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Community Agencies Meet Needs During COVID-19 Crisis

Patti Singer

Seanelle Hawkins, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Rochester. Provided photo

Even before the first confirmed local case of COVID-19, officials in Rochester and Monroe County were planning for when novel coronavirus hit home.

The advice to wash hands frequently, to avoid large gatherings, to stay home when not feeling well applies across the Greater Rochester community.

But there may be specific needs or concerns that affect populations of color.

“I think they can only paint a with broad bush,” Seanelle Hawkins, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Rochester, said of city and county officials who have been delivering information almost nonstop since the first case was confirmed March 12.

Whether Spanish speakers need accurate information in their preferred language or African Americans with chronic diseases have to be aware of their health risk, community organizations are working to meet needs of their clients perhaps in a way that government agencies aren’t able to do.

Hawkins, who has been on a series of conference calls, said it’s up to community organizations – with funding help from the government – to directly connect with clients. “Right now, we’re still at the phase where we’re figuring that out.”

On March 16, the United Way of Greater Rochester and the Rochester Area Community Foundation created a Community Crisis Fund that will deploy financial resources to nonprofits that are disproportionally affected by COVID-19 and its economic consequences. The fund will support recovery and future community emergencies. People can donate by texting CRISISFUND to 41444 or going to

As of March 16, Monroe County had reported 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19. It was not known publicly whether any cases involved Blacks or Latinos.

“People are worried about their families in other countries,” said Julio Saenz, chief communications and development officer for Ibero American Action League. “We’re keeping track of how many cases there are in some of those countries and what is going on in Puerto Rico.”

Saenz said Ibero is translating information about where families can get food for their school-age children and learn about daycare. He also said the organization is making sure that their clients understand the gravity of situation and were to get services for as long as the crisis lasts.

In marginalized communities, where a small business may support an extended family, a drop-off in customers can be devastating.

Lomax Campbell, co-founder and board president of the Greater Rochester Black Business Alliance. Provided photo

Lomax Campbell, co-founder and board president of the Greater Rochester Black Business Alliance, said that many Black businesses in Rochester are hair salons and restaurants, places where people may not want to go when they are being advised by heath officials to practice social distancing and stay 6 feet from another person.

He said that in the best of times, the general public doesn’t always support Black businesses. With concern over COVID-19, those establishments may see fewer customers, which will affect the owners’ revenue and ability to feed their families.

“I think some of the solution goes back to something that we’ve known in the Black community, this idea of cooperative economics,” Campbell said. “Those that do have and can afford to give more certainly support family members and friends who don’t have. That has always been an approach that has helped us through rough patches.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials have said that older people and those with compromised immune systems may be more susceptible to contracting COVID-19.

According to the 2016 Community Health Needs Assessment, from the county and Rochester Regional and UR Medicine health systems, hospitalizations for complications from diabetes are 4.3 times higher for Blacks and 2.2 times higher for Latinos compared to Whites. Fewer Blacks and Latinos than Whites have their high blood pressure under control.

“We deal with a high-risk population,” said Dr. Laurie Donohue, chief medical officer at Anthony L. Jordan Health Center. “We are trying to be very vigilant.”

Jordan has its own hotline (585-423-5848) for patients who have questions about symptoms. The center is working with the Monroe County Department of Public Health, which is sending investigators to the home of a person who may have contracted the virus.

Jordan is collecting samples from suspected cases and sending them out to be tested. It has yet to have a confirmed case. Donohue said Jordan is working with the county to make sure that when community testing is available, people in the inner city have equal access.

Donohue said Jordan’s behavioral health staff is counseling people who are feeling anxious about the illness.