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Already vulnerable groups even more at-risk during COVID-19 pandemic, Maine CDC says

People experiencing homelessness and food insecurity, as well as 'New Mainers,' have been hit hardest by coronavirus.

MAINE, USA — As Mainers everywhere struggle with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, already vulnerable residents of the state are being hit particularly hard.

People experiencing homelessness or food insecurity, as well as those new to the state who may not speak English, are most at risk of doing without, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control. 

Kristine Jenkins is the Maine CDC's public health liaison for Cumberland County.

"It’s a challenging situation for everyone but we’re definitely seeing that people who were already having a hard time, they’re going to be having a worse time," Jenkins said.

Jenkins works with community partners including hospitals, local government, and other organizations on outreach and education.

Jenkins works with people at the greatest risk – particularly during the coronavirus pandemic – including people experiencing homelessness and people who are new to Maine and may not speak English as their native language.

So-called "New Mainers" may struggle with simply getting accurate information about the virus, she said. 

"It’s so important to get information on how to keep yourself healthy, how to protect your family, your community members, and if you are not a native English speaker, that can be really challenging just to understand what’s happening."

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Jenkins meets weekly with community partners to discuss how to meet various needs. She participates in a weekly call with immigrant religious leaders that is organized by the state refugee health coordinator at Catholic Charities of Maine.

Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah and other staff have met with immigrant community leaders to ensure they got the most current guidance, answers to their questions, and were able to return to their communities with the information they needed.

More recently the numbers of Mainers without enough to eat are increasing rapidly, as people continue to stay home and businesses are closed.

"Those numbers are growing," Jenkins said. "Because the businesses are having to be closed, a lot of people are cut off from their income, especially in the service industry and so I think that that’s one area that I know that we’re very concerned about here in Cumberland County … More people now are accessing our food security partners – the pantries and the food banks – than before, and we’re expecting that to increase.”

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So Jenkins speaks weekly with Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine, Wayside Food Program, the Cumberland County Food Security Council and many local food pantries, which she calls “the backbone” of food security.

That backbone is bending under the strain of the sudden need, Jenkins said. Many longtime volunteers are older and at high-risk themselves, so they must stay at home. Many pantries have had to shift models and adjust to delivering food or curbside pick-up.

Perhaps the greatest strain of all for the pantries is a lack of funds.

"They need money," Jenkins said. "As everybody’s going to the store and shopping and making sure that they have enough at their home and stocking up on things, the food pantries and the food banks are getting fewer donations than they were before and so they’re also having to spend a lot more money that they weren’t intending to spend to bolster their own stocks and make sure that they can feed people.

Jenkins said many partners in Cumberland County and elsewhere are working together to minimize the risk for already high-risk groups.

"I think we’re right in the thick of it, but people are finding very innovative ways to help their neighbors and to get food, to make food available to community members," she said.

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Another important way people with extra time at home can help those at risk is to volunteer. Opportunities are available by calling 211 or visiting the Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine, the Wayside Food Program or the Cumberland County Food Security Council website.

VolunteerME, the website of United Way of Greater Portland, lists volunteer opportunities, as does MaineReady.

"If you’re really great at bookkeeping, it may be that’s exactly the skill your local food pantry needs," Jenkins said.

Most importantly, though, Jenkins said those people staying at home are helping most by doing just that.

"That is huge," she said. "Just keep washing your hands, maintaining your physical distance, wearing masks if you go outside if you can. All of those practices may not seem like a lot on an individual basis, but if you look at it across communities, it makes a huge impact and you’re really helping your older neighbor, you’re helping your neighbor who is experiencing homelessness, you’re helping your neighbor who is experiencing food insecurity, you’re protecting all of the vulnerable people in our community by that act of staying at home and being responsible in that way."

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