Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in an occasional series called Maine Acts of Kindness, highlighting volunteer and philanthropic efforts during the pandemic.

As an epidemiologist, Sharon McDonnell has had a lengthy career studying how disease spreads across populations.

By February, with the coronavirus outbreak largely overseas, she was convinced her neighbors in Yarmouth needed to be ready when the pandemic reached Maine.

“I have a very strong vision of the kinds of things that could happen with this sort of outbreak,” McDonnell said. “I felt we needed, as a community, to look at predictable and perhaps inevitable” effects of the pandemic.

Epidemiologist Sharon McDonnell led the formation of the Yarmouth Community Coronavirus Task Force. Natalya McDonnell photo

McDonnell appealed to municipal officials and other groups in town to help create the Yarmouth Community Coronavirus Task Force, a local response team designed to keep residents informed and help ensure that vital services are maintained during the virus outbreak. The task force forms a web ranging from town hall and emergency responders to community groups that oversee volunteers.

So far, the task force has established a call center for residents, helped arrange for grocery pickup and delivery for those who cannot get to the store, and created a network in which volunteers keep tabs on others in their neighborhood.

The task force is “a group of professionals, but really it’s a grassroots group that has been able to put a lot of answers and abilities in one place,” said Yarmouth Police Chief Dan Gallant.

As part of the effort, Dan Ostrye and fellow Rotary Club members have taken on the task of food shopping and delivery for those who need assistance.

“It’s certainly an act of kindness. I also think it’s an act of solidarity,” Ostrye said. “This is a time of great need at home and we said, ‘Let’s help.’ There are people who cannot or should not be outside in the stores right now.”

Volunteer Carla Hunt said getting the message out that services are available, even if they aren’t needed immediately, is also comforting.

“The beauty of what’s happening in Yarmouth is structures are in place to help,” Hunt said. “Right now, just feeling you are connected is huge and those connections will become more and more important as the needs start to surface, and we know they will.”

McDonnell said a key reason the group was able to form so quickly – they gathered officially for the first time on March 13 and had a Facebook page and the call center operational within 10 days – is that town leaders were responsive to her warnings.

Others point out that McDonnell’s vast experience gave her suggestions great credibility.

McDonnell, 64, worked at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta from 1993-2003 in a variety of roles, capped by her tenure as branch chief for International Health Division. Prior to that, she worked two years with the World Health Organization (1989-91) focused on HIV/AIDS transmission. After moving to New England, she became a professor at Dartmouth.

More recently, she spent the better part of two years in Liberia during an Ebola outbreak that led to a collapse of the West African country’s health care system. She is currently an adjunct professor at the University of New Hampshire and teaches at Maine Medical Center in its preventive medicine residency program.

“We’ve been teaching our epidemiology students about (the spread of coronavirus) since January. I was frantic in February and most people were like, ‘What?’ ” McDonnell said.

When she approached the town about forming an initial meeting to discuss her concerns, “they said let’s have it tomorrow. By the time we had that meeting in early March, the fire chief (Michael Robitaille) was already very clear about how worried he was.”

As part of the information campaign, the task force has posted videos on its Facebook page to help keep residents informed – and safe. In one, Gallant warns of the inevitable telephone scams designed to prey on coronavirus fears, and asks people to “be prepared, not panicked. Make sure you get your information from a trusted source like the CDC. Look out for your family, friends and neighbors.”

Bill Dunn, a volunteer with the Yarmouth Community Coronavirus Task Force, loads groceries into his car after shopping for a resident who isn’t able to go to the store. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Among the groups the task force is working with are Yarmouth Community Services, a division of the town government responsible for the town’s open spaces and numerous programs; the nonprofit group Yarmouth Cares About Neighbors; service clubs like Rotary and The Lions; and the local police and fire departments. The call center, based at the now dormant public library, is staffed Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. The number to call is 207-846-4763.

“They’re trying to provide comfort to people though this period of fear and by having a person to talk to; our neighbors have an opportunity to reach out to a person that is incredibly caring,” said Karyn MacNeill, the director of Yarmouth Community Services. “And, most likely, their needs are going to be met with that one phone call.”

In the past few days, the task force has helped organize what they call neighborhood communicators, who are trying to keep an even closer eye on the community. Earlier this week, an online map was posted with contact information for each communicator, which has prompted even more volunteers to fill open slots.

Hunt is one of the over 40 neighborhood communicators.

“Don’t forget, a big part of kindness is emotional support,” Hunt said. “Sometimes it’s just a voice on the phone or an email conversation, saying, ‘I’m here. I know you’re there. Reach out to me any time.’ ”

Ostrye, a retired environmental scientist, said it helps to have the task force serving as an umbrella organization. The Rotary Club’s shopping/delivery services, dubbed “Shop Gap,” starts after they receive a request from the task force call center.

“We need to have a coordinating group so we’re not tripping over or duplicating each other’s efforts,” Ostrye said.

Are there folks in your community going out of their way to help others during the virus outbreak? If so, please send details about their efforts to [email protected]

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