Let’s use what worked during COVID-19 to tackle addiction, housing and other challenges – Community News
Covid-19

Let’s use what worked during COVID-19 to tackle addiction, housing and other challenges

Through many measures, Massachusetts has weathered the COVID-19 crisis stronger than the entire country, despite initial challenges to get vaccines for low-income communities of color.

In doing so, we changed the paradigm of how to address a public health crisis with a historic commitment to peer-to-peer, grassroots outreach and multicultural marketing that helped our most vulnerable communities get vaccinated.

As the focus shifts to the challenges of unemployment, addiction, housing and homelessness, Massachusetts must renew its grassroots approach to support our most vulnerable people.

So let’s take a look at how our Commonwealth has completed its COVID turnaround:

The Baker Administration’s investment of more than $37 million in the COVID Vaccine Equity Initiative provided critical resources for statewide mobilization. 152 multicultural community organizations and ethnic media took part in the initiative, enabling those closest to the pain to work directly with their peers.

Massachusetts needs to renew its grassroots approach to support our most vulnerable people.

Organizers working in 20 Equity Communities knocked on more than 865,000 doors, held 250,000 conversations and staged nearly 4,000 visibility events to distribute vaccines and personal protective equipment. (Disclosure: The marketing company I founded helped design and implement this strategy.)

Despite what some proponents have argued, the Equity Initiative also involved major investments in Community Health Centers and local health councils – more than a third of the total budget.

Massachusetts’s approach has resulted in 69 percent of black residents and 63 percent of Latinos receiving at least one dose of the vaccine. This compares with only 48 percent of black residents who have been vaccinated nationally and 53 percent of American Latinos. Massachusetts’ Asian population’s vaccination rate of 81 percent also leads to the U.S. rate of 71 percent — all according to recent data from the CDC.

How did the outreach lead to these results?

In Brockton, Equity Initiative Ambassadors knocked on the door of a Haitian woman who believed only God would protect her from COVID. To best address and respect her faith, they put her in touch with a local Haitian pastor who persuaded her to come to the Brockton Church of God to get vaccinated.

A young black man went to Everett Haitian Community Center (a beneficiary of the Equity Initiative) and told staff he was afraid of the vaccine because of conspiracy stories he had heard. The Center provided facts to allay his fears, so much so that he later signed on as a representative for the campaign.

In Revere, campaign ambassadors knocked on the door of a woman who was housebound and agoraphobic and wanted to talk alone through her window. The ambassador convinced her to leave the house for the first time in weeks and helped her go to a local clinic to get vaccinated.

dr. Joseph Betancourt, senior vice president for Equity and Community Health at Massachusetts General Hospital, which operates a community health center in Chelsea, has praised these strategies for addressing hesitancy among communities of color.

“We are there with curiosity, with empathy and respect, and giving the people the information they need,” Betancourt said in a recent community talk.

Peer-based community and integrated marketing strategies can and should be used to address other looming health and economic challenges.

The city of Boston recently declared a public health emergency for addiction and homelessness related to the encampment of more than 150 tents on Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. Mayor-elect Michelle Wu has already appointed senior cabinet officials to lead this response.

Statewide, the end of federal eviction bans introduced during COVID poses a greater potential challenge to homelessness.

Peer-based community and integrated marketing strategies can and should be used to address other looming health and economic challenges.

And a major economic challenge lurks around retrieving displaced workers and training them to get back to work. Three hundred thousand people in Massachusetts recently lost federal unemployment benefits, many of whom were laid off during the pandemic. Meanwhile, there are 250,000 job openings in Massachusetts, and many companies are desperate for skilled workers, according to the Boston Business Journal.

The Commonwealth should once again adopt a peer-based approach to meeting people who are unemployed, homeless, drug-addicted or dealing with related issues of mental health, food insecurity, housing or even heating their homes in the winter. And we need to finish the work we’ve started to get all adults and children vaccinated.

Members of the grassroots community and ethnic media can help have compassionate conversations with their peers and connect them with the resources they need. These integrated strategies also ensure economic mobility by employing people in the communities as advocates and ambassadors for change.

Governor Charlie Baker and his administration are to be commended for supporting grassroots community organization during the COVID-19 crisis. Now the Governor, Mayor-Elect Wu and other local leaders must continue to support this approach to address the looming challenges in the wake of COVID and beyond.

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