In A New World, Social Work Leads the Way

This is a sponsored article by California State University at Northridge

How Cal State Northridge is doing its part.

The pandemic, if nothing else, exacerbated the unequal distribution of resources in society. For millions of people, access to food, shelter, and health care is now more uncertain than ever.

What’s emerging is a new, somewhat dire need for experienced social workers – professionals able to compassionately address a disparate and evolving set of issues. Not only here in Los Angeles, but all over the world.

For much of the pandemic, the field has championed relief efforts, such as the rent moratorium. This provided a necessary, if temporary, reprieve from the daily fear of eviction. Outside of California, however, this moratorium is over. As are federal unemployment benefits.

And the impact is tragically visible. In California alone, the homeless population is over 151,000, with 41,000 of that in Los Angeles. And that’s just according to official estimates. The true number, allege some experts, may be much higher.

This is the sad, beautiful truth of social work. No matter where a client is, whether it’s in the classroom, at home, or on the streets, the field will be there.

But the field itself is evolving, too.

Following the death of George Floyd, social workers are increasingly involved in policing, augmenting first responders with a new option: one aiming to mitigate crisis and, as importantly, prevent the use of force.

As cities and states consider policing alternatives, social workers can help to ensure each community’s voice is heard, especially communities of color. Gaining popularity, the idea is to offer a more compassionate approach to law enforcement. Rather than responding with aggression, an arriving unit could instead respond with care, assessing the situation from a mental health standpoint, not one of criminality.

Likewise, opportunity youth – sometimes referred to as “at-risk” – now face many new challenges (among them, a skills gap from a year of remote learning). On top of food scarcity and uncertain housing, there’s also the real risk of contracting COVID. And for these youth, who often lack access to health care, this can be especially dangerous.

In all these cases, a humane approach is needed. Many social work programs incorporate hands-on experience, giving students access to the communities they’ll serve. One such program is the Master of Social Work (MSW) at California State University, Northridge (CSUN).

Unlike many social work programs, CSUN’s MSW expands participants’ career possibilities by offering a generalist approach. This enables graduates to work at ALL levels of the field: individual/family (micro); group/community (mezzo); and societal/policy (macro).

The program is offered fully online in two- and three-year formats. The two-year option is a full-time program with an intensive curriculum designed to help students complete their degrees and enter the field in as little time as possible. The three-year option, on the other hand, is an excellent choice for those who would prefer the same curriculum at a less intensive pace.

The master’s degree, which is often ranked among the best in the country, promotes the well-being of urban communities. Through its curriculum, participants learn how to assess a community’s needs from the inside, in large part through active listening.

As the field continues to evolve, those who comprise it must evolve too. That begins with knowledge of the new world, but ends, as it always has, with the people who need us most – the ones for whom we care.

Study Shows Immune Cells Against Covid-19 Stay High in Number Six Months After Vaccination

A recent study by Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers provides evidence that CD4+ T lymphocytes — immune system cells also known as helper T cells — produced by people who received either of the two available messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines for COVID-19 persist six months after vaccination at only slightly reduced levels from two weeks after vaccination and are at significantly higher levels than for those who are unvaccinated.

The researchers also found that the T cells they studied recognize and help protect against the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the delta variant — currently the predominant strain of SARS-CoV-2 in the United States — causes more infections and spreads faster than earlier forms of the virus.

The study findings were first reported online Oct. 25, 2021, in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

“Previous research has suggested that humoral immune response — where the immune system circulates virus-neutralizing antibodies — can drop off at six months after vaccination, whereas our study indicates that cellular immunity — where the immune system directly attacks infected cells — remains strong,” says study senior author Joel Blankson, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The persistence of these vaccine-elicited T cells, along with the fact that they’re active against the delta variant, has important implications for guiding COVID vaccine development and determining the need for COVID boosters in the future.”

To reach these findings, Blankson and his colleagues obtained blood from 15 study participants (10 men and five women) at three times: prior to vaccination, between seven and14 days after their second Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine dose, and six months after vaccination. The median age of the participants was 41 and none had evidence of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection.

CD4+ T lymphocytes get their nickname of helper T cells because they assist another type of immune system cell, the B lymphocyte (B cell), to respond to surface proteins — antigens — on viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. Activated by the CD4+ T cells, immature B cells become either plasma cells that produce antibodies to mark infected cells for disposal from the body or memory cells that “remember” the antigen’s biochemical structure for a faster response to future infections. Therefore, a CD4+ T cell response can serve as a measure of how well the immune system responds to a vaccine and yields humoral immunity.

In their study, Blankson and colleagues found that the number of helper T cells recognizing SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins was extremely low prior to vaccination — with a median of 2.7 spot-forming units (SFUs, the level of which is a measure of T cell frequency) per million peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs, identified as any blood cell with a round nucleus, including lymphocytes). Between 7 and 14 days after vaccination, the T cell frequency rose to a median of 237 SFUs per million PBMCs. At six months after vaccination, the level dropped slightly to a median of 122 SFUs per million PBMCs — a T cell frequency still significantly higher than before vaccination.

The researchers also looked six months after vaccination at the ability of CD4+ T cells to recognize spike proteins atop the SARS-CoV-2 delta variant. They discovered the number of T cells recognizing the delta variant spike protein was not significantly different from that of T cells attuned to the original virus strain’s protein.

Although the study was limited because of the small number of participants, Blankson feels it pinpoints areas that merit further research.

“The robust expansion of T cells in response to stimulation with spike proteins is certainly indicated, supporting the need for more study to show booster shots do successfully increase the frequency of SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells circulating in the blood,” says Blankson. “The added bonus is finding that this response also is likely strong for the delta variant.”

Along with Blankson, the members of the study team from Johns Hopkins Medicine are study lead author Bezawit Woldemeskel and Caroline Garliss.

This study was supported by the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Vaccine-related Research Fund.

The authors do not have financial or conflict of interest disclosures. 

The Covid Pandemic Increased Vulnerability to Forced Labor in Global Supply Chains

Comprehensive evidence points to increased vulnerability of workers to forced labor in global supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic, an analysis published today by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC) has found.

The Centre, which was created to enhance understanding of modern slavery and transform the effectiveness of law and policies designed to address it, is funded by the Arts and Humanities Council.

The Modern Slavery PEC has carried out an analysis of evidence, including new academic research funded by the Centre, on the impact of Covid-19 on modern slavery across the world.

The analysis has found that the pandemic has increased vulnerability to modern slavery all over the world, including in the UK, as many of the underlying wider factors underpinning modern slavery have worsened, such as poverty, inequality and unemployment. Construction, manufacturing, including ready-made garment production, as well as accommodation and food services have been the sectors most affected by the pandemic.

It found that the increased vulnerability of workers to forced labor is often linked to long and complex supply chains, of which businesses have limited visibility. Already vulnerable groups, such as migrant and informal workers, were most affected, particularly in the lower tiers of supply chains.

There is evidence of an increase in the risk of forced labor both in supply chains that experienced a significant reduction in demand, such as garments, and those that experienced demand spikes, such as PPE production.

The problems were compounded by businesses struggling with the immediate impact of the pandemic making it difficult to mitigate the modern slavery risks in their supply chains, including by making it very challenging to carry out due diligence processes on suppliers on the ground.

Additionally, some of the early response by business to the pandemic exacerbated vulnerability to modern slavery, for example by cancelling contracts and withholding payment for goods already produced.

Modern Slavery PEC Partnership Manager Owain Johnstone, one of the authors of the analysis, said:

“Covid-related supply chain disruption is a wake-up call for businesses. The evidence that the pandemic has worsened people’s vulnerability to forced labor in global supply chains is overwhelming.”

“The pandemic has highlighted the complexity and fragility of many supply chains and reinforced the link between the lack of visibility over supply chains and the vulnerability of workers to modern slavery. More transparent, resilient supply chains are better for business and better for workers”, he added.

Dr Jo Meehan, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Purchasing at University of Liverpool Management School, who led the Modern Slavery PEC project on the impact of Covid-19 on the management of supply chains, said:

“Demand volatility has been extremely high during the pandemic. It acts as a driver of modern slavery as it erodes profits, encourages the use of temporary and precarious workers, and destabilises capacity in supply markets.”

However, the Modern Slavery PEC’s analysis has also pointed out that the pandemic may lead to longer-term positive changes to supply chain dynamics. This includes greater visibility and awareness of supply chains that Covid has forced on businesses and increased awareness of exploitation affecting supply chains.

Dr Meehan said: “Our study revealed that because of the pandemic, two-thirds of businesses sourced from new suppliers and undertook additional supply chain mapping. Therefore, there is an opportunity for businesses to use these new relationships as springboards to understand the impacts of their own business model and practices, and how they may change to collectively tackle, and prevent, modern slavery.”

For example, evidence suggests that some businesses have already moved towards the ‘localisation’ of their supply chains, working to shorten them and bring suppliers closer to home to avoid future disruption, which is likely to decrease modern slavery risks. Another example includes extending inventory planning cycles to take their longer-term demand into account and enable better workforce planning.

Johnstone said: “It’s clear that the crisis has pushed businesses to strengthen their hold on their entire supply chains, which can make it easier to address any exploitation issues potentially affecting them.

“We urge businesses to use the pandemic experience as a platform to increase visibility and transparency over their supply chains, as well as improving collaboration with their suppliers and peer companies.”

The Digital Divide is a Human Rights Issue

The COVID-19 pandemic shed a glaring light on the important role that technology and access to high-speed internet play our lives. You would not be able to read this story without an internet connection and a device to read it on. How would you communicate with loved ones, do your homework or pay your bills without broadband?

Cynthia K. Sanders, associate professor and online program director in the College of Social Work, is the lead author of an article published in the Journal of Human Rights and Social Work that argues access to high-speed internet, or broadband, is a human rights and social justice issue. Lack of access disproportionately impacts low-income, People of Color, seniors, Native Americans and rural residents. Sanders joined the University of Utah in July 2021.

