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Carroll County’s ‘safety net’ struggles to help the most vulnerable during coronavirus crisis

Frank Niemann of Westminster approaches the entrance to Access Carroll in Westminster as registered nurse Trish Ruther screens visitors for signs of illness Thursday, March 19, 2020.
Frank Niemann of Westminster approaches the entrance to Access Carroll in Westminster as registered nurse Trish Ruther screens visitors for signs of illness Thursday, March 19, 2020.(Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

Even as social distancing, mandated business closures and recommendations to shelter in place designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus take their economic and psychological toll on small businesses and families across the state, the most vulnerable of the population are being affected even more.

And the agencies and nonprofits that serve them are working to find ways to continue services, while keeping everyone involved healthy and safe.

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In Carroll County, closures have homeless people left with no place go during the day, food-insecure seniors have lost access to food bank distributions and waves of layoffs of hourly workers could be the tipping point for families that were only just making ends meet before the crisis.

“A lot of the folks we are serving were already not in a good place before this happened,” said Brenda Meadows, executive director of The Shepherd’s Staff. “My greater concern is really down the road, even a couple months after we are past, when the restrictions are loosened, the individuals who were already having issues will be that much deeper in trouble.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has taken a number of actions to help slow the spread of the coronavirus that could also have severe economic impact on vulnerable people, including ordering bars and sit-down restaurants closed and, on Thursday, all indoor malls closed.

By the evening of March 21, the coronavirus also known as COVID-19, the illness it causes, had resulted in 285 deaths in the United States out of some 24,000 who have tested positive, according to Johns Hopkins University, with two deaths and 190 confirmed cases in Maryland, and three cases in Carroll.

Some of The Shepherd’s Staff’s usual services, such as emergency financial assistance with rent, are not needed at this moment thanks to Hogan’s halting evictions and water shutoffs, Meadows said, but she worries whether the nonprofit, which is privately funded, will be in a position to help everyone who needs it once the crisis passes.

“At this point, the only thing I know for certain is we are going to need emergency funds to help people in the community,” she said. And given the likelihood that many more people will be in a financially precarious position than before social distancing and restaurant closures began, “The demand will be much greater than it has ever been before.”

In the meantime, The Shepherd’s Staff is continuing with its other services as best as possible on an appointment-only basis. On March 19, they fulfilled orders for their blessings closet, which provides people with household goods such as trash bags, diapers and soap, by leaving them on their Carroll Street office porch for each person to pick up.

But in an example of just how fast things are changing, by the next morning Meadows had already decided to shut down the blessings closet program until further notice.

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Carroll County Food Sunday in Westminster is closed due to Coronavirus precautions, but will be distributing shelf stable, non-perishable foods to clients 10 a.m. through 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 24 and Thursday, March 26 in the East Middle School parking lot.
Carroll County Food Sunday in Westminster is closed due to Coronavirus precautions, but will be distributing shelf stable, non-perishable foods to clients 10 a.m. through 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 24 and Thursday, March 26 in the East Middle School parking lot. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

“The Shepherd’s Staff will be making virtual appointments for emergency only situations and our physical location will be closed,” a Friday morning news release read. “If you have an emergency, please call 410-857-5944 and leave a message that includes your full name and telephone number.”

It’s also not clear what will happen with The Shepherd’s Staff’s annual Easter Basket drive, which had been in full swing.

“We really don’t know what is going to happen with that program at this point, simply because we want people to be safe and we are asking people to not be out and shopping for non-essentials,” Meadows said. Updates on all The Shepherd’s Staff’s services will be available on their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ShepherdsStaffCC or by calling 410-857-5944.

Providing essential services while keeping everyone involved has been a major struggle for Carroll County Food Sunday as well, given that a significant chunk of the food bank’s clients are food-insecure seniors, placing them in the high-risk category for COVID-19 infection, according to Executive Director Ed Leister. And that goes for his staff as well.

“Twenty-six percent of the people who come through Food Sunday are over 60 years of age,” Leister said. “All my volunteers are 75-plus years of age.”

Leister made the decision to close Food Sunday until an alternative plan could be formulated for putting food into peoples’ hands without jeopardizing their health.

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“We are not going to let them come into our space,” he said. “The plan now is to do distribution from a truck the county will supply.”

Carroll County Food Sunday in Westminster is closed due to Coronavirus precautions, but will be distributing shelf stable, non-perishable foods to clients 10 a.m. through 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 24 and Thursday, March 26 in the East Middle School parking lot.
Carroll County Food Sunday in Westminster is closed due to Coronavirus precautions, but will be distributing shelf stable, non-perishable foods to clients 10 a.m. through 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 24 and Thursday, March 26 in the East Middle School parking lot. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

In a plan formally announced by Carroll County Government on Thursday evening, Carroll Food Sunday will be distributing shelf-stable, non-perishable foods to clients 10 a.m. through 1 p.m. March 24 and March 26 in the East Middle School parking lot.

Clients with last names beginning with A through M are asked to come Tuesday, while those with last names beginning with N through Z are asked to come Thursday. All are asked to bring identification.

All Maryland Department of Social Services locations, including Carroll County’s office at 1232 Tech Court in Westminster, have been closed to the public since noon Thursday, according to a Maryland government news release. All Department of Social Services programs — such as SNAP benefits, child support services and home energy assistance — are still functioning, according to the release, but those interest should call 1-800-332-6347 or visit ww.mydhrbenefits.dhr.state.md.us for help.

