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Community-Based Organizations Step Up Against COVID-19 Among Vulnerable Populations

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A CHW presents covid-19 information

On Thursday, November 5th, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Foundation held the first in a series of national webinars, ‘COVID-19 Emergency Webinar for Community Based Organizations.’  Webinar panelists offered examples of best practices and successful strategies used in communities, particularly those that are vulnerable, across the US. Topics included best practices for COVID-19 health safety, but especially COVID-19 outreach between and beyond health care organizations. There were five contributors to the webinar, in addition to CDC Foundation President and CEO, Judy Monroe, MD, who participated as moderator. Throughout the webinar, community-based organizations were hallmarked as vital community partners in communicating messages to vulnerable populations and encouraging action surrounding COVID-19 safety.

Michael Beach, PhD, Principal Deputy Incident Manager for the CDC’s COVID-19 Response, opened the webinar by reminding participants of the danger COVID-19 presents to communities in the US and around the world. “We now have 47 million cases worldwide with 1.2 million deaths…. We are headed into a third peak of infections,” he said. Dr. Beach continued to discuss the dangerous environments created by the approaching winter months. “People want to be indoors [during the winter],” which can increase risk factors. Even for those who may not be indoors, such as the homeless, Dr. Beach warned about the “disproportionate impact” COVID-19 would have on these and other vulnerable populations. Cleaning surfaces, increased regular testing, mask-wearing, and limiting “high-risk exposures” were the most common recommendations Dr. Beach provided. He also recommended continuing these practices at home, and noted that mask wearing may not just prevent the spread of COVID-19 from others, but may provide some protection for the wearer. “We are seeing growing information that wearing a mask protects you [from] becoming infected from someone else,” Dr. Beach explained. 

Maggie Rivera, PhD, CEO and President of the Illinois Migrant Council, continued the webinar, sharing examples from her organization's trial and error experiences working with local health departments to engage vulnerable migrant communities in COVID-19 education. Dr. Rivera explained that the Illinois Migrant Council had first attempted to use commonly known best practices for message dissemination during COVID-19, including the use of Zoom calls to meet with migrants and other internet-oriented tools. However, Dr. Rivera said, “we quickly found out [that] for many people this does not work.” She explained that many of those in their target communities did not have access to the tools or resources needed to receive her organization’s messages. Many of them lived in rural areas, and some did not have access to phones or internet. Website content was also not useful for the same reasons. Regular gathering places such as religious communities and schools were often closed, creating another barrier. Despite offering tempting prizes such as entries into gift card raffles in return for attendance, the Illinois Migrant Council found their attempted methods at communicating critical information about COVID-19 to their vulnerable populations were not working. 

“So, we had to go back to the old-fashioned ways of communicating to them: one to one,” Dr. Rivera concluded. While keeping physically distant, staff at Dr. Rivera’s organization met their community members in person, and successfully communicated important messages. Flyers, group talks, and word-of-mouth methods were used as well. However, Dr. Rivera explained that much of their success was owed to their local health department and the relationship they had with them. “The local health department has been our backbone in getting the information to our populations the way [they needed to receive it],” she said. This relationship was mentioned as one of the Illinois Migrant Council’s strongest strategies to successful message dissemination. In summary of her example, Dr. Rivera reminded webinar participants: “Remember, one size does not fit all. Pay attention to the population you are serving and customize to their needs,” and “use trusted partners to communicate.”

On the note of best practices for communicating COVID-19 messages, Scott Packard, Chief Communications and Public Affairs Officer for the Houston Health Department, shared the incredible work his department has been doing in their community using a health education campaign. One best practice Packard mentioned was the department’s use of images rather than text in much of their content. While their department used the “usual” channels for message dissemination, they took creative measures to make campaigns which used social media influencers to help get messages about COVID-19 out to the public. “We need to get the message out to key people who get it out to others,” said Packard. To spread messages more broadly, the Houston Health Department created a website “,” where they offer a range of tools and resources for anyone seeking to educate others about COVID-19. The kit includes key messages, social media examples, flyers, graphics, and other useful content.

One key aspect of the Houston Health Department’s work was research-based improvement. Packard explained that the end of the first phase of their overall strategy included researching the effect they had had on their community, which influenced the second phase of their project. “We found that a lot of people were not, not following best practices because of rebellion, but because they forget to follow them,” said Packard. This finding influenced the “Don’t stop. Don’t forget.” messaging of their second phase and, as Packard explained, allowed them to appeal “to people’s emotion and their reason” simultaneously. 

After the presentations, Sharon Moffatt, MS, BSN, a member of the CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 Corps, polled participants to assess the challenges and needs of the those on the front lines, and then opened the webinar up to an extended Q&A session. Lisa Waddell, MD, MPH, CDC Foundation Chief Medical Officer for COVID-19 Response, was also a participant during the Q&A.

During the Q&A, Dr. Rivera explained that creating partnerships to “make sure we are not duplicating services and are covering the landscape is key and very important.” Dr. Beach also stressed the importance of partnerships between organizations. “From the federal level, this is all about partnerships,” Dr. Beach said. Dr. Beach went on to petition that the CDC needs information “from the ground” so they can help create solutions to the daily problems communities face. By working together, community based organizations can better improve the health of our communities.

During the webinar, the CDC Foundation highlighted their new online resource center for community-based organization. Access it here.



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