“Much of my work is around financial, social or political inclusion,” said Sanders. “The digital divide certainly represents a lack of social inclusion because there are so many things associated with access to broadband in terms of how we think about our daily lives and opportunities, especially highlighted by the pandemic. It creates a clear social exclusion situation.”

At least 20 million Americans do not have access to broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Some estimates are as high as 162 million, said Sanders. While there are federal funds allocated toward addressing access to broadband internet, Sanders and her co-author, Edward Scanlon from the University of Kansas, argue the digital divide must be viewed as more than a policy or infrastructure issue.

“When we know that the people who don’t have it are already disadvantaged in many ways, it should also be viewed as a human rights and social justice issue,” said Sanders. “And it’s also about more than just whether broadband is available in certain areas. Even if it is available, not everyone can afford it or devices available to access it. If they do have the devices or can pay for it, they may not have the digital literacy skillset to effectively use technology and broadband for many of the opportunities it provides like applying for jobs, furthering one’s education, accessing health care or medical records and staying in touch with friends and family.”

In order to reduce the digital divide, Sanders said there are community-based, grassroots initiatives that can serve as excellent models—including one here in Utah.

“The Murray School District used some federal funds to create their own long-term evolution network (LTE) and that’s something no other district in the nation has done,” said Sanders. “It’s a great example and something we can learn from in the absence of a more national strategy.”

The authors also urge social workers to get involved through policy advocacy, coalition building and program development around initiatives such as low-cost broadband, low-cost devices and creating digital literacy programs.

“From a social work perspective, we need to be part of this discussion around ways to help close the digital divide for particularly marginalized groups,” said Sanders. “We can be involved in lobbying and working with legislators and policymakers to educate about the digital divide, who it impacts and the funding needed for some of these grassroots initiatives that can truly impact peoples’ daily lives.”

Five Tips to Ease Kids’ Social Reentry

Tavyev’s strategies include:

Staying engaged at home. Tavyev, also an assistant professor of Pediatrics at Cedars-Sinai, pointed out that kids who turned 2 or 3 during the pandemic might have little experience interacting with people who don’t have masks on. “We can’t just give up masks,” Tavyev said, “so that places more impetus on the family to disconnect from their screens and interact with children face to face.”

Trying to curb screen time. Children’s own screen time can also present a challenge. “If kids’ social interaction is being replaced with screen time, you could have exponentially more work in front of you,” said Tavyev. “You’re going to have to break that addiction before they will want to go out to do social things.”

Encouraging sports and games. Organized sports and other types of play—most of which happen outdoors—can help replace screen time and ease children back into social situations. “It’s something social, but lightly social,” said Tavyev. “It isn’t two hours of intense personal interaction, like a birthday party might be.” For children who aren’t attracted to team sports, Tavyev suggested activities such as martial arts classes or swimming, which are individual pursuits but still happen in a group. Younger children might enjoy group play with balls or parachutes, she said.

Letting younger children learn from conflict. When younger kids do come together, the occasional tussle if two reach for the same toy is a learning opportunity. “If they’ve only been interacting with friends on screens, you’re at home with your Legos and they’re at home with their Legos, so no negotiation has to take place,” Tavyev said. She recommended that parents let children older than 2 or 3 work out in-person conflicts for themselves. “Tell them you believe they can figure this out, whisper ideas and encouragement, but don’t come in and be the mediator,” she said.

Putting fears into perspective for older children. “For children who are feeling awkward and afraid at school or with peers, talk through the worst-case scenario,” Tavyev said. “Encourage them to imagine what might happen. Maybe they’re going to say something foolish. Maybe people will laugh at them. Whatever it is, play it out. Then stop and ask, ‘Was that so bad? Is that something that you truly could not recover from?'”

While some conflict, awkwardness and uncertainty is to be expected, Tavyev advised parents and teachers to be on the lookout for children determined to avoid interaction with others.

“If younger children aren’t showing an interest in their peers, and that is accompanied by language delay and repetitive or ritualistic behaviors, it’s time to seek help because those are signs of autism,” she said. “Parents should also seek help for an older child who was previously interested in social activity and seems to have lost their interest, because this might be a sign of depression.”

Tavyev also encouraged parents to take heart, because everyone is in the same boat. And while the brain’s ability to grow and change is at its height during the first three years of life, neuroplasticity persists well into adulthood.

“Social interaction, comfortable distance while talking, and all kinds of subtle, nuanced things have probably changed for billions of people around the world,” said Tavyev. “So even if children have missed out on certain social things, it could be that some of those things are going to become obsolete anyway. How will that change this generation of children? I honestly have no idea, but they’re all in it together.”

Too Many Young People Aren’t Getting the Jab – Can Music Change Their Minds?

When Frank Kilpatrick set out to convince more younger people to get the jab, he knew he’d have to overcome several roadblocks. One, young people tend to feel invincible, and thus somehow unaffected by the COVID-19 virus. Two, they aren’t moved by data that shows the benefits of vaccination. Three, they tend not to watch TV—especially the news—like older generations do. And so he and his team came up with a creative solution: Reach them through music.

“Music is a kind of language for young people,” says Kilpatrick, who has come together with a team of concerned citizens via the non-profit organization Ribbons for Research to figure out what will convince more Americans to get vaccinated. “It plays a huge role in their search for identity. It’s a powerful form of self-expression. It connects them to their tribe. So we figured, why not speak their language?”

He and his team realized the Gen Z (ages 18-24) and Millennial (ages 25-40) cohorts are vaccinated at low rates similar to those of rural Southern populations. To reach them, Kilpatrick’s team developed a focused PSA initiative with the theme “COVID-19 Is Not a Hoax.” The centerpiece of the campaign is a music single and corresponding music video titled “COVID-19 Is Hell.” It features the singer Rayko.

Kilpatrick urges media outlets to view, download, and share the single by clicking here, and asks television and radio stations to place it into high-visibility rotation in their schedules.

“The video is cool and fun and even sexy, yet carries a serious message,” says Kilpatrick. “By bringing a contemporary pop music vibe together with engaging images, we’re getting that message across in a way young people will be receptive to—all we need is the help of media outlets to share it with their audiences.”

The music video is an extension of Ribbons for Research’s initial public service announcement (PSA) campaign titled Shoulda Got the Shot. These video and radio segments feature portrayals and testimonials from real people who have been seriously ill or lost a loved one due to COVID-19.

“The idea behind the Shoulda Got the Shot PSAs and also this newest music video is to try a heartfelt, emotional, non-preachy, politically neutral approach we believe will resonate and move these groups to take action,” says Kilpatrick.

His collaborators on the projects include director Eric Mittleman, producer Linda Kilpatrick, and associate producer Rayko Takahashi.

To understand more about why Kilpatrick and team have decided to devote so much time and so many resources to creating this PSA project, here is a quick mini-interview with him:

Q: Who does the Shoulda Got the Shot campaign target?

A: We’re aiming this campaign at various underserved populations: politically polarized, lower income, minority, and rural audiences. We have a similar social media strategy aimed at the younger “party hearty” populations that feel invincible.

Q: Why is it so urgent?

A: Currently, although the numbers have improved over the past month or so, the U.S. vaccination rate isn’t where it should be. Quite simply, the more holdouts we can convince to get the shot, the more lives we’ll save.

Q: What makes this campaign different?

A: Our Shoulda Got the Shot PSA campaign doesn’t lecture its audience. It isn’t a blatant endorsement by politicians and scientists. It doesn’t tell people what to think. Our approach is based on the most proven type of human persuasion: human connection. These testimonials are raw and emotional and real. People will be more likely to trust these spokespeople in a way that they’d never trust a politician or scientist. These are people who look like them.

I mean, you can feel Martha’s anguish when her voice breaks as she talks about how her daddy died from a hole in his lung caused by COVID-19. When she goes on to encourage others to get vaccinated, it’s clear that it comes from a genuine desire to prevent suffering. These spots are incredibly compelling.

Q: So…why you? What drove you to launch this campaign?

A: First, this is a cause I deeply care about. I feel much the same way about it that I felt about the Stay Alive suicide prevention documentary film I produced 18 months ago. But also, thanks to my work in the healthcare communications field, I have many years of experience in producing these kinds of permission-based approaches that feature an appeal to community agreement. I know from experience this is a powerful strategy.

Q: How can others help?

A: Please…if you work with a TV, cable, or radio station, or have influence with any other media outlet, air these PSAs and/or the “COVID-19 Is Hell” single and video. Share this lifesaving content with your community. Call (424) 262-5570 to get copies of the spots delivered to you, or visit www.ribbonsforresearchvideo.org and www.ribbonsforresearch.org for a preview and for more information.

“We really have a lot of hope for this campaign,” adds Kilpatrick. “If we all join together to share these vital messages, we can help improve the numbers in under-vaccinated communities across the U.S. We can save lives—perhaps ultimately even our own.”

Researchers Quantify the Role of the Pandemic in the 2020 U.S. Elections

In the media, a prevalent narrative is that Donald Trump lost the 2020 elections because of the way he handled the COVID-19 pandemic. Several researchers determined that Trump would have won the electoral vote and lost the popular vote, as he did in 2016, if the pandemic had not occurred or if it had been mitigated.

Interestingly, not all the evidence supports the thesis that the handling of the crisis hurt Trump’s re-election, and quantitative evidence to support this narrative is limited.

In a new paper, Quantifying the role of the COVID-19 pandemic in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, in the European Physical Journal, a team led by Maurizio Porfiri, Institute Professor at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, put forward a spatial, information-theoretic approach to critically examine the link between voting behavior and COVID-19 incidence in the 2020 presidential elections. While they concurred with prior research that there were correlations between the two factors, they found that such an association points in the opposite direction from the accepted narrative: in counties that experienced fewer COVID-19 cases, Trump lost more ground to Joe Biden.

