Over the last six years, Officer James McGrath has gotten used to answering all kinds of different calls while working for the Maynard Police Department. But this last year, COVID-19 has made it difficult to connect with the community he serves.
"I think it's hard to gain a rapport with people with masks. People just don't recognize me," Officer McGrath said as he turned down Main Street in this small New England town.
He's been particularly worried about seniors who live here in Maynard, Massachusetts.
"I think the elderly are especially afraid to go anywhere right now," he said.
So, in an effort to stay connected with the community and help those who are most vulnerable to catching COVID-19, this police department has started offering rides to seniors who can't get to their vaccination appointments.
Officer McGrath's boss, Chief Mike Noble, realized there was a need recently and started thinking of ways the department could help.
"This is the group of people that are dying from it," he said of seniors and the virus.
As the COVID-19 vaccine has slowly been rolled out across the nation, seniors have often had a difficult time getting to their appointments. That’s why Chief Noble and the rest of his department have started answering calls of a different kind: offering anyone who needs it, in this town of 10,000 people, a free ride to vaccination sites.
"There’s isolation, depression, anxiety. If we can do something to relieve that, at least they know there’s a fallback plan," Chief Noble said.
The need to help older citizens without access to transportation became personally clear to Chief Noble a few weeks ago. His 77-year-old mother, Jane, had managed to get a vaccination appointment but had no way of getting there. Without the help of Chief Noble and his siblings, she might not have made it to her appointment.
"Even before COVID, transportation was already an issue for a lot of these people," he explained.
From no license to no access to a car to not knowing someone who can help drive them, people over the age of 65 are less likely to be able to get to vaccination sites. The AARP estimate that 1 in every 5 Americans is over the age of 65 and nearly 8 million of them don't drive. Even public transportation isn't an option for many seniors, as an estimated 15.5 million Americans who are 65 and older live in communities where public transportation service is poor.
"We’re in the service business; it’s not just law enforcement, we’re also community caretakers," Chief Noble said about the ride program.
With town festivals and events canceled, Maynard Police were able to allocate money to the program to cover overtime and gas costs. Other departments in the area have also gotten word of the program and are implementing similar ideas.
"When this population is the most vulnerable, we have to think of what we can do to help them," Chief Noble added.
So far, only a small handful of people have taken the department up on their offer. However, they expect that to change as more people across the state of Massachusetts become eligible for vaccinations over the coming weeks.