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To reach underserved communities, start with the telephone | READER COMMENTARY

Brigadier General Janeen Birckhead of the Maryland National Guard visits Union Baptist Church during a vaccine clinic on March 13, 2021. Reaching out to low-income urban communities in the time of COVID-19 has proven to be a challenge for vaccinations and other services. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun).
Brigadier General Janeen Birckhead of the Maryland National Guard visits Union Baptist Church during a vaccine clinic on March 13, 2021. Reaching out to low-income urban communities in the time of COVID-19 has proven to be a challenge for vaccinations and other services. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun). (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Racial and digital equity are common threads in the current health crisis the world is experiencing. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines “digital equity” as “a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy.” In Maryland, government leaders, nonprofit organizations and community groups are up against historical racial health disparities, further exposed by the pandemic, as they try to find equitable ways to bridge that digital divide.

The appointment of Brigadier General Janeen Birckhead to lead the Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force created by Gov. Larry Hogan and the appointment of Baltimore’s broadband and digital equity director by Mayor Brandon Scott are great places to start to address the inequities (”Comcast’s Xfinity to add fees for customers who exceed data threshold, renewing concerns over digital divide,” Jan. 4).

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Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has invoked unprecedented changes in our use of digital technologies and how we access information. The underlying question is, how do we proactively connect with and educate populations who are underserved and disconnected from technology.

The traditional telephone is one outreach tool that has the power to reach these underserved populations. At 211 Maryland we use the telephone and other alternative ways — by dialing 2-1-1, two-way text messages, and through web chat — to help get important information to Marylanders. The pandemic increased texting threefold from 2019, and calls increased by 20%.

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This General Assembly session, we also advocated for passage of The Thomas Bloom Raskin Act, House Bill 812 and Senate Bill 719, which creates an opt-in mental health services phone call program to call people periodically who need a mental health check-in and connect them with specialists if needed. It will have an immediate impact on Marylanders who live with anxiety, stress, depression and other mental health issues. The bill passed both chambers and we hope the governor signs it into law.

To put the need into perspective, in the past two years, more than 98,735 calls for mental health help and crisis intervention came through 2-1-1. Just think what is possible if we proactively call Marylanders who identify themselves as needing support. What if we could curb substance misuse and suicide in Maryland through a proactive outreach tool that bridges the digital divide and moves toward racial equity?

As government leaders and community organizations continue to evolve and find new ways to connect Marylanders with unmet needs, it’s critical to think about reaching underserved Black, Latinx and older adult communities in ways that best meet their needs. Even though the web is a shining object, we shouldn’t forget about the benefits of a good old fashioned telephone. The 2-1-1 service is here from “hello to help.”

Quinton Askew, Baltimore

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The writer is president and CEO of 211 Maryland, the nonprofit connecting Marylanders to essential health and human services through a centralized hotline of 2-1-1.

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