April 2, 2020

In cities and counties across the country, agencies providing health and human services are working around the clock to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their work comes as communities increasingly depend on their guidance and services, particularly vulnerable populations such as the elderly, youths, and people experiencing homelessness. Agency leaders have had to track the changing nature of COVID-19, respond to new measures like enforced social distancing, and ultimately make quick decisions on how to best serve their constituents.

Working with our government partners, FUSE fellows are helping these agencies pivot existing services, identify needs that must be filled, and respond moment by moment. To share the wealth of useful insights, FUSE is gathering these resources and sharing them with civic leaders. Here are 10 ways that local governments are shifting services and operations to care for the well-being of their communities and their staff. 

1. Create task forces to track day-to-day progress

As the pandemic landscape shifts and new data is continually released, leaders in health and human services agencies must quickly assess and respond to new information and issues, and make quick decisions. To do that, one FUSE partner with a health services focus has created an oversight committee charged with serving as the main hub of incoming information related to supplies, communications, policy changes, surge planning, transportation, staffing, and more. As part of this committee, one person has been assigned to keep members on track and hitting deadlines by updating a shared dashboard after department meetings and sending each department lead a snapshot of responsibilities and targeted due dates. 

Another agency, which helps with elderly care, has instituted interim reports to track waitlists and service distribution in specific districts. By reporting on the fast-changing nature of services, its team is more prepared to address needs.

2. Develop databases of at-risk residents, and pivot services to the most urgent needs

For seniors over 60 years old who are finding it difficult to access food, a FUSE partner agency is creating a nutrition task force. The agency is ramping up food delivery by tapping into multiple agencies, working with existing partners and developing new partnerships. The task force will cull critical information and create a centralized hub that will allow the agency’s program team to focus on coordinating services to those who need it the most urgently. 

The agency is also helping establish a variety of meal delivery initiatives around the county, quickly pivoting the program’s strategies to changing conditions and urgencies. The department is now coordinating home-delivered meals, frozen and packaged, to those in need once a week to reduce the number of contacts made with this vulnerable population. 

In Stockton, California, the city quickly used its emergency food bank as a hub for food distribution and began connecting with third-party delivery services to deliver meals to 65-and-older households.

3. Simplify the search for services

For those who are having trouble finding distributed meals, L.A. County Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services created this map, which shows exact locations and details for each meal site. Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, has also released a map displaying locations of free food distribution sites in the region.

Another example is Stockton Strong, a website created to centralize the city’s COVID-19 resources. The site’s I’m worried about food link includes general information, as well as specific details for at-risk populations, such as youths and seniors, about how they can gain access to food services.

4. Take a creative approach to helping the homeless

Hospitals already struggle to provide safe discharge for patients who are unhoused, and COVID-19 will only intensify that challenge. In Stockton, the city is considering erecting temporary “pop-up” housing co-located near hospitals to accommodate homeless individuals, while keeping patients moving through the hospital system.

Other health officials are looking to employ under-used real estate: After Delaware leaders identified the 500 most vulnerable residents without home or stable medical care, the state Department of Health and Social Services began working with a Wilmington hotel to house those most at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19. In Connecticut, the state is reducing shelter density by relocating up to 1,100 people into hotels.

5. Partner to reach food-insecure children

To address food insecurity for children, agencies in cities around the country (including New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Atlanta) have coordinated with Departments of Education and nonprofit organizations to offer on-the-go meals at public schools. In New York, the city is considering also distributing meals to any adult who shows up to a select list of schools.

6. Prioritize multi-lingual outreach

COVID-19 has sprouted a whole new lexicon — shelter in place, lockdown, quarantine, and social distancing — which may be confusing when translated to immigrant communities. Agencies can take a cue from the L.A. County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, which created a Language Access Working Group to aggregate “frequently asked questions” and translate them into Spanish, Mandarin, Tagalog, Korean, and other languages. The department also plans to host ethnic media round tables with foreign language media outlets to address larger community issues, such as access to resources and emergency food supplies.

7. Encourage efforts to produce health-protective products

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Office developed a website, Making Protective Gear for Angelenos to address the COVID-19 crisis, which provides information for companies and organizations interested in producing and requesting essential protective gear for Angelenos during COVID-19. In Philadelphia, CoverAid PHL is a coalition of representatives from hospitals, universities, manufacturers, government, and small businesses collaborating on solutions for personal protective equipment. Distillery spaces across the country have also been converted to produce hand sanitizer.

On a grassroots level, communities across the country are sewing masks for those in need. For example, RosieSews is an initiative turning maker spaces into mask production sites. They’re requesting seamstresses, makers, and manufacturers to make masks and other supplies for medical professionals, at-risk community members, and essential workers. The New York Times published an article on how to make your own mask.

8. Tap into networks of private and nonprofit organizations

Addressing service needs during COVID-19 can’t be accomplished in silos. It will require collaboration and partnerships at all levels. In that vein, Stockton has tapped into its community foundation, United Way, the school district, and chambers of commerce to identify the needs of each and the resources they offer, with the goal of ensuring efforts aren’t being duplicated. The consolidated output is updated regularly onto the website Stockton Strong.

In New York City, the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications partnered with software company Unqork to develop the NYC COVID-19 Engagement Portal, an online form to self-report coronavirus symptoms, confirmed tests, and other impacts of the virus. The information will be used by the Office of Emergency Management and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

9. Help the elder population connect

Elderly populations, who are the most at-risk population in this pandemic, are under the strongest orders to stay at home and self isolate.  Government agencies can partner with app developers who create health, wellness, and mobility apps, to deliver digital services. Uniper-Care Technologies, for example, has begun a cross-platform service for isolated older adults and at-risk individuals to connect and engage with healthcare professionals, access live and interactive health and wellness programs, and further facilitate communication with family and friends. The interface was specifically designed for older populations, who may not be as tech savvy.

To help make communications services more affordable for low-income consumers, the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program provides subscribers a discount on monthly telephone service, broadband internet access service, or voice-broadband bundled service purchased from participating providers. During the COVID-19 crisis, the FCC has temporarily waived certain requirements to help keep people connected. 

10. Expand emergency childcare options

Agencies across the country are taking different approaches to addressing the need for childcare for essential workers, including their own. The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services began accepting applications from childcare providers seeking emergency designation during COVID-19. North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services partnered with the North Carolina Child Care Resource and Referral network to launch a hotline for emergency care options. The Colorado Department of Human Services announced the state will cover childcare costs for essential workers through at least May 17. L.A. County DHS is exploring childcare options for its staff, including potentially redeploying county staff with nonessential positions to become childcare volunteers.

Emily Nonko is a New York City-based freelance writer who has covered urban policy for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Next City, and Curbed, among other publications.

Photo credit: Cristian Newman on Unsplash