From left, Shaun St. Germain and Patrick Mendelsohn of the South Portland Fire Department and Kathryn Violette of the city’s COVID Team. The fire department and grant-funded COVID Team have been reaching out to homeless and transient populations to educate and provide assistance regarding COVID-19. John Pobrislo courtesy photo

SOUTH PORTLAND — Information and educational outreach is key in combating COVID-19, something the city’s COVID Team has succeeded in expanding throughout the Greater Portland area within a handful of months.

Consisting of four members, Joshua Pobrislo, local health officer; Shaun St. Germain, deputy local health officer; Clovis Lemba, deputy local health officer and minority population outreach specialist; and Kathryn Viollette, minority populations outreach specialist, the team is funded through the Keep Maine Healthy Grant, forming in July, said Pobrislo.

The COVID Team had a simple goal, to make sure that every individual in the city was as knowledgeable and safe as possible regarding the virus, Pobrislo said.

The South Portland COVID Team has been successful in reaching out to minority populations, including those who speak other languages, and provide education from the Maine CDC and governor’s executive orders. John Pobrislo photo

“I think it’s important to get the information about COVID from a credible source,” he said. “Our information is obtained from the Maine CDC, the (national) CDC, and the governor’s executive orders. That’s what we reiterate and regurgitate to the public. I also think that people need to be educated and informed so it reduces the fear component. The more you understand, the less the fear is. The more you understand, the more you know how to keep yourself safe without acting irrational.”

A release from Fire Department Information Officer Robb Couture commended the team.

“These individuals have done a phenomenal job over the past few months to educate and keep the public informed,” the release said. “(Pobrislo) his team have only been together for a matter of weeks, but have had a great impact in public outreach.”

Several efforts were combined to ensure that minority and immigrant populations, including those who may not speak English fluently, as well as homeless and transient populations understood Maine CDC and governor’s executive orders, Pobrislo said.

“We’ve created materials, informational brochures,” Pobrislo said. “They’re in a multitude of languages, and we’ve distributed them through means here locally and in Portland.”

Team member Lema was an invaluable asset in connecting with individuals who did not speak English as a first language, Pobrislo said.

“(He is) from the Congo and he speaks a multitude of languages, and he is a former physician,” he said. “He’s able to educate these populations in their own languages, which has not only an incredible comfort to them, but has demystified some of the irrational fears associated with COVID.”

The South Portland Fire Department has assisted the team with outreach, Pobrislo said.

“We have been doing outreach in conjunction with the fire department and some of the local hotels that are housing immigrant refugee and homeless populations right now,” he said. We did that bc we identified them as a high-risk population that is disproportionately affected by the infection mainly because of congregate settings and so forth.”

Informational COVID-19 brochures from the South Portland COVID Team are available in multiple languages. John Pobrislo photo

Backpacks with information and sanitization produces have been distributed to homeless and immigrant individuals, Pobrislo said. These materials are important in keeping people healthy.

The fire department has used the outreach as an opportunity to offer resources if individuals are looking for recovery help for substance misuse or “a kind ear,” he said. Minimal health screenings have also been available.

“We’ve placed reusable masks in (backpacks), hand sanitizer, baby wipes, things like that, and then also things to address overall health because we know if you’re malnourished or dehydrated or you’re cold, you’re more susceptible to getting sick, and if you’re sick, you’re far more susceptible to acquiring COVID and severe COVID symptoms,” Pobrislo said. “We’ve handed out winter gloves and knit hats and so forth.”

When doing initial evaluations, the team found that misinformation about the spread of the coronavirus disease was high in homeless populations, he said.

Checking that businesses are up to health and safety standards was another one of the team’s responsibilities, he said. The staff would investigate violation cases.

“Our objective is not to be punitive by any means but to educate,” Pobrislo said. “We work with the business owners on how to create the best practices and safe practices while following the governor’s executive orders and Maine CDC guidelines.”

Many businesses, including the Maine Mall, worked well with the team, he said. The food court section of the mall successfully separated guests ordering food, wearing masks, and customers eating at tables, without masks.

Unfortunately, the funding from the Keep Maine Healthy grant ends on Oct. 31, meaning the team will disband, Pobrislo said. This presents some room for worry about the future.

“That’s the really hard part for the folks we hired because it has been an incredible asset to this community in my belief,” he said. “I think the proof is in the pudding. If you ask a lot of populations, as diverse as they are in the city, what they know about COVID, they can tell you pretty much the exact same thing no matter which population you pool. That’s my fear is we’re going to lose that as more information comes out and the more we learn about the coronavirus or new things or vaccinations or whatever may be associated with this, that we might not be able to reach those populations as readily as we did.”

Pobrislo said that he hopes that public health becomes one of South Portland’s priorities, and an official public health board can form in order to address the pandemic and future health crises, should they occur.

Having a unified message and a small team of staff that worked quickly did much for the safety of individuals, he said.

“It was a very quick process,” he said. “It was tremendous teamwork with the folks we hired.”

Kathryn Viollette, staff member of the city’s COVID Team, used her backgroun in graphic design to create flyers and posters promoting COVID-19 safety. Courtesy photo John Pobrislo

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: