Health care outreach in Immokalee continues beyond COVID-19
Health workers are continuing to provide life-saving COVID-19 information and other health resources throughout the community of Immokalee.
A street team of health promotoras, or promoters, is continuing to go door-to-door providing health care outreach in Immokalee.
Katie Bollbach is the executive director of Partners In Health (PIH) in the United States. The nonprofit organization provides health care in the poorest areas of developing countries. It began its work in Haiti, and over the last 30 years has grown to work in 12 countries.
“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world. And that is, sort of, the founding idea of PIH,” said Bollbach.
In early 2020, Bollbach explained, organization officials felt called to assist communities in the United States after seeing the spread of COVID-19 and the challenges local health care systems were facing to combat infection rates, specifically in underserved areas like Immokalee.
Immokalee is predominantly a migrant farmworker community. It’s estimated that during the pandemic that 15,000 to 20,000 people continued to work with little support. In June 2020, Immokalee’s COVID positivity rate was 36% compared to 5.6% statewide, according to data from Doctors Without Borders.
“We knew that COVID-19 was hitting Immokalee incredibly hard early in the pandemic, and in fact, throughout the last 2½ years, and really affecting farmworkers in particular in an incredibly acute and disproportionate way,” said Bollbach.
Bollbach said before 2020, Immokalee was already facing severe health disparities, such as a lack of access to health care information, health services and transportation. And farmworkers live and work in incredibly crowded conditions, increasing their risk of illness and infection. PIH reports that half of the farmworkers are under documented or undocumented, resulting in the fear of requesting outside assistance.
PIH deployed a street team of Southwest Florida promotoras to embed in trusted, local organizations in Immokalee, including the Healthcare Network, faith-based nonprofit Misión Peniel, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers – all to bring public health information directly to residents.
Today, PIH is still in action in Immokalee. Michelle Velazco grew up there and is now a community health worker with Healthcare Network in partnership with PIH. She says her work helps bridge the gap between the community and their access to health care for not only coronavirus information, but also chronic care resources as well.
“They often don’t know how or where to get treatment, so that’s where we come in, you know," said Velazco. "Letting them know, or even helping them get appointments in Healthcare Network or providing them with other resources that they may need. Transportation, food, you name it. Even if we’re not directly partnered with them, we’re able to help them get that care.”
Velazco said the street team has expanded to general health care outreach, especially after their success visiting residents door-to-door and holding community testing and educational events during COVID.
“We would have often like 300, 400 people come to get tested at our events, so we saw that the need was so great that we had to expand and try to target other communities and other conditions such as hypertension and diabetes," said Velazco. "Giving that information, giving the resources, handing out personal protective equipment, masks, gloves, they just all really seem grateful for that. So, I’m happy that we’re able to do more now.”
Despite any hardships from the pandemic, Bollbach says that building new programs and immobilizing new resources in communities like Immokalee provides a pathway to build a better health care model.
“We’ve got a playbook on how to proceed, we just need to keep our foot on the gas nationally and locally to build from this moment and these learnings to a better future,” said Bollbach.
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