Some advocates and public health experts have stated that successful reopening and recovery from COVID-19 is based on widespread contact tracing and universal testing. Investing in community outreach and meeting basic needs is a missing piece of the puzzle. As a certified Community Health Worker (CHW), I can readily say that CHWs are ready to be engaged, willing to leverage their skills and community connections, and are integral to boosting health equity throughout the state.
I currently work for a federally qualified health center in Bridgeport as a medical case manager for individuals living with HIV/AIDS. The bulk of my caseload identifies as LGBTQ and is mostly comprised of black and brown folks. Many of them struggle with basic needs and don’t feel well-equipped to navigate a pandemic. I’m concerned that current recovery efforts aren’t responding to the needs of not only my clients, but those who identify as being part of these communities.
Connecticut’s volunteer-driven contact tracing relies on strangers and is not set up to effectively engage with these communities nor address their most pressing needs. Changing phone numbers, homelessness, or reliance on family members’ phones are some of the challenges I face when communicating with my clients—regardless of the fact that my phone number is familiar to them. I recommend that we plan for in-person and alternative forms of contact tracing that leverage the trusted relationships of CHWs in order to have a greater chance of meaningful contact. These individuals also need to know that they will receive support and not be inundated with invasive questions and later forgotten about. We need to provide resources, but most importantly, we need to listen.
Testing must be paired with accessible economic and social supports. Many of my clients have expressed interest in being tested, yet many of them live in tight quarters and are unable to quarantine because they share a room or live in a shelter. How valuable is testing if we ignore the factors contributing to their elevated risk? COVID-19 has shown us that we need to address the underlying conditions of health such as housing, food, transportation and access to technology (i.e. smartphone, computer, tablet) in order to have a tangible impact on health outcomes.
Give CHWs the chance to galvanize our communities. To prevent greater disparities, provide immediate funding for CHWs like myself to engage in holistic community-based outreach that bridges contact tracing, testing, and resource navigation. We need to address the needs of our communities to reconcile the disparate impacts of COVID-19.
Taylor Edelmann is a Medical Case Manager in Bridgeport.