“A tenable explanation of this observation is the different attitude of liberal and conservative voters toward the pandemic, which led to more COVID-19 spreading in counties with a larger share of Republican voters” said Porfiri.

Key to the analysis is a way of quantifying uncertainty in statistical models. By using a novel spatial data modeling approach, and computing conditional mutual information between two processes (a target process like voting behavior and a second process, in this case, COVID-19 incidence), Porfiri, et. al., were able to infer spatial (geographic) connections.

This approach enabled them to determine the influence that epidemiological and economic processes might have had on voting behavior, as well as the spatial interactions that encapsulate the social and political fabric of the country.

From the analysis of county-level data, the investigators, including Pietro de Lellis of the University of Naples Federico II and Manuel Ruiz Marín of the University of Cartagena, Spain, uncovered a robust association between voting behavior and prevalence of COVID-19 cases.

The researchers determined that COVID-19 cases were negatively associated with the variation in the total vote count, whereby a larger increase in participation was observed in counties that were less affected by the pandemic, and a smaller increase in those that suffered the most from COVID-19. When it comes to the difference in votes between the two parties, they found that Biden’s margin was higher in the counties that suffered the least from COVID-19. However, counties where Biden gained the largest margin were not identified by COVID-19 prevalence.

They also found that there were more likely to be large increases in the electoral participation and in Biden’s margin in counties that suffered more job losses; likewise, they found less participation and more support for Trump in counties that experienced smaller increases in unemployment rate.

“Our work demonstrates the value of spatial information-theoretic tools towards uncovering the mechanisms underlying government elections and, more generally, the socio-political fabric of a country. This is critical to support decision-making processes in urban sciences, in a context where our cities face dramatic changes due to environmental and sociotechnical stressors, such as climate change and social justice,” added De Lellis.

The research was partially supported by the National Science Foundation. It was also part of the collaborative activities carried out under the programs of the region of Murcia (Spain): “Groups of Excellence of the region of Murcia, the Fundaci ́on Seneca, Science and Technology Agency.” De Lellis was supported by the program “STAR 2018” of the University of Naples Federico II and Compagnia di San Paolo, Istituto Bancodi Napoli — Fondazione, project ACROSS. M. Ruiz Mar ́was supported by Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovaci ́on y Universidades.

U.S. Gun Violence Increased 30% During COVID-19 Pandemic

Gun violence increased by more than 30% in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study by Penn State College of Medicine researchers. The researchers said that stress, domestic violence, lack of social interactions and greater access to firearms might have contributed to the increase.

According to the researchers, these findings come at a time when many hospitals remain inundated with COVID-19 cases and face challenges related to limited resources, such as blood products, intensive care beds, personal protective equipment and staffing. They said gun violen2nd ce increases the burden on health care systems that are already in high demand. The researchers also warn that if gun-related incidents continue to rise, hospitals may experience additional strain.

The researchers obtained data on shooting deaths, suicides and gun-related injuries from the Gun Violence Archive. They analyzed daily incidents in each state, as well as the District of Columbia, from February 2019 through March 2021. They compared incidents reported before the pandemic (February 2019 through February 2020) to gun violence reported during the first year of the pandemic (March 2020 through March 2021).

According to the findings, 28 states, including Pennsylvania, experienced a significantly higher number of shootings during the first year of the pandemic. In some states such as Minnesota, Michigan and New York, the rate of gun violence rose by more than 100%. Meanwhile, Alaska was the only state to see significantly lower rates of gun violence during the pandemic.

According to the researchers, added stress and worry, along with fear and uncertainty may have fueled an increase in gun sales. Based on data from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, there was a 41% increase in handguns sold in March 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. According to the researchers, all of these factors may have led to the increase in gun-related injuries and deaths during the pandemic.

“The pandemic has yielded harmful ripple effects that need to be addressed,” said co-lead investigator Dr. Paddy Ssentongo, assistant professor at the Penn State Center for Neural Engineering. “The spike in gun violence in the era of COVID-19 comes as a stark reminder that we can’t afford to ignore it any longer. Now is the time to focus on this public health crisis.”

“Our data reinforces the need to promote multiple interventions — vaccinations, testing, contact tracing, masking and ventilation — to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic, and in doing so, hopefully we can mitigate the downstream effects,” said co-investigator Dr. Jennifer McCall-Hosenfeld, associate professor, Departments of Medicine and Public Health Sciences.

Penn State researchers Anna Ssentongo, Emily Heilbrunn, Dr. Joshua HazeltonDr. John Oh and Vernon Chinchilli contributed to this research. Claudio Fronterre from Lancaster University and Dr. Shailesh Advani from Georgetown University School of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health also contributed to this research.

The researchers declare no conflicts of interest or specific funding for this research.

Read the full study in Scientific Reports.

Democrat-Led States Tended to Have Stronger Response to COVID-19, Which Improved Health Outcomes, Study Shows

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — States with Democratic leaders tended to have responded more strongly to COVID-19 and have seen a lower rate of the spread of the virus, according to new research led by faculty at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Binghamton University Professor of Political Science Olga Shvetsova and her colleagues wanted to gain a clearer understanding of how politics affect COVID-19 outcomes. The researchers used data on public health measures taken across the United States to build an index of the strength of the COVID policy response. They combined this index with daily counts of new COVID cases, along with political and other variables that they thought were relevant to the dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic and governments’ response to it. Using this dataset, they assessed the effects of policies on the observed number of new infections and the difference between the policies adopted in Republican-led and Democrat-led states.

This study connects the aggregate strength of public health policies taken in response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic in the U.S. states to the governors’ party affiliations and to the state-level outcomes. Understanding the relationship between politics and public health measures can better prepare American communities for what to expect from their governments in a future crisis and encourage advocacy for delegating public health decisions to medical professionals.

“The state governments led by Democrats, on average, took stricter measures than the state governments led by Republicans, and the states with stricter measures had the virus spread much slower,” said Shvetsova.

The difference between the policies made in Democrat-led states and those made in Republican-led states corresponded to an about 7-8 percent lower rate of the spread of the virus.

According to the researchers, these conclusions reinforce the findings of previous studies that application of public health policy was politicized for COVID-19, and this affected health outcomes.

“The main lesson of this research is that better public health requires a less partisan approach to the making of public health policies,” said Shvetsova.

Additional researchers and institutions on the study included: Andrei Zhirnov from the University of Exeter, Frank Giannelli from Rutgers University, Michael Catalano, and Olivia Catalano.

The paper, “Governor’s party, policies, and COVID-19 outcomes: Further Evidence of the Effect,” was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The Push for Healthy Communities

As COVID-19 took its toll on the U.S. in 2020, the numbers began to show that not everyone was equally affected by the virus. Data from the CDC and National Center for Health Statistics showed Black and Latinx populations were almost three times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than white populations, and it was two times more likely that their cases resulted in death.

But COVID-19 only revealed the health disparities that were already rampant in the nation. And, these underlying disparities did not only affect people of color, but also occurred based on other factors such as socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, geography and age.

As the most economically and ethnically diverse university in the nation, the CSU is committed to ensuring all community members are served equally, including access to health care. Here are a few ways campuses are pushing for that access.​

A Little Motivation

The Stanislaus Recovery Center (SRC), which provides addiction recovery treatment for patients on Medicaid or Medi-Cal who are often unemployed or unhoused, is the site of a pilot study led by Shrinidhi Subramaniam, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Stanislaus.

Working together since 2018, Dr. Subramaniam and the SRC team noticed when patients were transferring from residential to outpatient care, their participation in treatment dropped off. To address the issue, Subramaniam, her students and the SRC launched the project—funded by a Research, Scholarships and Creative Activities grant—to study whether monetary incentives, paid on reloadable credit cards, increased patient participation in outpatient services as well as improved abstinence and treatment outcomes.

“I expect the participants in our study to all be in the category of socioeconomic disadvantage, and hopefully the little bit of money that we can give them with the incentives will also encourage them to access other recovery resources through continuing care,” Subramaniam says.

This pilot study is based off research she conducted during her post-doc at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine on motivational incentives in health care, including encouraging HIV patients to take their medication and chronically unemployed individuals recovering from substance use disorder to abstain from drug use. Another study also looked at the efficacy of incentivizing patients to do other important tasks like sign up for health insurance, complete job training or acquire identification like a Social Security card or ID.

Subramaniam hopes her work can expand to incentivize patients to use other services at SRC, includin​g its existing resources that link clients to training or local job opportunities—with the ultimate goal of setting up her own “therapeutic workplace” where individuals can receive treatment as well as help securing education, employment and housing.

“We have to deal with a lot of stigmas working with this population; both the stigma of addiction and the stigma that comes along with poverty,” Subramaniam says. “So, one of the major goals of my research program is to figure out what it takes to help people with that combination of addiction, unemployment and poverty to get out of their situation to the best of our ability. Of course, there are structural changes that need to be made to help people in that position, but there are also things psychology can do on an individual basis to help people access resources that are available. And incentives are a great way to help motivate people to do those difficult tasks.”​

The Next Generation

Named in honor of the unsung medical personnel dubbed heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic, the proposed Regional Healthcare Initiative Health Education, Research, and Clinical Outcomes (HEROs) Institute at San Diego State University would seek to improve health care services and reduce disparities in its community by addressing issues in health education.

“We can’t address access to health care if we don’t address access to health care education,” says Harsimran Baweja, Ph.D., associate professor in exercise and nutritional sciences. “Our idea is to make a grassroots-up change to health care delivery, so that these students who go out now, our alumni, will be the changemakers.”

Specifically, the goal is to implement interprofessional education, in which classrooms would bring together students from different health care programs, reflecting the interdisciplinary teams they will experience in the workforce. By introducing this type of learning, their training times would be significantly shortened, and they could independently serve patients more quickly. In addition, the institute will form clinical partnerships with community health care providers, who will likewise provide instruction and training in the classroom and likely employ the students post-graduation.

