BAR HARBOR — In some ways, residents of unbridged island communities are ahead of the curve with the changes brought by the virus epidemic, since they already rely on remote and online connections for important services.
But in other ways, they’re especially vulnerable.
On March 13, the team of Maine Seacoast Mission staff that usually visits islands aboard the Sunbeam (or this year, the replacement Moonbeam while work is being done on the bigger boat) decided to suspend their regularly scheduled visits.
“Each island community has asked that people not come out to the islands (so they can) make the best use of what limited resources they have on the island,” said Doug Cornman, director of island outreach and chaplain. So we want to honor that … If people start to not feel well, this would decimate an island.”
He said the islands have been focused on basic needs, like making sure there’s enough food and fuel.
“I really want to applaud islanders and island leaders,” he said, who are “working really hard in the best ways they can to do the best for their communities.”
He and Sharon Daly, a nurse, are reaching out to islanders by email, phone and video call to be there for them in any way they can.
“We’re going to stay very focused on our commitment to helping them access physical, emotional and spiritual health care,” Cornman said. “The islands have been part of the mission’s family for 115 years. We want them to continue to see us as family, that they can call us and we’ll listen.”
The team is working on plans for virtual gatherings of the kind that would normally happen over coffee and food on the Sunbeam. Cornman is planning video guided relaxation sessions he hopes people can use to “keep themselves emotionally healthy to respond to everything that’s happening.”
“People are going to need a lot of support,” Daly added. The people she’s talked with so far, she said, have said “what a difference it made just knowing that we care about them.”
Normally, she helps conduct medical appointments for island residents with providers on the mainland via telemedicine. She’s there with the patient in person.
For the time being, many of those providers will be able to see patients directly over a video connection, without her there as a go-between.
She’s also helping connect people with mental health counselors and online resources for 12-step groups. “We were doing that before all of this happened,” she said.
“I always think that islanders kind of embraced technology quicker because it was such a bridge for them.”
The island economies are already feeling the impact of the outbreak, as the lobster industry has been reeling from a precipitous drop in demand.
“I’m beginning to hear people question whether it’s worth continuing to fish,” Cornman said. “And people are beginning to think about how it’s going to impact summer tourism.”
Daly said she hopes the islands’ requests that visitors stay away for now will not be misconstrued, that anyone affected will understand the reasons they’re taking that step.
“It would be really sad if there’s a division between people, that’s not what anyone wants,” she said. “Right now everyone’s so emotional and vulnerable.”
Cornman agreed. “My hope is that people can continue to be kind to one another,” he said, “and not let their fear and what comes from the unknown, and how quickly we’re getting information shot at us, drive them to panic.
“That they stay as calm as they can and look out for one another. It’s what they do so well.”