But some of the service providers in Westminster’s Distillery building, Access Carroll and Human Service Programs of Carroll County Inc., are still open for business.

Access Carroll, which provides health and dental care to low-income people, has taken it upon themselves to screen anyone entering the building for symptoms of the coronavirus, according to Executive Director Tammy Black, and while the clinic cannot test for COVID-19, they can test for illnesses that cause similar symptoms.

“We have someone at the ground level screening people before they even enter the building to make sure they won’t bring in something in that can be treated outside,” she said. “We have actually done some screenings for strep and influenza A outside.”

There were some of those with COVID-19-like symptoms, such as fever and a dry cough during the week, Black said, who tested negative for the flu or strep. They were asked to isolate at home.

And for Access Carroll’s regular appointments, as much as possible, they are being conducted through remote video sessions, according to Black.

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“We started Monday with telehealth for behavioral health needs and [Wednesday] with the medical service lines,” she said.

That’s not to say, however, that Access Carroll isn’t seeing patients in the building when it’s necessary, according to Black. They have, she said, been seeing a lot of emergency dental patients in the past week, helping to keep those patients out of the emergency department for a non-COVID-19-related problem.

“If a patient were to walk in, we will do the screening at the ground level, but if they need to be seen for something, we will see them,” she said. “We are committed to those people. they are our purpose. We are a safety net."

Registered nurse Trish Ruther calls upstairs after sceening a visitor to Access Carroll in Westminster Thursday, March 19, 2020.
Registered nurse Trish Ruther calls upstairs after sceening a visitor to Access Carroll in Westminster Thursday, March 19, 2020.(Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

Human Services Programs, which operates Carroll’s emergency and homeless shelters, including the cold weather shelter, is another part of that safety net, according to Jennifer Graybill, director of shelter and housing — all of which she emphasized remaining open and operating.

“We are not closing. We will not close. We are the county’s safety net and is our job to stay open,” she said. “We are in the crisis business, and this is when we are needed the most.”

As with The Shepherd’s Staff, a freeze on evictions and water shut-offs has substantially decreased the foot traffic in HSP’s office, according to Graybill, but they are still open and meeting with people for other services, such as rapid rehousing. Getting people who are homeless into secure housing, she noted, is essential at a time when social distancing is important.

“Landlords are afraid in this time they will not collect their rent. The good thing is we have funding right now to pay for some people’s rent and we want to house as many as possible. The less people in shelter, the better,” she said. “This can be life or death for some of our folks.”

HSP staff are also going out to homeless encampments and touching base with people, Graybill said, sometimes just to provide information and human contact and reassurance.

“Across the board we are seeing a lot of people who are terrified. They are unsure what the world is going to look like tomorrow,” she said. “Many HSP clients were already in crisis and dealing with substance use or mental health issues, so “this is a crisis on top of crisis they are experiencing.”

That’s noticeable in the cold weather shelter, too, Graybill said, which normally sees about 20 clients per night at this time of year but has been seeing an average of 35 per night — and climbing — over the past week.

“People are scared and they don’t want to be by themselves,” she said. “They are coming in for access to info to know what is going on.”

Not only are HSP and the shelters remaining open, Graybill said, they are also hoping to expand services, repurposing the Westminster Senior and Community Center as a day shelter for people with no place to go now that the malls, libraries and other locations are closed.

“We are very aware that all other agencies have closed and there is no place to go during the day for our participants, which is a concern,” she said.

Working with the Carroll County Department of Citizen Services, HSP was able to open the Westminster senior center as the HSP Drop In Center on Friday. The 125 Stoner Ave. location in Westminster will be open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week for homeless people, and will provide light activities and supplies, as available, according to a news release.

The senior center is now the location for the cold weather shelter, according to Graybill. This will allow HSP to use the usual cold weather shelter location, across the parking lot from the senior center on Stoner Avenue, to be used as a quarantine shelter for anyone who has COVID-19 symptoms.

“That would allow us to quarantine 25 individuals. We are praying this doesn’t happen, but that allows us to safely quarantine, where they have their own bathrooms, separate rooms,” she said. "We will not close shelter. I cannot say that enough. We will not close shelter."

Given that commitment to continue to serve the vulnerable, Graybill said that HSP could use community help to sustain them in that mission.

“Our most immediate need is for donations. We are going out every single day and buying cleaning supplies and buying food. People in our shelters will not go hungry, people in our programs will not go hungry,” she said. "If people can donate cleaning products, hand sanitizers since you can’t buy them anywhere, prepackaged food, and bottled water, would be incredible. And certainly we accept monetary donations."

Hand sanitizers are especially important for homeless people at this time, Graybill added, since they do not always have ready access to soap and water as do people who are housed.

“Deep Run Church gave us a huge donation of antibacterial hand wipes that we are giving out to all of our homeless encampments, but we don’t know how long this will last,” she said.

Regardless, HSP isn’t going anyway.

“It’s an honor,” Graybill said. “We’re happy to do it.”

Anyone who thinks they or a family member might be showing coronavirus symptoms can call the Carroll County Health Department’s COVID-19 hotline, which is available 8 a.m. through 5 p.m. seven days a week at 410-876-4848, or contact their doctor. After hours, callers may leave a message or call 211. People with emergencies should continue to call 911. Updates on the number of Maryland cases and other important information can be found on the health department’s COVID-19 webpage at cchd.maryland.gov/covid-19/.

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