Specifically, the goal is to implement interprofessional education, in which classrooms would bring together students from different health care programs, reflecting the interdisciplinary teams they will experience in the workforce. By introducing this type of learning, their training times would be significantly shortened, and they could independently serve patients more quickly. In addition, the institute will form clinical partnerships with community health care providers, who will likewise provide instruction and training in the classroom and likely employ the students post-graduation.

“We will be accelerating the delivery [of health care] from bench to bedside or to the community, because the problem in health care access and delivery is the pace at which it’s given,” Dr. Baweja explains. “We need to reduce the burden on the health care system and reduce the burden on the money that is spent. Our trainees who will go out will know how to run the system more efficiently. We really have to create a better and more efficient work system and workflow.”

Spearheaded by Baweja, María Luisa Zúñiga, Ph.D., campus director of the Joint Doctoral Program in Interdisciplinary Research in Substance Abuse, and other faculty in research and innovation, public health and physical therapy, the HEROs Institute will also consolidate efforts currently occurring separately in the colleges. For example, the NIH-funded Addiction Scientists Strengthened Through Education and Training (ASSET) Program aims to increase the number of Black and Latinx scientists in substance abuse addiction and education, while the California Outreach Challenge, which SDSU participates in, has physical therapy programs compete for the most community service hours. Under the institute, similar programs could be implemented that extend across SDSU’s health care disciplines.

Lastly, professors in the participating programs would imbue students with the values, cultural competence and community understanding that would prepare them to drive health care policy changes in the future.

“If we not just prep students to be ready for whatever is coming in the future, but we guide them with the value system that you have to serve your community before they graduate, then the health care system is going to be better prepared for itself than it was in the past 12 months,” Baweja says. “These are going to be the people who are going to be not only informing the workforce, but will be informing the policies in the future.”

The team is currently seeking public, private and industry partnerships to jumpstart the HEROs Institute, which is part of the​ SDSU Big Ideas Initiative​.

A Health Care Transformation

Building on the campus’s Mi Gente, Nuestra Salud (My People, Our Health) effort, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo is piloting a new institute that facilitates community-led initiatives to address health equity around the cities of Santa Maria and Guadalupe on California’s Central Coast.

“Our solution is a people’s movement for health ownership,” says Suzanne Phelan, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology and public health and co-principal investigator of Mi Gente, Nuestra Salud. “The Mi Gente, Nuestra Salud initiative flips our current system upside down, empowering people—and especially those who are currently minoritized in America—to identify and address their most pressing health concerns. We aim to transform health care into health ownership.”

To meet this goal, the Cal Poly Institute for Community Health Training and Research will largely provide resources that enable existing groups to better serve all members of the community with the help of collaborators from all six of the school’s colleges. These resources will include training in health equity principles, data on the community, funding opportunities and strategies for community partnerships, health advocacy and program evaluation.

“We see this effort as collaborative and, ultimately, community-driven,” says Marilyn Tseng, Ph.D., assistant professor of kinesiology and public health and co-principal investigator of Mi Gente, Nuestra Salud. “We see the institute as providing resources that will help the process along; we are only one piece in the complex health ecosystem in Santa Maria. If we can help generate ripples that will produce larger beneficial impacts on community mobilization, health ownership and health equity, we will consider the effort to be completely worthwhile.”

To secure support for the project, the team has already forged partnerships with the city of Santa Maria, nonprofits and University of California, Santa Barbara. It also recently received funding from the California Breast Cancer Research Program to study breast cancer risk disparities in the Latinx and immigrant communities of Santa Maria.

These efforts will also be bolstered by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s Women and Infants Mobile Health Unit, which, in addition to supporting local health workers and providing free medical care to uninsured women and infants, will serve as a connection point between the institute and the community.

Finally, the team hopes to introduce health advocacy and ambassadorship training into the classroom, preparing Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students to effectively care and advocate for these communities.

Inspiration for these efforts grew out of a program in Jamkhed, India, called the Jamkhed Comprehensive Rural Health Project (CRHP), aimed at empowering people to address health disparities in their communities by first addressing the social, cultural and economic challenges that exacerbate those inequities.

“All of us conduct research and teach courses in which we confront issues of health inequities rooted in systemwide, structural inequities in access to healthy environments, opportunities and resources,” Dr. Tseng says. “The Jamkhed CRHP has been successful and cost-effective in India, but more importantly, its principles resonated with all of us. We felt that health ownership was something we would like to see here given the stark disparities in health, even in our region.”

What We Learned from the IIA’s Webinar on Broadband Affordability

On Monday, September 13th, the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) held a webinar entitled Deleting the Broadband Affordability Divide: A Virtual Chat with FCC Acting Chair Rosenworcel. The event was headlined by a discussion between FCC Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel and IIA Co-Chair Kim Keenan and featured a star-studded cast of accomplished women, including:

  • Joi Chaney, Executive Director of National Urban League’s Washington Bureau and Senior Vice President for Policy and Advocacy
  • Dr. Dominique Harrison, Director of Technology Policy for the Joint Center
  • Rosa Mendoza, Founder, President and CEO of ALLvanza

The goal of this event was to discuss the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) Program’s success thus far, what challenges remain, and ultimately, how the federal government and other actors are fairing in addressing the digital divide in the United States. In the following, we’ll take a look at the key takeaways and information shared in the webinar and assess the current status of the EBB Program in America. But before we do that, we must understand the context and why such initiatives are vitally important.

The Digital Divide

The digital divide has essentially been around ever since the World Wide Web emerged some 30 years ago. The problem has been widely known for decades, but action has largely remained stagnant. The issue started to gain more traction in the last ten years as much of everyday life transitioned to or became intertwined with the digital world. It became clear that Americans across the country were being left behind. Initial policy efforts focused chiefly on accessibility and availability, but we know now that the real issue lies with broadband adoption, i.e., affordability of broadband access.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19 and the vast reliance on the digital world that has followed, it became utterly apparent how strong the digital divide is and how essential it was to ensure no one is left behind. A third of American households have worried about paying their broadband bills during the pandemic. COVID-19 also made it clear how substantial the gap is in broadband availability for under-served communities, with just 71% of African American adults having broadband access. Compared to 65% for Hispanic adults and 80% for White adults.

Given these apparent gaps and severe consequences at hand following COVID-19, the FCC enacted the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) Program to address this critical issue before it’s far too late.

The Importance of the Webinar

Despite the initiative at the federal level from the FCC, such programs cannot succeed on their own. That’s where organizations and coalitions like the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) come in. The IIA is a coalition that has supported broadband availability and access for all Americans for the last 17 years. They hosted this webinar intending to increase awareness behind the EBB Program and the work that remains to be done. Given the problems that COVID-19 has so clearly illuminated regarding broadband connections, it was essential to keep the momentum building on the EBB Program. And that’s precisely what the IIA webinar achieved. With that being said, let’s look at what the EBB is and what we learned about it in the webinar.

What is EBB?

The main goal of the EBB Program is to make broadband affordable to everyone and get 100% broadband access in America. It’s the most extensive broadband affordability program in our nation’s history, with initial funding from Congress set at $3.2 billion. The idea is to obviously address the affordability aspect of broadband, mainly to help lower-income households from falling behind, and thus, creating an even bigger divide in our country.

The EBB Program aims to keep those online struggling to afford it and help get those online who haven’t been before. EBB provides up to $50 a month to families who qualify, and that number goes up to $75 a month on tribal lands. The Program also works closely with providers to offer discounts on tablets and laptops. Five and a half million households have signed up thus far. But as FCC Acting Chair Rosenworcel mentioned, this is just the beginning.

Many households qualify but have yet to reap the benefits, and a big reason behind that is a lack of trust. Unsurprisingly, many Americans are reluctant to trust a new federally-run program automatically, so is the case with EBB. To counter this, the FCC has utilized more than 33,000 partners around the world to help them. Whether massive organizations or small, local groups, the FCC has entrusted their partners to help facilitate the Program and make the community connections needed for it to work.

With that being said, let’s look at some of the key takeaways from the IIA webinar.

Key Takeaways

As mentioned previously, perhaps the most significant barriers to success for the EBB Program are trust and reach. However, the FCC has held over 300 events around the country and has worked with other federal agencies and even the National Football League (NFL) to help further the Program. Even so, it’s the local actors, communities, and leaders that’ll make all the difference. In Baltimore, for example, a city impeded by this issue perhaps more than any other, there are local organizations going door to door to spread the word, and the mayor fully supports the Program. The FCC hopes for more of the same in urban areas around the country, which struggle more with broadband connection than previously imagined.

The FCC has even created a detailed yet straightforward outreach toolkit to help local actors get the message out to assist in such community endeavors. The toolkit is available in 13 different languages to ensure messaging is as effective as possible. They also have a mobile-friendly app which has helped a lot of people get started in the Program.

The most important takeaway from the IIA webinar is that this Program’s success will depend heavily on local communities.

Closing Statements

The IIA webinar made it clear that we can be hopeful about addressing the digital divide. This strong group of women, headlined by the confident and passionate Rosenworcel, are highly dedicated to this Program and evening the playing field around the country. There’s no doubt work remains to be done, but the Program is progressing steadily nonetheless. Let’s tackle this problem together to ensure no one is left behind.

Who Will Cover the Cost of Your COVID-19 Vaccine in Our New Normal?

Historically, mass vaccination drives have had their ups and downs. For example, both rollouts of the smallpox vaccine were relatively smooth for their time. But the distribution of the polio vaccine suffered when children began developing polio in their arms (at the injection sites), and African American children lacked access to the vaccine due to a higher percentage of working parents unable to get them to an appointment. By the time the H1NI vaccine came about many years later, the vaccine campaign had already quieted because the disease was ultimately benign.

