As the community outreach nurse for the Community Care-A-Van program, Tierra Hoard, BSN, RN, loves talking to people about their health. On a weekly basis, she drives to Milwaukee’s Washington Park neighborhood to provide preventive medical services, like blood pressure screenings and blood glucose checks. She gives local residents advice on preventing conditions like heart disease and stroke, and they keep her updated on their health journeys.
“We’re meeting the people where they are,” Tierra said.
Sponsored by the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network and the Milwaukee Bucks, the Community Care-A-Van is a community engagement initiative designed to bring health care resources and services to Milwaukee residents right in their community. The program launched in October 2019, and by early March 2020, the program had touched the lives of nearly 1,000 people.
The Care-A-Van was starting to make a name for itself around the Milwaukee area. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to Wisconsin.
The Pandemic’s Impact
Like the rest of the world, the Care-A-Van team was faced with an unprecedented challenge. For the safety of the people they served and themselves, they stopped their travels.
“At the time, I thought, ‘This is just going to be a couple of weeks of working from home. We’ll re-strategize and then we’ll be able to go back,’” Tierra said. “It started to get really serious when we noticed the mortality rate of COVID-19 just started to soar, especially in the inner city.”
According to data from Milwaukee County, by April 14, 2020, the mortality rate of COVID-19 patients in Milwaukee County reached 5.41%. The number of COVID-related deaths was doubling every nine days. The demographic with the highest number of COVID-19-related deaths and hospitalizations in the county was older African Americans. Many of the people Tierra served on a regular basis were the most vulnerable to COVID-19.
The Froedtert & MCW community engagement team prioritized finding ways to continue serving Milwaukee safely and helping prevent the spread of COVID-19. That meant keeping their partners updated with COVID-19 information and supplying them with hand sanitizer and appropriate PPE. Tierra spent months researching safety measures that would keep her and others safe in-person, including social distancing and temperature checks for anyone who visits.
Once precautions were in place, Tierra was able to bring the Care-A-Van back to one of their partner sites, United Methodist Children’s Services, in July. With so many canceled summer events, people were excited to get out of their homes and safely interact with others, and the Care-A-Van has since reached pre-COVID volumes of visitors. Tierra partly credits the traffic to her work attire, featuring a face mask, a face shield and gloves. “When people see me there with all my PPE on, that is a comfort to them,” she said.
Addressing COVID-19 Concerns in Milwaukee
Most services the Care-A-Van program provides now are focused on preventing the spread of COVID-19, especially by wearing effective face masks. Tierra created and started handing out CAV kits (short for Care-A-Van kits) that include a disposable mask, a cloth mask with cleaning instructions and hand sanitizer. It’s become one of the most popular services that the Care-A-Van provides – and one that’s still needed. “Even now as I go out to the community, I notice a lot of dirty masks or masks that have been worn several times on end,” she said.
Just as important are the intangible resources Tierra provides, namely, accurate information about COVID-19. Ever since the program restarted in-person services, residents have come to her with questions and concerns about the virus. Currently, the biggest concern among the communities the Care-A-Van serves is the COVID-19 vaccine.
“There’s a lot of mistrust, particularly in communities of color,” Tierra said. “There are so many examples of mistreatment of persons of color throughout of our nation’s history. It is understandable why there is hesitancy about a vaccine that to some may seem rushed.”
Misconceptions about the COVID-19 vaccine are widespread. Some of the most common concerns that Tierra hears are that the vaccine was developed too hastily, it alters your DNA and that it gives people the COVID-19 virus. When Tierra is faced with these concerns, she assures people of the proven facts and science behind the COVID-19 vaccine. For instance, even though the vaccine was produced in less than a year, the technology used to develop the vaccine was the result of 30 years of research.
She also uses her firsthand experience to address hesitancy. When she’s not working alongside the Care-A-Van, Tierra helps administer COVID-19 vaccines to frontline workers within the Froedtert & MCW health network. “It’s helpful to have someone who’s actually administering the vaccine to tell them what’s true and what isn’t,” she said. “It’s not going to change your DNA. It’s here to help you.”
The Froedtert & MCW health network is committed to addressing misinformation about getting the vaccine, as well. The vaccine is available at no cost to those who receive it, and no one who wants to receive the vaccine will need to provide their citizenship status to do so.
Tierra said her insights do bring comfort to some people, but she knows there will still be skepticism — and that’s okay. What matters is getting the correct information out there so that when people get the chance to receive the vaccine, they can make their decision fully informed.
“I firmly believe that with time, the fear and skepticism will start to dwindle as more people begin to speak out about their experiences getting the vaccine,” she said.
Creating a Healthier Milwaukee
The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone, whether they’ve contracted COVID-19 or not. Many people have put their care on hold in the last year, canceling doctor appointments and annual check-ups. Plus, the social isolation we’ve experienced while protecting our physical health can negatively impact mental health, leading to depression or anxiety.
Tierra emphasizes that even though we’re still in the midst of a pandemic, your personal health should not fall to the wayside. That starts by communicating with your primary care physician, whether that’s in-person, over the phone, via MyChart or through a virtual visit.
Adopting healthy habits now can go a long way in staying physically and mentally healthy, even once the pandemic subsides. Tierra often tells Care-A-Van visitors about the value of drinking water. One man who stops by the Care-A-Van regularly took that to heart, and he went from rarely drinking water to turning it into a daily habit. Tierra also recommends developing habits that keep you active, like doing online workouts at home or walking around the block.
“Empty cups can’t pour, so do something that fulfills you” Tierra said. “It’s important to take care of yourself, now more than ever.”