Maplewood’s Vulnerable Populations Outreach Employees Help Address Inequities in Pandemic

by Colleen Falconer
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Maplewood’s Department of Health has two new employees, and they are both working to reach vulnerable populations within the township, especially minority communities who have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dept. of Health Director Candice Davenport introduced Taliah Jeffers and Shahira Morel at Tuesday’s Board of Health meeting, held during the Maplewood Township Committee meeting. The township was able to hire both women as a result of a federal Vulnerable Populations Outreach Coordinator (VPOC) grant.

Jeffers, who began as VPO Coordinator in January, began as a Rutgers Registered Environmental Health Specialist (REHS) intern, and eventually was hired by the township to supervise the Social Distancing Ambassador program, which was instrumental in the summer and early fall. 

Davenport said that because of Jeffers’ knowledge of the township, Masters in Public Health and certification as a health educator and a licensed registered environmental health specialist, the township believed she was the ideal candidate for the position. “Her work has been invaluable.”

Morel, who is also a REHS, will perform health inspections alongside Maplewood Environmental Health Inspector Pete Dillon, as well as act as a contact tracer and case investigator. Davenport said that as a Spanish-language translator, Morel “has allowed us to reach out and get those phone calls answered and develop a trust with a lot of our residents in the community…[which] has really put us in a good position of informing them, educating them, and having them be receptive to hearing from the Health Department.”

Maplewood’s total COVID-19 case count now sits at 958, Davenport said. (See the last update from Mayor Frank McGehee here.) However, Essex County’s daily vaccinations are now being administered at five sites, and have increased from 350 vaccinations daily to almost 700, since there are now second doses as well as new primary doses being administered.

“So this is very good news,” said Davenport.

Residents can sign up to get vaccinated on or on, after which they will either be entered into a queue, or find out their eligibility.

According to the state vaccination plan, vaccines are still only available to tiers 1A and 1B, which includes healthcare workers, first responders, and those over age 65 or who have underlying conditions specified by the CDC and state health department. As for when vaccination will become available for other tiers, “We are still waiting and hoping that as more vaccine supply is available, those tiers will open up shortly,” Davenport said. (Anecdotally, some residents in other tiers have reported being able to obtain appointments as the vaccine supply increases). 

Jeffers shared a report with state and county aggregate data, which showed that minority communities and Black and Hispanic communities are disproportionately affected with high rates of hospitalization and death due to COVID-19 infections. “The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already existing conditions for populations with lesser social support, access to services, and fewer opportunities, with the end result being more cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.”

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Jeffers said the VPOC grant could not have come at a more perfect time. “A year into Covid, and it has shined a bright light on the very social determinants of health that were otherwise hidden, because residents either identified as ALICE [Asset Limited, Income-Constrained Employed, or essential workers] or the working class” were the ones hit hardest. “Our teachers, our grocery store clerks, nurses, caregivers…now find themselves in basic need of life necessities, like food, housing, health insurance, mental services, and more.”

Jeffers also pointed out that “Maplewood is the first local health department of 13 who have submitted the VPOC grant application, hired someone, and started working.” Her goals for the grant included connecting people who test positive for or are exposed to COVID have access to resources and support services, conducting outreach and health education, and establishing a go-to community fridge. (TC member Nancy Adams later said the fridge — where residents could donate or take food — would likely be up and running by spring at the former farmers market location. The fridge is in part supported by the Youth Advisory Committee and the Maplewood Youth Coalition.)

Jeffers and Morel have already been able “to connect 15 residents and their families with services they required to safely isolate and quarantine.” Services ranged from at-home doctor visits, to food and isolation housing, to navigating the Essex County Covid website to register for a vaccine. “While yes, it is true that COVID disproportionately affects minority communities, it does not target a specific race. We have identified non-traditional vulnerable populations who are in need of services [that] we are ready and willing to connect them to.” 

Jeffers concluded, “The acceptance of the VPOC grant by the township of Maplewood is a direct reflection of the resolution the township of Maplewood passed last year. Health is in all policies.” 

TC member Vic De Luca followed up with a question about diversifying vaccination efforts. “I’ve done two days of volunteering up at the Livingston site…and the number of people of color that come through there to get vaccines is very small,” despite the variety of towns Maplewood has partnered with on mass vaccination. “Where you have a little more diversity is the healthcare workers, but when you get to the elderly population it’s almost all white…what are we doing locally to get more of our residents of color who are in the appropriate classes right now to get up to that vaccination site?”

Jeffers answered that her focus was on education and on making sure that residents know where to get the information provided by the Health Department. “A lot of the lack [of people of color] may come in with trust in the vaccine, trust in the word that’s being spread, so if we can provide them with consistency and accuracy with the information that’s coming from the state, the county, locally, that can help.”

She emphasized that some upcoming focus groups, such as one with SOMA: Two Towns for All Ages, might show reticent residents that their peers and communities “believe in the vaccine…Maybe they’ll be more inclined. But maybe just pushing the narrative, pushing getting tested, not to stop getting tested once you get vaccinated.”

Davenport agreed, and noted that the DOH is working with SOMA Two Towns “because that’s exactly the population we want to target.” She said that 51 residents of the Irvington Avenue Apartment building have already been vaccinated, with 50 more doses on the way. Davenport also referenced a recent re-broadcasting of the Time Before Vaccination documentary. She hoped that “the word is going to spread through our channels,” and proposed a potential information campaign through the school district, with guidance on vaccine availability and encouragement for grandparents.

“One of the other things is transportation for seniors…so it’s a good thing to inform the adult children” who will drive them there. “I think one of the barriers is navigating the registration system, which is where Taliah and Shahira come in handy” with accessibility.

The VPOC grant is set to end in June of 2021, with the opportunity to extend for another year.

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