As we recover from 2020 and navigate the present vaccine push in 2021, COVID-19 vaccination numbers are increasing — along with rising healthcare costs. That said, do you need insurance for the COVID vaccine? According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the COVID vaccine must be administered without out-of-pocket costs, and the federal government is picking up the tab for the tens of millions of vaccine doses Americans are receiving.

How this works varies, though. Participating providers cannot charge Medicare beneficiaries, and providers must waive all copays and coinsurance payments. Providers that participate in Medicare will receive an administrative fee for giving COVID-19 vaccine shots to patients. For people who are privately insured, vaccine registration sites may require a health insurance card to cover the costs. Still, even out-of-network providers should not charge copays. Fortunately, even Medicaid patients and people who are uninsured can receive the vaccine for free due to the CARES Act. These providers are reimbursed through a relief fund.

Does Health Insurance Cover Preventative Care?

Even in light of increasing vaccine access, the pandemic has underscored the importance of health insurance, which almost always covers preventative care services with no additional healthcare expenses. If your plan is subject to current requirements, you may not have to cover a copayment, coinsurance, or deductible to receive some of the recommended preventive health services, such as screenings, vaccinations, and counseling.

Depending on your age, you may have low-to-no cost access to these preventative services:

  • Blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol tests.
  • Many cancer screenings, including mammograms and colonoscopies.
  • Counseling on quitting smoking, losing weight, eating healthfully, treating depression, and reducing alcohol use.
  • Regular well-child visits, from birth to age 21.
  • Routine vaccinations against diseases, such as measles, polio, or meningitis.
  • Counseling, screening, and vaccines to ensure healthy pregnancies.
  • Flu and pneumonia shots.

To be clear, the preventative services provision only applies to those enrolled in job-related health plans or individual health insurance policies issued after March 23, 2010. If this applies to you, this provision applies as soon as your plan begins its first new “plan year” or “policy year” on or after September 23, 2010. Check your health plan’s website to learn more about what’s covered and which healthcare expenses you may have to pay out of pocket.

Forecasting Post-COVID-19 Vaccine Coverage and Healthcare Expenses

Typically, you need to provide proof of health insurance to receive a vaccine at no cost. But coverage of the COVID-19 vaccine currently differs from other typical treatments and medications, thanks to the federal government’s Provider Relief Fund — regardless of health insurance status or how much vaccines usually cost out of pocket.

But what will vaccine coverage look like when the world returns to “normal?” Based on what we know now, here are some predictions:

1. Vaccines will fall under regular preventative care rules.

Once the pandemic subsides and COVID-19 vaccines are fully licensed and part of preventative care, they will fall under the same reimbursement rules as other vaccines. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010, health plans must cover routine immunizations as a preventative service with no extra costs to patients.

Unfortunately, the ACA does not govern short-term health plans. These plans may require patients to share the cost of the COVID-19 vaccine or not cover it at all.

2. There will be more administration fees.

As life starts to resemble a “normal” rhythm, providers will likely charge an administration fee for giving the shot to a patient. This time, however, the federal government probably won’t pick up the costs. Instead, patients who opt to get the vaccine will be expected to cover the fee.

3. Vaccine costs may rise.

Because we are still in the middle of a pandemic and global health crisis, the COVID-19 vaccine is free, but it’s possible the big vaccine producers — Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer — will raise their vaccine costs at some point. In fact, they have already quietly touted plans to raise coronavirus vaccine prices.

As the world opens up, these price increases will most likely start to look more like other vaccine billing practices, similar to those for the flu shot. This means private insurance will cover the cost of the vaccine instead of passing it along to the federal government.

4. Health insurance costs may increase.

If the prices of COVID-19 vaccines increase with the addition of administration fees and private insurance footing the bill, we will likely also see an uptick in healthcare expenses. Projected rate changes for 2021 were moderate, but some health insurance companies implemented rate increases of about 25%. Still, time will tell whether health insurance premiums show significant changes.

While the federal government is currently striving to make the COVID-19 vaccine accessible with no additional costs, it’s far more likely that health insurance plans will cover the vaccine in the future. The return to normalcy emphasizes the importance of healthcare access after the pandemic — not just during it.

Take the time to learn about your options for when the vaccine is no longer administered for emergency use, which should put you in a good position regardless of any future changes.

NASW Foundation Partners with University of Texas-Austin on COVID-19 Vaccination Grant

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Foundation and the Health Behavior Research and Training Institute (HBRT) at The University of Texas at Austin Steve Hicks School of Social Work have been awarded a $3.3 million, one-year grant by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to engage the nation’s more than 700,000 social workers in boosting COVID-19 vaccine confidence, uptake and access, particularly among populations with low vaccination rates and higher vulnerability to severe forms of infection.

“As an essential health care workforce, social workers are well positioned to help people in their decision making around their vaccination status and address any impediments to getting vaccinated, for themselves and for their family members,” said NASW President and NASW Foundation board member Mildred (Mit) Joyner, DPS, MSW, LCSW. “Whether they work in health care settings, schools, mental health clinics, child welfare agencies or out in the community, social workers are trusted professionals who are able to meet people where they are in their COVID-19 vaccination journey and help them navigate any personal, systemic or logical barriers to becoming fully vaccinated.”

As of this week, 63 percent of the total vaccine-eligible population are fully vaccinated, with much lower vaccination rates among certain populations. With the rampant spread of the more transmissible Delta variant, cases, hospitalizations and deaths are once again sharply rising, largely among unvaccinated people. With vaccines recently recommended for pregnant women and expected to be approved in the coming few months for children under age 12, and with booster shots expected to be available this fall, there is increasing vaccine availability, which will be instrumental in reversing the spikes in infection. Facilitating confidence in and uptake of the vaccines is still crucial, as is eliminating barriers to access.

Vaccine confidence is a complex construct that involves a variety of personal factors such as religious beliefs, political beliefs, perceptions of the government, perceptions of science, individual and/or community experiences with health providers and/or systems, language and/or literacy, and/or immigration/refugee status.  As is seen in health and public health initiatives generally, there are also systemic and logistical factors such as transportation, childcare, and mis/disinformation. With their distinctive “person in the environment” framework, social workers possess highly relevant expertise in helping facilitate health decision making in this context.

The one-year project will include a comprehensive education campaign for social workers on COVID-19 vaccine safety and effectiveness, barriers to vaccination (e.g., mis/disinformation, logistical challenges, psychological, etc.), and the role of social workers in promoting vaccination. The initiative will also include trainings for social workers on facts and myths about the vaccines as well as training in Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT), Motivational Interviewing (MI), and other evidence-based, culturally competent, public health- and social work-informed methods for helping clients to process health-related decisions and choices. Through reflective listening and other strategies, versus traditional advice-giving approaches, these methods support and honor the client’s capacity and right to make choices about their health, while centering science-based and accurate information.

HBRT will collaborate with Michigan State University to develop a smartphone mobile application for social workers. The mobile app, which will supplement training, will support social workers by providing them readily accessible vaccine information, motivational interviewing  strategies, screening questions and  brief interventions, and effective vaccine messaging for real-time support. HBRT will also collaborate with NORC at the University of Chicago to assist in developing messaging and in evaluation efforts.

NASW’s 55 state/territorial chapters and specialty social work associations will also be engaged in the initiative.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), in Washington, DC, is the largest membership organization of professional social workers. It promotes, develops, and protects the practice of social work and social workers. NASW also seeks to enhance the well-being of individuals, families, and communities through its advocacy.

How Social Workers and Mental Health Providers Can Help Clients Adjust to the Pandemic

Over the last year and a half, there has been no shortage of media coverage about the mental health implications of the pandemic. Generally, these articles fell into one of two broad categories: those which warned of an impending large-scale mental health crisis and those which sought to help the public cope with whatever they were going through during the heart of the pandemic be it the loss of a job, a loved one, or simply cherished routines. Now, we seem to find ourselves in an in-between moment. While the pandemic is certainly not over, and we are seeing surges of the Delta variant in areas throughout the country, those who are vaccinated and not immunocompromised may have already returned to varying degrees of their pre-pandemic lifestyles.

As people have done so, however, they may have noticed a sense that all was still not well with themselves. Since the most urgent task for many of them in the earlier parts of the pandemic was simply to keep their heads above water, it’s normal and to be expected that they would only now be noticing certain mental health symptoms such as lingering anxiety, depression, burnout, or physical symptoms resulting from chronic stress. Meanwhile, from the mental health providers’ perspective, we seem to have arrived at a point in which there is a collective sense of, “What now?

A Period of Psychological Adjustment

One of the challenges that people commonly face in the wake of a disaster or traumatic event is adjustment. This isn’t the kind of practical adjustments made in the early stages of the pandemic—such as working remotely or having to accommodate for children being at home—but rather psychological adjustment. After a disaster, people feel confused, displaced (physically, emotionally, or both), have a hard time making sense of things, finding purpose, or just generally feeling like something is “off.” In fact, “Something just feels a bit off,” is a common way that people tend to characterize what they are feeling after a disaster. In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, people’s confusion may be amplified by the lack of situational clarity: Are we still in the disaster? Are we out of it? Something in-between?

Helping clients through this period of vagueness, confusion, and adjustment is, and will be, one of the key tasks of social workers, therapists, and mental health providers right now and in the months ahead.

Being Direct to Assess People’s Needs   

While it’s safe to say that most people, if not everyone, maybe feeling a bit “off,” we also don’t want to make the mistake of assuming that everyone has had a similar experience or is currently in the same place. Because of this, social workers and mental health care providers will want to systematically assess the particular needs of new clients seeking services, of which there has been a significant increase in recent months. This may be particularly important for clients from communities of color since their experiences are going to be magnified due to the various disparities in how their communities have experienced the pandemic.

