The COVID-19 challenge proved a challenge for Millinocket Regional Hospital's "vintage 1994" ER. It wants to correct those shortcomings before the next crisis.
Millinocket Regional Hospital will use more $1 million in federal funds for design plans to expand and reconfigure its emergency department to better serve patients. The grant was one of six Penobscot County commissioners awarded Tuesday from money received through the American Rescue Plan Act. Credit: Courtesy of Millinocket Regional Hospital

Penobscot County has awarded nearly $2 million to half a dozen organizations from its $29.5 million pot of federal COVID relief funds, with the largest grant going to the hospital in Millinocket so it can be better prepared for the next health crisis.

It is the second round of grants from the funds Penobscot County received through the American Rescue Plan Act that Congress passed last year. The first round, awarded in August, totaled about $200,000 and went to organizations tackling mental illness, substance use disorder and hunger.

The largest grant from the latest round, for $1.067 million, went to Millinocket Regional Hospital, which will use the money to fund architectural and engineering designs for an expansion of its emergency department.

“The COVID-19 pandemic challenged our vintage 1994 emergency department and accentuated the immediate need for a complete re-engineering,” the hospital said in its grant application. “MRH is using lessons learned to correct these identified shortcomings before we are faced with the next pandemic or similar high-volume challenge.”

The plan includes doubling the number of treatment rooms in the department to 10, separating the emergency room entrance from the main entrance, installing a new air handling system and adding four safe rooms to address the needs of patients with substance use disorder or mental health needs who are often in the emergency room for longer periods of time while waiting for transfers to other facilities. The pace and lighting of the emergency department may make their conditions worse, the hospital’s application said.

“These funds will have lasting effects on the delivery of healthcare services in northern Penobscot County for years to come, and we sincerely thank the commissioners for their vision and long-range commitment to the Katahdin region,” said Dr. Robert Peterson, the hospital’s chief executive officer.

Once the design phase is complete, the hospital will seek funds to begin construction.

The Bangor Area Recovery Network in Brewer was awarded $273,300 to expand its Justice Recovery Program, which works on jail diversion programs through the Penobscot County district attorney’s office.

The money also will be used to work with those about to be released from correctional facilities and defendants participating in area drug treatment court programs.

The Millinocket Memorial Library and the Katahdin Higher Education Center in East Millinocket each received $150,000.

The library will use its grant for the Mobilize Katahdin program, which has helped connect people in the Katahdin region with a wide range of services, such as transportation, grocery delivery and home heating help. It quickly became the leading program in the area to connect people with services they needed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mobilize Katahdin runs a “warm-line” that people can call to access the range of services they need.

The higher education center, a branch of Eastern Maine Community College, will use the funds to purchase and install a backup generator.

Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness will use its $100,000 grant to develop a Withdrawal Management and Healing Center in the Bangor area that will serve Wabanaki and Indigenous people.

The Eastern Area Agency on Aging in Brewer received $50,000 to address food insecurity among the county’s older population.