A guy who could help Southcoast with COVID and Fairhaven with other stuff
Kevin Gallagher is not your usual small-town fire chief.
A former aide to both state Rep. Joe McIntyre and Congressman Gerry Studds, early on he seemed headed for an impressive political career of his own.
But as a 29-year-old he lost his own race for state rep to former longtime Rep. Bob Koczera and ended up instead as an Acushnet firefighter, paramedic and eventually fire chief.
As of last week, he is now also an elected member of the Fairhaven Board of Health, having garnered an impressive 75% of the vote in the town election.
You might say that’s a bit of a comedown for a guy who once seemed headed for a bigtime political career. But 30 years after his initial foray into politics, Gallagher says he doesn’t see it that way.
“I was kind of a cocky young kid with my eyes on the corner office,” he remembered. “I was too young. I was running for no other reason than to run” he said, with an honesty that is almost unheard of among politicians, local and otherwise.
But this year’s race for the Fairhaven Board of Health was something different, he said. This year he had some specific ideas about doing something about a rogue town board that had distressed a large part of the town.
“This time my hair is gray and there were reasons,” he said. “I’ve got an awful lot of experience, both professionally and personally.”
Message on Kevin Gallagher’s campaign Facebook page. [ Screenshot ]
To say the Fairhaven health board has been dysfunctional during the last year -- and probably for long before that -- would be an understatement.
In the course of a few months, both the former town health agent and her assistant went on leaves of absence due to what they said was stress from interacting with health board chair Peter DeTerra. An internal report commissioned by the town concluded the health department was being mismanaged by the board and that Chairman DeTerra had created a hostile work environment.
DeTerra, 17 years on the board, was also reprimanded by the state this year for holding a 150-guest wedding for his daughter in violation of state regulations in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The dysfunctional board eventually fired the health agent who has filed a complaint with the state Commission Against Discrimination, accusing DeTerra of harassing her. The second health department assistant resigned, a third department employee was let go.
A group of protesters called for a recall election for DeTerra and a second board member, Michael Ristuccia, amid charges of conflicts of interest and ethics violations. A third member of the board, Michael Silvia, resigned over what he contended were political shenanigans by DeTerra and Ristuccia to keep DeTerra in the chairman’s position.
All this happened while the pandemic was raging and Fairhaven was being less than transparent about the course of COVID in the town. Fairhaven had taken the position that it would not release the number of people who had died from COVID in town if there had been any other disease that might have also been factors in their deaths.
The town wasn’t much better about releasing the number of townspeople who had tested positive for COVID, ignoring New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell’s recommendation for local communities to work together and release their COVID statistics daily. The town only began to regularly release the weekly death numbers after former selectman Geoff Haworth temporarily took an interim seat on the board.
Family portrait from Kevin Gallagher’s campaign Facebook page. Gallagher is second row farthest to right. [ Screen shot ]
Gallagher, with a reputation for running one of the best fire departments in the region, says he would like to bring some transparency to all this.
“My intention is to go in there and advocate for opening things up, making it more accountable,” he said.
The fire chief has played a similar role in Acushnet town government during his years as fire chief, often acting as a mediator when things were stuck politically.
As in Fairhaven, and also Dartmouth, Acushnet initially dragged its feet releasing COVID numbers. The state had cautioned health boards against invading the privacy of individuals diagnosed with the infectious disease, and the town officials interpreted that to mean they should not release daily numbers of what was going on in the towns.
Some towns also tried to make a distinction that a nursing home death was not a town death because the deceased person may have lived in a separate community. As if the disease does not spread when Southcoast residents move between local cities and towns, and as if those who work in local nursing homes do not come and go in all of the Southcoast communities.
Gallagher, however, served as a bridge to the Acushnet health board and the town began to release its numbers. It was a small but important action aimed at helping residents understand how deadly the pandemic might become.
Gallagher it turns out had foresight. A little over 13 months after the state first moved to close businesses and schools, more than 17,000 people have died in Massachusetts, including a former 63-year-old mayor of New Bedford.
But that was the very smallest part of what the fire chief did.
During the early delays of the pandemic, when resources were short, the state was understandably focused on providing resources to the cities where the disease was spreading fastest. The state enabled testing in New Bedford and when the city got to the point of using a mobile van to test hard-to-reach populations, Gallagher wrote to the state asking if the van could take a swing through Acushnet.
His department, which both fights fires and delivers ambulance services, had seen first hand the COVID cases that were beginning to show up in town.
When Gallagher didn’t receive an answer from the Baker administration, he took things into his own hands. He asked the town to use part of its federal CARES Act funding to let the fire department run the region’s first testing program in a local suburb. He started with teachers and worked out from there, gearing up a big testing program for those who had traveled around the holidays. At one point, the Acushnet firefighters’ program was testing 1,000 people a week.
Gallagher said the Acushnet Board of Health knew their community and knew people would be more likely to be tested at a town-run program that was delivered to them.
“The older segment of our population just likes services to be mobile,” he said.
Message on Gallagher’s campaign Facebook page for the town health board. [ Screen shot ]
Gallagher did not stop there.
As the state began to gear up to administer vaccines, he organized a program for Acushnet to begin vaccinating people on its own. He visited the New Bedford vaccination program at the Andrea McCoy Recreation Center and patterned an Acushnet program after that.
His department had built the infrastructure, did the dry runs and were set to start vaccinating when Gov. Baker, in an effort to rapidly increase vaccinations, diverted all local vaccine programs to the state’s mega sites. The larger local town of Dartmouth was already running a similar program and was also shut down.
Gallagher is full of ideas and acknowledged that Southcoat might benefit from a more regional approach to the pandemic. He noted the recent spike in numbers and points out that the more easily transmissible U.K variant of COVID went from zero percent of the cases in Massachusetts to more than 50 % between February 1 and April 1.
“It’s not going anywhere soon,” he said, of the pandemic.
“I’m not sure that there is that level of communication among the region’s health boards,” he said,
The Fairhaven Board of Heath has already adopted one idea that Gallagher raised in the campaign.
While out to dinner with his wife at a Fairhaven restaurant, he realized that they didn’t know what the 50% occupancy number for the restaurant allowed by the state. He suggested the town require restaurants to post the 50 percent building capacity number somewhere in a highly visible place.
“Could that work in Dartmouth? Probably. Could that work in New Bedford? Absolutely,” he said.
Gallagher acknowledged he is the new guy on the block and will be just one of three votes on the Fairhaven board, and that he’s also just learning what is going on throughout the region. But he said he was excited to see that a doctor, Christian Pope, was also elected to the Dartmouth health board last week.
It makes sense to work together as a region to try to drive down the numbers, he said.
As for the Fairhaven board, Gallagher said that when he was running several folks asked him why he would want to be part of a “corrupt” group like the Board of Health and he was taken aback.
“I don’t know if there is corruption to be honest with you... But enough people believe that that you have to go in with your eyes wide open,” he said.
Even so, Gallagher says he’s approaching his position with an open mind and knows that he will have to convince others of his ideas in order to succeed.
“The difference between Kevin Gallagher at 59 years old and when I first ran is that I know that it’s not a one-man show,” he said.