There are different ways that mental health professionals can go about this. It could be incorporated into the standard questionnaires and self-assessments that are typically used to assess the needs of new clients. Or, perhaps, some professionals may prefer a more direct and personal method by asking targeted yet open-ended questions as part of the initial rapport-building with clients. For instance, during a first session, a social worker or therapist can ask, “This has been a very strange, difficult year for many people. What might be contributing to your added stress levels, currently?”

This is one of the most important components of doing trauma work, which is unless you ask specifically, it can take a very long time until you get around to why a client has come into your office, or until they’re able to make the connections of what’s really causing all the problems. While typically this is allowed to gradually unfold over several sessions, now may be a time when it’s useful, or even necessary, to begin with new clients in a more direct way.

Incorporating a Disaster Crisis Counseling Model

Another reason why it may be useful to be direct right now, and to help clients address their most immediate problems, is that social workers and mental health providers may only be able to see new clients for one, two, or just a few sessions. While greater numbers of people are seeking mental health services, many of them may not be ready or able, for various possible reasons, to delve into deeper or preexisting mental health issues. While the hope is always to be able to do that, after disasters it’s common for people to seek just one or two sessions. Fortunately, even these limited sessions can be helpful when clients are given specific and concrete tools—for example, the six Skills for Psychological Recovery (SPR).

Mental health providers may therefore find themselves, in many cases, having to adhere closer to a disaster crisis counseling model, rather than a long-term therapy. In this scenario, the best way to help clients is to provide them with positive coping methods and strategies that can be immediately applied, especially since many of them may have come to rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms throughout the pandemic. For mental health professionals who haven’t been trained in disaster response, it will almost undoubtedly be useful to look up disaster response methods and incorporate them if possible since they may be what many of their clients need most right now.

The aforementioned lack of situational clarity regarding the ongoing nature of the pandemic, and the global scope of it, may preclude the kind of organized mental health outreach efforts we saw after localized disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill which have been found to be effective. In the current absence of such programs, we will likely continue to see more people seek out mental health services on their own. By keeping in mind the principles covered in this article, and by being flexible with the way we might normally prefer to work with new clients in non-pandemic times, social workers, therapists, and mental health providers will be able to help their clients in the ways that they need it most during this period of psychological adjustment.

Drinking Increased During the Pandemic. What Happens Now?

During the pandemic, many people turned to alcohol as a release valve. Indeed, drinking — including day drinking and overdrinking — became somewhat of a punchline, not to mention a social norm. Think about how many times the media recommended Zoom cocktail hours as a way to connect.

In such an alcohol-friendly environment, it’s no surprise that 60% of adults in a recent research study admitted to an increase in alcohol consumption during COVID-19. What’s more, 23% of people attribute their heightened alcohol intake to stress, according to the American Psychological Association.

With numbers like this, the only real winners are beer, wine, and liquor makers and distributors. It’s time we begin to address the overconsumption of alcohol, on a societal and personal level.

Addressing Overconsumption of Alcohol

This ramped-up alcohol intake isn’t just a short-term concern. It’s worrisome for the long haul, too, if it becomes the new normal. Overdrinking has been shown to harm people’s mental, physical, and even social well-being. When it comes to physical health, you’re probably familiar with the risk alcohol poses to the liver, but did you know that alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of cancer (behind only tobacco and obesity)?

With overdrinking, it’s a time for empathy, not shaming. This past year and a half should highlight just how easy it is to slip into unhealthy habits and how difficult it can be to regain your footing afterward. After all, increased alcohol intake wasn’t the only concern during the pandemic. Many individuals struggled with weight gaininsomnia, and screen time, just to name a few areas of concern.

Whether it’s stress eating or doomscrolling, most people are struggling with moderation in one way or another. As more normal life returns, the nation faces a once-in-a-generation liminal moment that a recent Harvard Business Review article described as “an ‘in-between’ time, when perspectives shift, old certainties are challenged, and new ideas emerge.” This moment provides an opportunity to fundamentally change behavior and social norms.

The key to helping others overcome their unhealthy habits is to approach them with empathy and support, not judgment. Certainly, alcohol use disorder is a disease that may require treatment. But can you encourage anyone you know to take stock of their relationship with alcohol and consider whether they would benefit from leveling off their drinking?

Instead of demonizing all alcohol intake — an approach that is likely to be a conversation stopper — you can encourage those who drink to rethink their behavior and attitudes around alcohol. This approach requires more careful communication and messaging, but it can start a productive discussion.

In the same way, social norms have changed regarding smoking, attitudes about drinking can also change. Subtly shifting social norms could lead to more (or less) drinking over time with huge implications for Americans’ health. However, the key is providing a supportive environment with the resources necessary to help anyone who may be struggling with the overconsumption of alcohol.

How to Encourage Healthier Habits Around Drinking

Overconsumption of alcohol can be a life-threatening problem, but that doesn’t mean that anyone should get preachy about what’s best for other people. Instead, you can help others evaluate their relationship with drinking and whether they want to adjust their habits. Here are three ways to be supportive:

1. Ask more questions.

Why are people drinking more? Is it stress? Social expectations? Boredom? There are a lot of reasons people can overindulge, but you won’t know what they are until you start asking. Don’t worry: You don’t have to get confrontational. Instead, you can ask simple questions about habits. Where do they tend to drink? How much have they had in the past week? What other ways do they address boredom or stress besides drinking? These questions can serve as prompts to help people decide the implications for themselves.

2. Make people aware of the support that’s available.

One silver lining of the pandemic has been the number of telehealth services and virtual support groups that have sprung up. Although the original goal was to help people stay healthy while adhering to quarantine and social distancing restrictions, these convenient resources are here to stay. Anyone who needs a little extra help sticking with a new habit just needs a phone or computer.

Moderation Management, for example, is an online community that offers peer accountability and support through virtual meetings and forums. There’s also Cutback Coach, an app that helps users track their drinking habits and set regular goals for themselves. Both of these options are easy to access and use, which can make a big difference for people who need help doing something hard.

3. Encourage people to consider what the experts have to say.

Federal public health experts recommend no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. However, many scientists are now saying that one drink per day is enough.

Attempts at humor about portion size aren’t helpful. A full bottle of wine is not considered a single drink, even if you can fit it into a novelty glass. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides guidelines regarding what constitutes one drink. This can be a useful guide or reminder for people who might not realize that they’re drinking more than they should. That generous pour of wine or liquor or the high-alcohol IPA is not considered only one drink.

As the world moves into the post-pandemic era, it will be important to have candid, compassionate conversations about the ways people can live healthier, happier lives. When it comes to drinking, this means changing social norms to encourage moderation instead of normalizing the problem with memes about drinking too much. By working together, we can usher in a future without alcohol reliance or addiction.

Note: SAMHSA’s National Helpline 1-800-662-HELP (4357) is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.

Distance Learning with Multiple Children

Distance learning is tedious. Between the emails, Zoom meetings, various portals teachers utilize, and the individual workload of every class, juggling at-home learning during the new “virtual school day” can be a tall order for both children and parents. Even more difficult, though, is maintaining this juggling act when there is more than one school-aged child in the home. This is new territory for everyone. To ease the stress and confusion, we’ve compiled suggestions and strategies to assist families who are learning at home with multiple school-aged children.

Designated work areas

One major hurdle when it comes to remote teaching and learning is organization. It should come as no shock that organizing a learning space is paramount to ensuring continuity of learning now that the usual classroom routines and structures have been discarded. Students need to have a designated quiet place to focus, read, correspond, and create. Many families are struggling to enable children to focus on their remote classwork simply because the environment is not conducive for concentration. While the kitchen counter or a child’s bedroom may have previously been the homework area of choice, times have certainly changed—we’re no longer talking about rushed homework tasks in between soccer practice and dinner time.

If teachers and parents expect children to sit and focus for an extended amount of time, they need to provide a comfortable space, free of distractions. When siblings are working in close proximity, complications are bound to emerge. Therefore, it is important that each child has his or her own private workspace, equipped with comfortable seating, a laptop or other device, necessary school materials, and some form of desk or surface on which to work. If space is an issue, parents should consider lap desks as an alternative to bulky furniture desks.

Headphones 

Headphones are a true lifesaver when it comes to remote learning. Since many teachers are utilizing Zoom calls and other video tools to conduct teaching and learning, students would benefit from noise-canceling headphones that allow them to focus solely on the instruction. Headphones also spare other house members the headache of trying to block out the instructional videos and video chats.

Individual check-in times

Many parents are finding that, on top of their own jobs working from home, they have now suddenly become homeschool teachers of multiple grade levels and content areas. To avoid being stretched too thin, parents should consider designating certain times of the day for each child to check-in, seek help, review work, etc. Limit this form of “parental assistance” to a half-hour per child if possible. If parents find that a child needs more support, they should communicate with the school and specific teachers about classes and assignments that are becoming unmanageable. To stick to the 30-minute check-in period, encourage children to jot down their necessary questions ahead of time and to come prepared to articulate where and how they need assistance. Set a timer so that children know they are “on the clock” for their specified time. Whatever questions or issues that they are still experiencing after their time has expired should be directed to their teacher.

Coordinate brain breaks and snack times

With multiple kids in the house, coordination is key to productive distance learning. Depending on each child’s age and learning needs, siblings may need more or less time for movement, screen-free learning, “brain breaks,” etc. As much as possible, try to establish universal times throughout the day when children break from learning to keep motivation, focus, and energy levels up and running.

It is important to move, converse, socialize, play, and create throughout the day to interrupt the monotony of virtual learning; however, if one child is playing outside while the other is concentrating on schoolwork, parents may want to rethink the learning schedule. Allowing simultaneous break times ensures that kids aren’t being distracted by siblings during work sessions. There is no jealousy or “unfairness” factor if siblings are getting a break at the same time. Be consistent with breaks as much as possible; use a timer if necessary to set limits for learning versus playing.

