As fellow board members on the Sandra Rosenbaum School of School Work Board of Visitors, Caroline Gomez-Tom (MSW ’11) and Trudy Marshall (BA ’74) stay connected on their efforts to improve access to COVID-19 care in their respective communities of Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
Here are their stories
In my role as Director of Patient Community Engagement at Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers (SSCHC) in Milwaukee, I serve as the bridge between community partners and SSCHC patients, making sure they have access to the care and resources they need. In normal times, this is challenging.
SSCHC is a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), which means we serve everyone regardless of their immigration status, health insurance or ability to pay for care. As a FQHQ, we operate as a community health center and serve over 43,000 people in the Milwaukee area each year – many of whom live at or below the federal poverty level and prefer a language other than English. The Latinx community makes up 86% of our patient population. All of these factors meant that as COVID-19 rapidly spread in Milwaukee, SSCHC had to respond quickly and in culturally relevant ways.
Building partnerships to promote COVID-19 vaccination
One important way we did this is through partnerships. As a member of Milwaukee County’s Unified Emergency Operation Center’s Vaccine Integrated Communication, Outreach, and Mobilization resource team (VICOM) – a group of communications leaders from all different types of companies and business sectors – we worked together on COVID-19 vaccine outreach communications strategies. Rather than competing messages, we pooled our resources to launch healthymke.com to build trust, dispel myths and provide timely updates on the vaccine.
As VICOM developed a campaign to build confidence around the COVID-19 vaccine, I had the chance to listen in on several focus groups. We heard clearly about the importance of people getting back to the people and things they love. Though the participants were unsure about the vaccine, it was important they learn about the vaccine through the experience of people they saw or knew in their community. The focus group findings resulted in a multi-media campaign featuring stories from local people who received the COVID-19 vaccines and why they thought it was important for people in their community to get the vaccine.
Training medical students and health workers on community vaccine engagement
While we’re making progress, we still have work to do to build vaccine confidence and awareness in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties. I’m currently collaborating with the United Community Center and the Milwaukee Chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses to train medical students and community health workers to go out and meet with small business owners and community members to share information on the vaccine. This approach addresses the need for people to hear about the vaccine experience directly and from people they trust or can relate to. This project includes working with a community advisory board that helps review messages and provide feedback for our outreach tactics. My hope is that these efforts, combined, will make a difference in ending this pandemic.
As Vice President of Marketing and Outreach at North Memorial Health, my team and I are responsible for how our hospitals address community health needs and priorities. North Memorial Health offers high-quality, low-cost care through 20 primary and specialty care clinics, and two major hospitals – Maple Grove Hospital and North Memorial Health Hospital, a Level I Trauma Center located in Robbinsdale where we see a higher proportion of underserved individuals.
One of the biggest barriers our underserved community members had early in the pandemic was getting where they needed to go. Pandemic or not, our mission is to deliver unmatched customer service, so we made it a priority to put our testing and vaccination locations in areas with the highest underserved populations and access to public transportation. Together our walk-up test site at North Market Grocery, and drive up test site in Robbinsdale, provided over 50,000 COVID-19 tests.
Food as Medicine program
We know that social determinants have an impact on a person’s health, wellbeing, and outcomes so we pushed ourselves to think outside the box to bring care to our community. One solution was to address food insecurity needs. In partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of MN and Pillsbury United Communities, a non-profit network of diverse neighborhood centers and social enterprises that runs North Market, a non-profit full-service grocery store in North Minneapolis, we brainstormed what we could do ensure access to healthy food while keeping people who are at a higher risk for COVID-19 safe.
In just a few weeks we developed and launched a “Food as Medicine” program to provide personalized weekly grocery packages to vulnerable North Memorial Health Clinic – Camden customers. North Memorial Health Clinic Care Coordinators partnered with North Market to develop custom packages of healthy food and essentials while our Community Paramedics delivered packages to customer’s homes and performed health checks enabling us to connect with customers outside of the clinic. We regularly evaluated the program’s food, service and customer’s health. Overall, participants rated the program in the 90th percentile on measures like feeling valued and supported by their community and local clinic, feeling improvements to their mental and emotional health due to the food deliveries and that they’re eating healthier.
COVID-19 vaccine pop-up clinics
Another area we had to be inventive is around ensuring equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations – especially to Minnesota seniors. Hennepin County Department of Health was looking for a partner to provide the COVID-19 vaccine to those who are at high-risk or who have been historically marginalized through vaccination events. Given our longstanding relationship and North Memorial Health Community Paramedics organization, which delivers non-emergency primary and preventive care to people in their homes or where ever is most convenient for them, we were the perfect partner to help.
We worked closely with our community paramedics to not only identify the best locations, but also to operate vaccine distribution. We did this by deploying vaccination pop-up events (using the North Memorial Health Community Paramedics) at a local charter school, a number of senior apartment buildings and a community center. The goal of these pop-up events was to educate and vaccinate residents who are traditionally underserved and may have barriers to accessing the COVID-19 vaccine. We’ve administered nearly 900 total shots.
The success of the pop-up program and our shared goals resulted in not only an invaluable program for our community, but one that we hope is scalable to address other public health and care access issues long after the pandemic.
Caroline Gomez-Tom, MSW ’11 is the Director of Patient and Community Engagement at Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers (SSCHC) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Trudy Marshall, BA ’74, UW – School of Social Work is Vice President of Marketing and Outreach at North Memorial Health in Robbinsdale, Minnesota.