Covid-19 has adversely affected millions of Americans who needed help the most even before the pandemic, an impact that has been especially noticeable in the holiday season, according to a Brown School expert who has been tracking calls to 2-1-1 helplines around the nation.
“The normal seasonal spikes in calls for help with holiday meals from low-income families are much lower this year,” said Matthew Kreuter, the Kahn Family Professor of Public Health. “Part of that is that there aren’t as many providers who are offering meals. One of the sad realities behind these numbers is that there may be a lot fewer people able to have a Thanksgiving meal.”
2-1-1 is a free and confidential service that helps people find the local resources they need 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in most communities. A team led by Kreuter, the senior scientist at the Brown School’s Health Communication Research Laboratory, and Rachel Garg, a doctoral student in Public Health Sciences, has been tracking millions of 2-1-1 calls. To do that, they are using 2-1-1 Counts, a unique, daily tracking system that analyzes calls to helplines in 35 states and is updated daily with location-specific data.
When Covid-19 was declared a pandemic in March, the team began analyzing the impact on calls and created Focus-19, a website featuring reports on its findings. The team recently completed its 100th report on trends in calls for needs like food, utility payments, and housing from around the U.S. With a grant from Washington University’s Institute for Public Health, a new site, Focus-19 St. Louis, was created to report on regional trends in line with Washington University’s emphasis on research that benefits its local community. The team has been approached by three other states to produce similar reports for them.
At the end of each month, the team looks back and examines the biggest areas of growth in calls from the prior month. In September, requests for internet service jumped dramatically as schools reopened. “There was a lot of demand, particularly among low-income families,” Kreuter said. “The places where we see the largest increases in social needs requests are the counties that have the most Covid cases, or the highest rates of Covid. There’s a pretty clear connection to how Covid is affecting the social and economic situation of families. Housing, food and utilities continue to dominate the list.”
Kreuter said there has been a four-fold increase in the use of 2-1-1 Counts dashboards around the nation since the pandemic. “That is very encouraging,” he said. “It’s very clear that people are discovering this data source.” Local policies and conditions influence or reveal the demand for certain services, he said. “So when eviction bans start and stop, it really influences people’s requests for assistance.” In North Carolina, some of the first outbreaks were at meat-processing plants and 2-1-1 calls from the counties where those plants were located saw much greater increases in requests for help. That news from Focus-19 was the subject of a newspaper report and soon thereafter a local organization reached out to provide aid to the meatpacking workers.
“Calling attention to these issues is part of our aim, so resources can be allocated more efficiently to help,” Kreuter said. But limited funding has meant that most of the team’s effort is geared to analysis, with less effort at media outreach and follow-up to magnify the impact of the data. “All of our resources are going to generating the reports,” he said. “For full impact, they need to be seen by more people in more places.”
The Focus-19 work is made possible by the 2-1-1 Counts surveillance system. “That puts us in a position to observe these Covid-related changes,” Kreuter said. “But we’re using data that these 2-1-1s work so hard to collect. They are the real heroes here.”