Remind, Reassure, Reset

Regardless of how academically inclined they have felt in past school years, children are struggling right now. Learning is always hard. However, virtual learning brings its own challenges on top of that. Social media is helping to shed light on the issues that virtual learning is causing in homes across the country, with numerous videos demonstrating just how emotionally taxing this “new normal” has become.

However, kids need to know that this isn’t normal. Elementary-aged kids sitting in front of computer screens all day isn’t normal. Missing “school” due to connectivity issues isn’t normal. Clicking a button to virtually raise your hand isn’t normal. Having to rejoin class multiple times each day because of platform glitches isn’t normal. Most importantly, none of this is their fault. Yet, these children are becoming more and more defeated every day. Parents can use the “Remind, Reassure, and Reset” strategy to help combat this.

Remind

  • Remind your child that many, many aspects of virtual learning will be inherently beyond their control. These little beings are not tech wizards, and they shouldn’t be made to feel incompetent because of this.
  • Remind your child that handling error messages, blank downloads, broken links, etc., is not their responsibility as a young learner.
  • Remind your child that every other student is also struggling. Their peers may be more comfortable with certain aspects of virtual learning; it may come more naturally to others. However, no one is innately equipped to thrive in this virtual world—it takes time.
  • Remind your child that the teachers are new to this, too. Their teachers would love to be back in the classroom interacting and exploring with them. They, too, are frustrated with the technology and expectations put on them.

Reassure

  • Reassure your child that it will not always be like this—learning will return to normal. They will rejoin the brick and mortar classrooms and have a greater appreciation for in-person schooling than ever!
  • Reassure them that their teachers are on their side—that they are always rooting for student success and trying to shoulder the technology burdens whenever possible.
  • Reassure children that all of these challenges, while insanely frustrating, are helping them to become resilient. That with each unique difficulty, they’re learning patience, problem-solving skills, grit/determination, creativity, and responsibility.

Reset

    • Close the computer
    • Eat a snack
    • Run around the block
    • Jump on the trampoline (even a mini trampoline inside)
    • Juggle a soccer ball’
    • Color in a coloring book
    • Snuggle with the family pet
    • Stretch on the floor
    • Blast some music for an out-of-control dance party—whatever you need to do to encourage a “mindset reset” when the tears start flowing.

Reset the vibe in the room when things get emotional. It is okay (and often necessary!) to take a break and step away from the screen! Help your child reset when emotions run high. Reset the negative self-talk. If you hear your child verbally beating themselves up over perceived shortcomings with virtual learning—don’t let it go unnoticed. Help them reset by reminding them of all their strengths and talents. Tell them explicitly that any new difficulty or misstep does not negate these strengths and prior successes.

From Homelessness to Giving Back – A Student’s Journey

On August 12, 2020, Gordon Wayne began a 16 day, 550-mile trek from Virginia to Boston College, all on foot. At first glance, Gordon may appear to be an average, middle-class college student. However, last year, Gordon was facing very different circumstances. Despite working extremely long hours and attending community college, Gordon was experiencing homelessness. With his car as his only means of shelter, Gordon applied to Boston College and was accepted with a full financial aid package which included housing. Months after, during a pandemic that caused a rise in foreclosure and evictions, Gordon took to the streets – literally – to create awareness and raise money for homelessness.

Gordon is far from alone in his experience of homeless – in Virginia alone, there are almost 6,000 people experiencing homelessness every night. Throughout the United States, the number increases to over 550,000, with about 68,000 of those individuals being college students. In fact, a recent study showed that 60% of college students had experienced food insecurity or housing insecurity within the last 30 days. The current COVID-19 pandemic has put an increased strain on the available resources for students who were already struggling. The time spent residing on campus during the semester was often a safe space for these students, who may now have to find alternate arrangements.

With many colleges now going remote, some students are left with no place to go to finish their semester. Some schools regularly have programs to address homelessness among students; for example, Kennesaw State University’s Campus Awareness, Resource & Empowerment (CARE) Services is a program that offers assistance with housing, food insecurity, and supportive services. A growing number of schools host campus food pantries, which have grown in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. While other schools may not have ongoing dedicated programs like KSU, many are able to provide guidance to students about local resources.

Depending on the area they live in, people experiencing homelessness can face harsh weather conditions if they are unsheltered and struggle to access basic necessities like food, water, and bathrooms. Without access to bathrooms or similar facilities, it can be near-impossible to maintain a socially acceptable presence, making it even harder to find a job. On top of all of this, many people experiencing homelessness encounter high levels of violence and do not have access to adequate healthcare. The inability to access healthcare can leave many physical and mental problems untreated.

One of the most effective programs to reduce homelessness is the federal housing assistance program. While it can take time to access due to waiting lists, this is a stable solution to housing insecurity. Recent years have seen a push for a new approach using the Housing First model. Housing First means that while housing is the top priority, services are available to help in other aspects of life as well, while taking the whole person into account. Housing First takes away many of the traditional barriers to accessing housing and offers it to those who want it, not just those who have proven they are “ready” for housing by maintaining sobriety or meeting other prerequisites.

Gordon’s journey was an incredible display of both human resilience and generosity. A few strangers brought Gordon supplies during his walk and even more donated to his fundraising site. Since starting his walk, Gordon has raised over $160,000 to benefit the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

https://twitter.com/Time4Homes/status/1325801599793500167

This year, the week of November 15-22 was National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. Every year the National Coalition for the Homeless works with the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness to raise money and awareness for individuals struggling with food and housing insecurity. To make a contribution to National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, click here. For those in need of assistance with food, here is a list of food pantries.

With winter approaching and many unknowns still surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the stressors each individual is facing are constantly changing. Until December 31, 2020, there is a national eviction moratorium, meaning you cannot be evicted from your apartment due to the nonpayment of rent or fees. In order to be protected under this moratorium, you must submit a form to your landlord. If you are in need of help with rent, there are COVID-19 rental assistance programs throughout the country. You can also find local resources by calling 211 or visiting the 211 website here.

What Options Do Furloughed Workers Have?

The rapid spread of COVID-19 across the United States caused a serious disruption in the daily lives of most American workers. Although many people are able to work from home, or are still working under “essential employee” status, others have been laid off or furloughed. 

The Healthcare Sector

In the healthcare industry, doctors and nurses, radiologists and anesthesiologists, receptionists, and other healthcare staff are facing furloughs in the millions. As the rise of COVID-19 leads to the restriction of all unnecessary or elective procedures, private doctors’ offices, and specialty clinics such as endoscopy centers, plastic surgery facilities, and out-patient/day surgery centers are out of work across the country. 

In fact, reports this past April cited that nearly 1.9 million Americans were employed at family medicine offices which closed because of the virus. While doctors may still be able to “see” patients through teledoc-type systems, many of the nurses, medical assistants, receptionists, and janitorial staff have either been laid off, are experiencing severely reduced hours, or have been furloughed.

A furlough means workers are suspended without pay but, typically, they do still receive health benefits and are eligible for re-hire once the company reopens. In fact, government workers still retain employment rights that prevent them from being fired during a furlough without the typical process. As helpful as these benefits are, furloughed employees still need a source of income while waiting for the virus to run its course. There is an abundance of uncertainty surrounding how quickly businesses will re-open and when they will get back to full capacity.

Other Employment

While some businesses are shuttered, others may be hiring. In most cases, if a furloughed worker is interested in doing so, they are free to seek other employment. Similar to seeking employment while working, the employer cannot retaliate against an employee for finding another job while they are on furlough. This can be full-time, part-time, permanent, seasonal, or temporary work. 

If a furloughed employee does not want to find another job permanently, they usually have the option of seeking other employment during the length of the furlough. However, employers are able to create policies against furloughed workers having simultaneous employment during the furlough in situations where it may jeopardize the safety and security of the company. This can include trade secrets, protected company information, customer/client sources, and other company property. Employees should check with their individual employers to discuss their options of seeking short term employment until the company is able to bring them back on board. 

Unfortunately, many of the frontline healthcare workers who were battling the virus every day have been furloughed and quarantined due to exposure to, or worse, contraction of the virus. Hundreds of healthcare workers, especially those in states significantly impacted by the virus, have been infected, and countless more have gotten sick in states which have not kept track of their case count. If a healthcare worker is unable to work, unable to seek other employment, and unable to seek temporary employment, what can they do? 

Unemployment Benefits

Thankfully, most furloughed employees are able to receive unemployment benefits. Employees must be careful about unemployment because if upon returning to work, they get back-pay from their employer, the employee will have to repay any benefits they received. However, with new, federal, temporary rules set in place to combat the financial consequences of the virus, many furloughed workers can find help. In addition to receiving $600 each week on top of the state’s maximum amount until July 31st, applicants will also be able to receive benefits for two or three times longer than normal. Also, contractors and self-employed individuals are now eligible for benefits. The waiting period to apply for benefits, the regular check-ins, and the ongoing job search requirements have been waived. With a record 6.6 million Americans filing for unemployment in April and rates still disproportionately high now, this relief couldn’t come soon enough.  

Answering the Call

With COVID-19 still going strong, these furloughed healthcare workers have answered the call to help. In New York, a cry for help yielded over 80,000 healthcare volunteers to relieve those nurses and medical staff run ragged in New York hospitals. With the number of COVID cases rising nationwide, the more doctors there are, the more people treated and, hopefully, the more who recover. 

Many states are loosening licensing requirements in order to meet demand. A simple Google search will lead you to page after page of hospitals asking for volunteers to help with the crisis. Doctors, nurses, and other frontline workers are coming out of retirement to help. Nurses are relocating to other states to provide assistance. Doctors, unable to practice as they regularly would due to the shutdowns, are going back to the basics to help treat the virus.

