Southern California experienced one of the highest outbreaks of COVID-19 infections in the United States in 2020. The many crises that emerged from this public health emergency required health care providers, nonprofit organizations and community leaders to mobilize quickly to find solutions to complex problems and to support people in need. This support took different forms across the region, and was made possible through collaboration, flexibility and creative thinking.
In Orange County, Barry Ross, Regional Director for Community Health Investment for Providence Southern California, recognized right away that Providence would have to pivot its program offerings and community services to fill major gaps in access. “Early in the pandemic, we asked our community partners to identify their needs and we came together to figure out how to address them,” says Ross. In total, Providence hospitals in Orange County invested nearly $1 million in response to COVID-19.
At the outset of the pandemic, it became clear that seniors and immigrant families were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, so Providence and its partners took several critical steps to quickly reach those populations. Ross and his team developed an adult digital literacy program so that seniors with limited skills and access to technology could participate in Providence’s programming, which had to be moved from in-person to virtual. Additionally, Providence St. Jude Medical Center Senior Services Team created an engagement program they named “Cheer a Senior” that provided a grocery delivery service for isolated seniors along with an emotional wellness check from a health care volunteer.
To reach immigrant communities, Providence partnered with CIELO to provide small grants to people interested in starting a small business after losing their job due to the pandemic. The grants were used to purchase equipment and supplies and provide much-needed cash flow to get the businesses off the ground. “We saw so many hardworking people lose their jobs without financial assistance from the government. Our hope is that by receiving small business grants, new immigrant-owned businesses will grow and people can get back on their feet,” says Ross. Providence also provided $200,000 to United Way Orange County, $100,000 to the Tides Foundation and $25,000 to the Center for Healthy Neighborhoods to provide over 700 emergency assistance grants to individuals for rent and food. In Orange County we supported Dining with Dignity to deliver over 8,300 meals, Waste Not OC to provide two refrigerated units for perishable food storage and Second Harvest Food Bank to bring in 50,000 pounds of food staples into the county.
Nonprofit organizations were also struggling to provide services and resources to community members, so Providence issued a $250,000 grant as a partner in the Orange County Grantmakers Pandemic Relief Fund specifically to support organizations that provide food, rental assistance and other emergency services to those in need. By having the resources to continue core operations, these organizations did not have to suspend vital services.
North of Orange County in communities across Los Angeles County, organizations and residents faced many of the same challenges as their neighbors to the south. Justin Joe, Director of South Bay Community Partnerships at Providence in Los Angeles, saw a significant drop in enrollment for Providence’s educational classes. “As soon as we moved the courses online, it created new barriers for many participants because of the digital divide in our community,” says Joe. “These courses always have targeted under-resourced communities, so it was frustrating to see people unable to participate due to the pandemic,” adds Joe.
Programs that typically received a lot of interest, such as classes about diabetes and mental health first aid, unexpectedly saw low enrollment so Joe and his team were able to adjust the course offerings to meet the moment by creating a brand-new curriculum focused on COVID-19 prevention and education. With a grant from the county, Joe and his team quickly implemented the new program in five “hot spots” – communities that experienced the highest COVID-19 infection and death rates.
Providence also addressed COVID hot spots by partnering with the Los Angeles County to provide $2 million dollars in financial support to set up surge tents at three Los Angeles County Medical Centers, grants to FQHC’s, mental health providers at Project Roomkey sites and ramped up testing in Wilmington, CA. From November 1 through December 31, this testing center for Wilmington and its surrounding communities provided 6,100 tests, with more than half coming from underserved communities adjacent to the Los Angeles Harbor. “The sheer number of tests administered at this site validates our efforts to stand up a testing site in Wilmington. This is a community that is consistently identified as under-resourced, so it was critical that we made testing available to these residents,” says Jim Tehan, Regional Director for Community Health Investment for Providence Southern California.
Delivering care and education in vulnerable communities like Wilmington requires coordinated partnerships between care providers and local organizations, and a trained workforce of community health workers (CHWs). Deploying CHWs into under-resourced communities has been a priority for Providence for years, and in 2019, Providence formalized that commitment through a partnership with Charles Drew University School of Medicine and Science to launch the Community Health Worker Academy. Click here to view Supporting career development and reducing health inequities in South Los Angeles
These examples provide a glimpse into the massive response effort across Southern California to combat COVID-19. Providence caregivers and community partners have committed their time, energy and resources to improve health outcomes during one of the greatest public health crises in history.