This year on June 15th, the Massachusetts Association of Community Health Workers (MACHW), in conjunction with Health Resources in Action (HRiA), asked employers of Community Health Workers to provide special recognition to their outreach staff. Over the last 16 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the heroic efforts of CHWs made a real difference in helping people access testing, care and vaccines.
“Our Community Health Workers are integral to our unwavering commitment to equitable access to healthcare and COVID testing and vaccine during the pandemic,” said Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, MD, MPH. “Their connection to their communities and knowledge of the people they serve is a valuable asset to our efforts during the pandemic, particularly in our communities of color disproportionately burdened by the pandemic.”
MACHWA provided a ‘Guide to CHW Recognition,’ toolkit (see http://tiny.cc/kocxtz), complete with a certificate of appreciation and many ideas about how to celebrate during the week of June 15. Recognition for CHWs included a breakfast or luncheon, gift certificates to local businesses, and in some cases, paid time off!
“CHWs understand that connecting the people that have been left at the margins requires more than just giving a pamphlet with information. CHWs provide the necessary coaching, support, and information that is grounded in their intimate understanding about the circumstances -cultural, socio-economic-race-language – that prevent their clients from accessing and adhering to health care and social service resources,” said, Lissette Blondet, Executive Director of MACHW.
CHWs continue to serve as the backbone of many basic need, non-profit organizations. The goal of CHWs is to meet people where they are regardless of their circumstances and often work in Gateway communities to improve public health.
“When the pandemic hit,” Blondet said, “CHWs pivoted to educate and assist with all public health efforts to contain the virus, recognizing the stakes were at an all-time high.”
Sharon George, CCHW, Community Wellness Advocate Manager, Boston Medical Center, shares her experience as a frontline worker during the height of the pandemic:
“This has been exhausting for all of us with so much profound loss. We were just as scared about COVID 19, but throughout, our CHWs went into our communities like soldiers to the call of duty. When patients called saying they had no masks, no food, and were afraid to go to the supermarket, we delivered produce boxes and other essential items to our patients weekly. What kept us going? Behind the masks, you could see the smiles in our patient’s eyes. One day, after placing a box of food items at a patient’s front door, I began to walk toward my car. The patient called to me to pull my mask down so she could see me. She did the same, and we stood there for a while, just smiling at each other…”
A special day to honor CHWs originated in 1994, when ‘Outreach Educator Day’ was a large-scale celebration hosted by the Community Health Education Center (CHEC). Established by the Boston Public Health Commission, CHEC was the first competency-based training program for CHWs in the country.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) there are about 3,000 community health workers in the state. These skilled public health professionals bring education and resources into the communities hardest hit by the pandemic. They speak the language and understand, often first- hand, the challenges that may prevent some neighbors from accessing the full continuum of health and social services.