A virtual town hall, originating in the largest city in western Massachusetts, discussed resources and responses in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
The city of Springfield’s Health and Human Services Department is tracking the progress of the pandemic as it spreads through the city. Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris said the department gets a daily report from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health identifying residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 and then traces the recent contacts of the infected people.
" That is a really big task right now," said Caulton-Harris.
Springfield school nurses have been temporarily reassigned to the health department to work on contact tracing.
Caulton-Harris was one of a half-dozen city officials and leaders of community organizations who participated via videoconference in the two-hour event Tuesday night hosted by Springfield City Councilor Jesse Lederman. It was streamed live on the councilor’s Facebook Page and on Focus Springfield and the local government cable channel.
Lederman asked the panelists questions that were submitted from the public in advance.
Caulton-Harris said a shortage of test kits for the coronavirus is hampering mitigation efforts.
" I am hopeful we will get some soon to test people who are really vulnerable like our homeless population," said Caulton-Harris. " It would go a long way to determine where to put our intervention efforts."
People who suspect they may have been infected with the virus should contact their doctor or a neighborhood health center by telephone to see if they can get an appointment to be tested, according to Caulton-Harris.
Jessica Collins, Executive Director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, said the organization is trying to assemble demographic data about COVID-19 cases.
"Race, ethnicity, language, disability, occupation and then specific zip codes so that we can understand who is being impacted and what resources we should advocate for for specific populations," said Collins.
The economic impact of the pandemic was also discussed.
Distributions from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts were 23 percent higher in March compared to the same month a year ago, according to Executive Director Andrew Morehouse.
"With the unemployment claims skyrocketing, we expect food insecurity - not knowing where your next meal is coming from - is going to spike even more," said Morehouse.
He said with a few exceptions, most emergency food pantries and meal sites remain open.
The spike in unemployment means a lot of rent payments due on April 1st were not made. Rose Webster Smith of Springfield No One Leaves said the organization along with other housing advocates is lobbying the Massachusetts legislature to pass a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.
" We are pushing really hard to get something out to protect these tenants," said Webster Smith.
The city of Springfield’s chief economic officer, Tim Sheehan, explained the city has made grants available to small businesses. Initially, $220, 000 was divided among 30 restaurants in the city. Now, businesses of all kinds can apply for grants from a $500,000 fund.
Lederman said the town hall demonstrated the level of support available for people during the pandemic.
"When we talk about getting through this pandemic together this is the type of comraderie we need so we come out an even stronger community and based on what our panelists said tonight, I have no doubts folks are stepping up into that role," said Lederman.
The City Council has been meeting remotely to get regular updates from the city administration.