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‘Thank goodness, we’re still Baltimore’: Neighborhood response teams help shoulder coronavirus burden

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Baltimore seniors and people with health conditions may need help with tasks that require social proximity, such as trips to the grocery store, pharmacy and banks.

Area medical professionals could need child care and someone to do the grocery shopping so they can stay on the job.

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People under quarantine might need many of those services — plus emotional support and someone to walk their dogs.

Within city neighborhoods and professional networks, volunteers have begun linking up to perform just those tasks. So far, the number of volunteers at the ready outweighs those requesting them.

“I don’t know if things will get worse, but we’re trying to have the supports together so the able-bodied can step in,” said Celeste Perilla, who formed in Remington the first iteration of what’s become Baltimore’s Quarantine Response Network. “Baltimore is truly a city of neighborhoods, and when it comes down to supporting the neighbors on your block, it lends itself to this organizing model.”

The micro-level outreach comes as Maryland shutters schools, restaurants, bars and gyms and, under the direction of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, legally caps gatherings to 50 people. Social distancing, officials said, will hopefully “flatten the curve” and prevent mass quantities of sickened patients seeking treatment from overwhelming the healthcare system at once.

With COVID-19 believed to pose the most serious threat to people over 60 and those with underlying health conditions, some might benefit from extreme social distancing, researchers and scientists said. That extends to those under quarantine, which can apply to people who either test positive for the disease or have come into contact with someone who has.

Volunteers have stepped up to the task across the city, in Hampden and Charles Village and Sandtown-Winchester and Oakenshawe. There is a special group just to aid medical professionals so they can stay on the job or get help if they become sick. Quarantine response teams seek to not only run errands for their neighbors under quarantine or afraid to leave the house but also walk dogs and offer check-ins and emotional support over the phone.

Under the guidelines of Baltimore’s Quarantine Response Network, volunteers function under defined terms: They must not offer medical advice; they cannot have certain health conditions; their criminal records will be assessed through Maryland Judiciary Case Search; they must contact those requesting assistance within 24 hours or be taken off the roll.

Though the terms might seem rigid, they add a further layer of protection for the physically vulnerable, said Perilla.

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After other neighborhoods learned of her efforts and replicated them, Perilla centralized the volunteer sign-up sheets into a single online document with the hope more and more communities will get involved. She then realized that some who might benefit the most from the services offered might not possess an online presence and instructed neighborhood “block captains” to have volunteers post fliers around their communities.

Shane Bryan, president of the Ednor Gardens - Lakeside Civic Association, said neighborhood leaders had also formed a network aimed at sharing best practices, methods and tips.

“In these uncertain times, as much as we can do, we will, and we’ll continue to get the most accurate information out there,” he said.

Here's an example of a flyer posted around neighborhoods offering volunteer services. This one was posted around the neighborhood by members of the Ednor Gardens - Lakeside Volunteer Network.
Here's an example of a flyer posted around neighborhoods offering volunteer services. This one was posted around the neighborhood by members of the Ednor Gardens - Lakeside Volunteer Network.(Shane Bryan)

Onyinye Alheri, leading the volunteer efforts for the Upton and Sandtown-Winchester neighborhoods, said she’s found door-to-door outreach has identified additional needs and individuals who could benefit.

“Meals that can be brought to people and any kind of transportation support are the key things,” she said. “But there’s always some need that can be met even if you don’t have a car or an expendable income.”

Perilla said individuals from Massachusetts and Louisiana have expressed interest in replicating Baltimore’s Quarantine Response Network into their neighborhoods after catching wind of it over social media. Those states have seen at least 330 people combined test positive for the contagious illness.

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In Maryland, at least 57 people have tested positive for the disease, a number that experts said will all but surely rise as testing expands. Worldwide, some 185,000 confirmed cases and more than 7,300 deaths have gripped the globe as vulnerabilities in healthcare surface in developed nations such as Italy, France and China, which have also imposed aggressive shutdowns to slow the spread.

No vaccine or treatment regimen exists for the upper respiratory illness, and it could take up to two years before researchers successfully vet trials.

That means keeping doctors and nurses healthy so they can treat people who become sick. Dr. Julius Ho, a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital, helped form a collaborative with the initial purpose of lining up babysitters so medical staff could work.

Ho and colleagues got the idea from friends in the Pacific Northwest who told them stories of personal hardship, physical and psychological exhaustion and trouble meeting household needs like grocery shopping while under quarantine. Some couldn’t find childcare when schools closed.

“We realized that healthcare workers needed to support one another,” he said. “We quickly reached out through our contacts and put together a citywide network of people from across the healthcare landscape, spanning locations like Hopkins, UMMS, community clinics like Chase Brexton and Healthcare for the Homeless and professions like medicine, nursing, pharmacy, etc.

“We got a Facebook group together and the very next day, Gov. Hogan announced the school cancellations,” Ho continued. "This made our mission clear and we scrambled to make childcare our first priority.”

The group relies on graduate health students in medicine and nursing as volunteers, who are matched with frontline medical staff at hospitals based on location, infant experience and other factors.

“The response blew us away,” said Ho, who already has more than 160 volunteers and has five requests for help. As the pandemic evolves, the group expects to add home delivery of groceries, cleaning supplies and other items. They also are considering what aid they can provide support workers such as janitorial staff, patient transporters and techs.

State and city officials said such volunteers can both save lives and lift up communities with their service.

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“When I saw the first one of these pop up, I said, 'Thank goodness, we’re still Baltimore,” said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a Democrat who represents Baltimore’s 14th district. “We have the best ways to help one another of any place in the world. It’s just our nature.”

Clarke’s staff has been communicating via email with constituents and encouraging volunteers to enlist.

Maryland Sen. Mary Washington, who ended her campaign for Baltimore’s mayoral race Monday to commit her focus to the public health crisis and her district, said she hopes to lead the expansion of Baltimore’s volunteer service across the state. She called on her colleagues in the state senate to pay attention to the city’s organizing efforts and instructed them to ask for guidance if they seek to replicate it outside of Baltimore.

“There’s a gap between the municipal government and the government at the state and federal level,” said Washington, adding that a directive from the White House to minimize contact may not resonate with communities on the ground that have basic needs. “Our role as state legislators is to make that seamless.”


Though she might not have concrete answers for her constituents, Clarke said she does know one truth about what’s to come.

“We’re just reinventing ourselves as usual. This is us.” she said. “Now, Baltimore takes over.”

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