Fellows on the Frontlines: Coronavirus Crisis

May 12, 2020

Amid the coronavirus crisis, Bloomberg Fellows are devising innovative ways to continue their essential work and meet their communities' needs

Our ongoing Fellows on the Frontlines series highlights a few of their stories.

As the Director of Behavioral Health Services for Frederick County, MD, Andrea Baiocchi Walker has launched a Behavioral Health Incident Command response unit for the Frederick County Health Department. One of the top priorities of the ICS team is interrupting human-to-human transmission of the virus by ethically allocating and distributing personal protective equipment, or PPE, to agencies that provide residential services to those with mental health and/or substance use disorders. The ICS team is also continuing to provide harm reduction services, by delivering Narcan and safe injection equipment to providers and individuals, and is acting as the public health liaison to the local detention center and all long term care facilities. “We continue to surveil the community for gaps and brainstorm ways to address them,” Andrea says. “This includes working with government and philanthropic organizations to cover the cost of things such as funerals, food, and hygiene supplies.”

Josh Peterson is the manager of the Minneapolis Office of Violence Prevention at the City of Minneapolis Health Department. In February, he took on an additional duty: a position within the city’s Incident Command System, created to respond to the coronavirus crisis. As Logistics Section Chief, he is working to ensure that the health department, the city enterprise, and the community have the resources, services, support, and staffing needed to effectively respond. He has devised new systems for receiving, tracking, and fulfilling logistics requests, helping essential resources get to where they’re needed. “In the critical first month of our response, we were able to distribute over 150,000 masks, 4,000 pairs of gloves, 5,000 thermometers, hand sanitizer, and surface cleaner to partners, many of which were critically under-equipped,” he says.

Janel Cubbage, director of suicide prevention for the Maryland Department of Health, and her team have been providing updates to providers about telehealth—including expansion of services, trainings to help providers transition to telehealth, and tips on managing suicide risk via telehealth. They are planning an online training series for behavioral health professionals, rolling out social media messaging about mental wellbeing during social distancing and isolation, and disseminating factsheets on coping with thoughts of suicide and managing suicide risk via telehealth (they can be downloaded from theMaryland Department of Health's website). Janel's office also donated 500 lockable medication pouches to opioid treatment programs, so that they may continue to administer medication-assisted treatment during the pandemic, and hosted a webinar in early April on tending to mental health during the coronavirus outbreak.

Philadelphia FIGHT’s Y-HEP (Youth Health Empowerment Project) Adolescent and Young Adult Health Center, where Elaina Tully is medical director, is working to ensure continued access to care for patients—through a new telehealth effort, expansion of their social media presence, and a new clinical triage protocol to see urgent respiratory and non-respiratory cases. “Many of our patients have turned to us for support during this uncertain and somewhat frightening time, and that has been a real reminder of the power of community health and the trust our patients have built with their primary care provider,” Elaina says. She has also joined the Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corp, which is working with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health to staff various pandemic initiations—including the drive-through COVID-19 testing site at Citizen’s Bank Park, where she worked with a team of volunteers to provide testing for over 140 symptomatic community members in a single day.

Monica Guerrero Vazquez, executive director of Centro SOL in Baltimore, has been working on finding inclusive ways to respond to the public health emergency for Spanish-speaking communities. “Disparities are palpable during this crisis,” Monica says; people are struggling to find secure and sufficient food sources, access healthcare, and deal with losing work or the fear of doing so. Monica is working across institutions, government, university and community to identify the most urgent needs of Latinx families and respond in the field, distributing food, compiling information in Spanish, and adapting Centro SOL’s programming to go virtual.

As part of the City of Philadelphia’s response to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, Sami Jarrah is part of the city’s incident command structure. “As the chief operating officer for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, part of my role is making sure public health responders have the resources we need to act quickly,” Sami says. “This has included everything from arranging quarantine housing and ensuring homeless individuals have phones to remain in touch with staff doing contact monitoring, to sourcing personal protective equipment and making sure reliable data gets shared with the media.” It’s also meant advocating for necessary resources, soliciting donations of personal protective equipment from the community, and ensuring that vulnerable populations and non-English speaking communities have reliable and up-to-date evidence-based information.

At Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation in the Northern Mariana Islands, Kaitlyn Neises-Mocanu says the response they’ve launched to COVID-19 is wholly different from other emergencies. “Health emergencies in the islands are most often typhoon-related, so our response is usually very hands-on, such as house to house health assessments, mobile health care, and shelter surveillance. For this response, we are looking for ways to be as hands-off as possible,” she says. That means maximizing telecommunications — because, unlike after a typhoon, telecoms and power infrastructure remain strong, and people are looking to their phones for information while they're stuck at home. “This disruption has catalyzed our implementation of new mechanisms, like chatbot style symptom guidance, SMS symptom monitoring, telemedicine, and telework,” she says. “The crisis has really made us think differently about how we do public health surveillance and health care.”

Haven Wheelock is the program coordinator for the Syringe Exchange at Outside In, an essential healthcare service provider in Portland, Oregon. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the community that Outside In serves was already experiencing an increase in overdoses as well as in HIV infections associated with injection drug use. Oregon's stay-at-home order added further stress for people experiencing homelessness, who lost access to food, spaces where they felt safe, and ways to earn money. Haven and her colleagues are committed to keeping the exchange open as long as they are healthy and able, and to finding new ways to serve their clients. “We are taking advantage of all the advancements in telehealth, and our dream of being able to provide medications for opioid addiction in our exchange [may become a reality] as soon as next week," Haven says. "As we continue to be resourceful to get through this, we are breaking down barriers and creating new ways to serve people, and that gives me hope.”

David Harvey, deputy director of the Division of Sanitation Facilities Construction (SFC) at the Indian Health Service, is facilitating the development of a platform for reporting COVID-19 testing results at 400+ tribal healthcare facilities. He has also developed a tracking system for operation and maintenance needs at drinking water and waste water systems serving Indian communities that may result from COVID-19. David is one of 6,500 Commissioned Corps Officers of the US Public Health Service that was recently placed on "alert to deploy status," to be called to directly support states, tribes, and territories in responding to COVID-19.

New Jersey's Maplewood Memorial Library, where Emily Witkowski is teen librarian, has adapted many of its programs to the digital realm—from recording Story Times on YouTube for young children to creating a digital Dungeons & Dragons club and a teen virtual check-in for middle- and high-school students. “Our library's mission is to connect people to information, ideas, culture—and each other," Emily says. "This connection is needed now more than ever, and we are working hard to connect and serve our community in whatever ways we can."


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