resources.” 

Having Wayland and other NEKO staff on the ground in affected communities has been invaluable in helping the state and regional groups understand community needs, said NEKCA’s Winterson. “They have been huge in that regard,” he said. 

Mitchell said that, because of Wayland’s work, he is trying to coordinate deliveries to specific households by the Salvation Army’s van while it is in Barton. 

NEKO is currently trying to bring materials and volunteers, while respecting residents’ wishes, to seven locations — and more are being added as they are found, Wayland said. The greatest need right now for the group are people in the trades and restoration professions who can help residents evaluate what is salvageable and what is not, they said. 

“We need people who have done this before. We can’t order the dumpsters and leave people to coordinate the volunteers,” Wayland said. “We have a relationship; we don’t have the expertise.” 

The Civic Standard group is working at three locations currently and matching volunteers at a few other locations, said Friedman on Thursday. It already has sufficient volunteers connected currently, and the work is not about ripping and tearing. 

“People are still living in these houses and have a life in them and a lot of attachment to the things in them,” Reese said. At the Gazette building, they are also providing a quiet place where people can come to sit and talk. 

Both NEKO and The Civic Standard know that they cannot solve every problem many of these households face. They can’t even make sure this doesn’t happen again. 

“We can’t lift these houses out of a floodplain,” said Hardwick resident Helen Sherr, a summer fellow with The Civic Standard.

But people active in those organizations, as well as town officials, hope this long-term and difficult work —- which Friedman calls a “delicate dance” — will allow information and assistance to come more easily next time. 

“I love these people. I grew up here. I want to help them look to the future,” Barton’s Atwood said. “I’m not naive enough to think this is the only time we are going to see this kind of water.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: In rural Vermont, reaching residents with flood damage takes a village.

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