For those with experience outside of the healthcare industry, there are still many companies that are hiring during the pandemic. All essential companies, including grocery stores, gas stations, many retail stores, and restaurants may have reduced hours in some locations but are “business as usual” otherwise. Companies like 7-Eleven, ACE Hardware, CVS Pharmacy, Dominos, and UPS, to name a few, are experienced a rise in demand due to the virus and are hiring at various locations.

Companies with remote positions are also hiring. This includes positions in the technology field, social media forums, and tech support positions for internet and cable companies. The virtual meeting platform Zoom is experiencing much higher demand since the shutdowns began and is looking for employees, as are internet/television companies like Spectrum. 

Every American has been affected by the spread of COVID-19, in one aspect or another. Whether struggling with the insanity of working a healthcare or retail job, the nuances of working from home, or the financial consequences of a layoff or furlough, most of us are eagerly awaiting the day society returns to normalcy. For those who have been furloughed, the situation is all the more difficult to navigate. Whether you choose to seek new or temporary employment with one of the companies that are still hiring or you decide to take advantage of the current assistance available through unemployment, there is help available. 

Americans are Voting Early and Making Plans to Ensure Their Vote Counts

The first of three presidential debates touched on many hot topics, with President Donald Trump and presidential candidate Joe Biden having an impassioned debate over the integrity of the 2020 election. While President Trump has been very vocal in the past about voter fraud, he claimed that mail-in voting fraud is a particular concern this year. In addition to voter fraud, Trump also claimed that mail-in ballots are being thrown out and that the number of mail-in ballots will overload the systems currently in place for receiving and counting votes.

With the current COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 75% of voters have the ability to vote by mail for the upcoming general election. During the debate, as well as on twitter, Trump said that there are 80 million mail-in ballots being sent to people who did not request them and declared it “unfair” and “total fraud.” While a few states do automatically send out mail-in ballots to voters, there is no way that this would add up to the proclaimed 80 million ballots. The accusation of fraud by mail-in has been shown to be unfounded, and The Brennan Center for Justice has put together a compilation of independent and government research that shows that voter fraud is rare. How rare? Between 0.0003% and 0.0025% of votes in various past elections. In fact, from 2000 to 2012, there were only 2,068 cases of voter fraud, with only 24% of those being related to mail-in ballots. Despite his concerns, Trump has cast his vote by mail-in ballot in the past.

During the debate over the integrity of this year’s election, presidential candidate Joe Biden cited the FBI, whose director has said that there has been no evidence of any type of coordinated voter fraud. Biden said that mail-in ballots are necessary this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and reaffirmed the idea that they are safe and secure. Biden noted that people can still vote in person, and urged the people watching to make sure they do vote this year. He also brought up the fact that the military has been using mail-in ballots since the Civil War.

While mail-in voting has had a strong and lengthy history in the U.S. for military members, the process works a bit differently for the general population. All states routinely offer absentee ballots, often used by college students, military members, and others who are not able to visit their polling location on election day. Due to COVID-19, more than 30 states have allowed residents to request absentee mail-in ballots without a specific reason. There are also five states (Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, and Hawaii) that have been regularly using all mail-in voting without issue.

This year, many people are not comfortable voting in person, with some studies showing that almost 50% of people are uncomfortable with the idea. This is to be expected due to the ongoing fluctuation of COVID-19 cases throughout the country. Another unique challenge that is impacting the voters of the US this year is the ongoing conflict between Trump and the USPS. Trump has admitted to blocking funding that the USPS needs to maintain its operations, and has mentioned “fraudulent” mail-in voting as part of his reasoning. People residing in states that are allowing absentee ballots due to COVID-19 are encouraged to request and return their mail-in ballots as early as they can.

On top of the barriers caused by Trump’s interference, many states have strict voter ID laws, registration rules, and few physical polling locations. Voter ID laws negatively impact already marginalized groups of people, including people of color, low-income individuals, and young people. Without an ID, you cannot vote, but many people do not have the time, resources, or funds to acquire a state-issued ID. In recent years, various southern states have closed a combined total of over 1,200 polling locations, further adding to the barriers citizens face when trying to cast their votes. The closed polling locations have predominantly impacted people of color and people living in low-income communities, which have seen the most polling location closures.

Mail-in voting can be beneficial for those who have seen their previous polling locations close, as well as people who may experience challenges voting in person. Although polling places are supposed to follow the guidelines set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), approximately 60% of polling places were inaccessible for people with various disabilities in past elections. People living with certain disabilities are also at higher risk for serious complications if they contract COVID-19. For these reasons, mail-in voting is an important tool that Americans living with disabilities need access to this year.

Mail-in ballots have been a part of voting in the U.S. since the 1800s, and they will continue to be an integral part of the election system for the foreseeable future. With more states moving towards all-mail voting systems, the evidence is clear – mail-in voting is safe and it works. Remember, over 30 states have allowed their residents to request absentee ballots without a reason, making it easier than ever to vote in the 2020 presidential election. You can visit vote.gov and select your state to find out how to register to vote and check your voter status.

Make sure you check out your state’s specific voting page for accurate information on voting by mail, as it varies from state to state. If you live in a state that is not allowing you to vote by mail in this election, this website can tell you if your state requires your employer to give you time off to go vote in person. To make sure you have all the resources to vote, Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Janelle Monae, Chris Paul, Faith Hill, and Tim McGraw created When We All Vote, which offers a Voter Resources Hub full of information specific to where you live. Knowledge is power, and this year, more than ever, it is important to know your voting rights and make sure your voice is heard in the 2020 election.

Protecting Children from Harm in the Context of Distance Learning

The nation saw an uptick in domestic violence calls in the midst of the pandemic and the shutdown. The convergence of social isolation, economic pressure, and psychological stress created favorable conditions for abuse to occur. Adults are not the only victims of abuse in the home. Children, too, are vulnerable. History shows that violence against children and child exploitation intensify under conditions of isolation and economic pressure. While the pandemic may be temporary, child abuse often has long-term consequences.

School systems play a vital role in intervening in the lives of vulnerable children. In fact, schools make 21% of the reports to child protective services according to The Washington Post. When COVID-19 forced the schools to close, states saw a drastic drop in the number of children being referred to CPS. Unfortunately, this reduction did not mean that the incidence of abuse decreased. Indeed, as reports to CPS dropped, ER doctors saw a rise in more severe cases of abuse. Child abuse not only persisted, but it went unchecked during the shutdown. Without school personnel, community workers, medical and dental personnel, and other mandated reporters, there was no watchdog to report the abuse until children sustained injuries severe enough to warrant medical attention.

Clearly, schools serve a vital function in protecting children from harm. Now more than ever, they need to be alert and responsive to abuse as children return to school virtually. Distance learning presents unique opportunities and challenges that should be addressed proactively. Social workers can and should play a leadership role in adapting child welfare protocols for distance learning and retraining school personnel to identify and report suspicions of child abuse and neglect. This article outlines a proposed curriculum for child abuse and neglect reporting in the context of distance learning.

School personnel should be well-equipped to spot signs of child abuse and neglect in the context of distance learning. Asynchronous instruction affords teachers a glimpse into students’ homes. In addition to any disclosures of abuse, teachers should be especially attentive to:

  • Verbal threats of harm, hidden, unexplained, suspicious, and/or repeated injuries
  • Suicidal ideation in students
  • Sexually inappropriate behaviors or images
  • Weariness when an adult is present or approaches the student
  • Excessive dirtiness or lack of proper hygiene in the home or the student
  • Illegal substances or evidence of impairment in the caregiver
  • Evidence of malnourishment in the student

School staff should also note that it is illegal under most state laws for children to be home alone unless they have demonstrated sufficient maturity, and there are safety structures in place. Young children should not be home alone. Furthermore, children with a record of behavior or emotional problems (e.g. frequent suspensions) should not be in the home unattended. Children who are able to be home alone should be able to access safe adults in case of an emergency, and there should not be hazardous conditions or items present. Children who can take care of themselves may not be mature enough or capable of taking care of younger children. School staff members play a critical role in monitoring these conditions. Clear steps should be outlined for reporting any safety concerns or suspicions in a timely and accurate manner to school personnel (e.g. principal, guidance counselor) and child protective services.

Because teachers will be exposed to the live conditions of the home, they have to be prepared to respond to crisis situations. Crisis management in the context of distance learning is different from that in more traditional settings because the staff person is physically distant from the student, and there may not be another adult present with the child for reinforcement. As a result, they are at a disadvantage in terms of their ability to intervene.

Still, there are measures staff can take to manage the crisis from afar. In the event of an imminent threat to the safety of a student, staff can adapt telehealth protocols such as:

(1) call local 911/EMS while maintaining contact with the student

(2) identify bystanders who may be able to assist by providing information, monitoring the student, and/or intervening, as appropriate

(3) obtain the student’s physical location, an alternate contact in case of a disconnection or other technical issue, and contact information for the student’s caregiver

(4) while maintaining contact with the student, contact the caregiver to advise him/her of the situation

School personnel has an important responsibility in monitoring student attendance. Countless children can be lost to human trafficking and exploitation if schools falter in this duty. As such, the onus is on the schools to locate children who do not report for school. Students should be expected, at a minimum, to check in occasionally so that school personnel can check on their well-being.

Finally, school administrators should be cognizant of the increased risk of exploitation by school staff when supervision and monitoring are lacking. Clear codes of conduct should be put in place or adapted to guide online interactions between students and school staff. Outside meetups should be prohibited unless they occur at school during school hours with proper supervision. Administrators should ‘‘float’’ from class to class to monitor interactions and conduct in the virtual classrooms. Caregivers should also be encouraged to monitor online learning. An adult should be present at all times during synchronous sessions to supervise and provide support.

Schools play a critical role in protecting our most vulnerable population. Critical attention should be given to adapting child welfare protocols for distance learning so that school personnel can make the necessary efforts to be effective in this capacity under these unprecedented conditions. Social workers should proactively address this issue and retrain school staff in child welfare protocols.

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