Addressing the effects of COVID-19 on violence across our communities

CHICAGO, IL (June 25, 2020) - The lasting effects of COVID-19 on the health and well-being of our communities extend far beyond our emergency departments, laboratories and intensive care units. Across our ministry, CommonSpirit Health® is working to address not just the well-publicized and tragic consequences of this pandemic, but also those that are likely less apparent to many in our communities.

Violence is one such consequence which is known to escalate in environments of fear and stress, when people live in close quarters and when resources are limited. With much of our nation facing prolonged shelter-in-place orders, record unemployment, restricted access to basic services and ongoing health and safety concerns, conditions have been building for an epidemic of increased violence. Making matters worse, necessary efforts to control COVID-19 including physical and social distancing and the closure of schools, clinics and programs have reduced victim access to reporting and support while increasing ongoing exposure to abuse.

Dr. Schultz providing a consultation.

CommonSpirit has been able to respond quickly and proactively thanks to an ongoing commitment to addressing the public health crisis of violence and the care of our vulnerable communities. The Violence and Human Trafficking Prevention and Response Program is a holistic model for addressing violence in our facilities and in our communities. The program’s approach is to address the issue of violence through education and awareness initiatives, public policy and shareholder advocacy, community-based violence prevention and an internal trauma-informed response model.

Before the start of the current pandemic, ongoing community-based violence prevention programs had already been established in more than 50 communities across our ministry. In excess of 67,000 physicians, employees and volunteers had been educated on human trafficking and trauma informed care. The comprehensive national “United Against Violence” campaign, the first violence prevention effort of its kind sponsored by a non-profit health system, was already employing a multi-faceted approach to violence prevention and intervention.

Beginning in March, with the spread of COVID-19, nearly all in-person meetings and trainings had to be halted. This work, however, is important now more than ever. According to the Hill, global projections suggest an additional 31 million cases of gender-based violence during an initial six month lockdown. A report from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime shared fears that “COVID-19 is making the task of identifying victims of human trafficking even more difficult. They are also more exposed to contracting the virus, less equipped to prevent it, and have less access to healthcare to ensure their recovery.” In the United States, an increase in domestic violence calls began with the implementation of the shelter-in-place orders.

Across our CommonSpirit communities, in the face of this changing crisis, innovative solutions were established in the absence of traditional face-to-face contact and interaction. Critical to preventing and responding to violence was an emphasis on reducing stress and maintaining necessary connections and support.

Holly Austin Gibbs, CommonSpirit's director of facility-based efforts to address violence and human trafficking observes, “When it comes to patient care, we are still seeing victims and survivors of violence, including human trafficking. We are working to overcome the many challenges posed by COVID and staff limitations.”

Laura Krausa, System Director Advocacy Programs, who also oversees community-based efforts to address violence and human trafficking, and Holly Austin Gibbs provide some examples of these creative solutions:

  • For internal training of our caregivers, where the topics of human trafficking and trauma-informed care are most effectively delivered in-person, multiple solutions were developed including online, interactive educational modules and virtual presentations by survivors of human trafficking in task force meetings and workshops.
  • In Sacramento, California, the Mercy Family Health Center’s Medical Safe Haven provides a safe primary care medical environment for victims and survivors of human trafficking led by a staff extensively trained in victim-centered, trauma-informed care. During the COVID-19 shelter-in-place the clinic is offering virtual patient care visits to maintain essential care and connections.
  • In Columbus, Ohio, a program that serves one immigrant community is teaching families to connect with program staff using Zoom. A paper survey also captures information on the stressors impacting families, enabling the program to respond quickly and provide vital resources that address immediate needs and help to reduce fear.
  • In nearby Dayton, Ohio, a school-based program to address youth violence through the provision of social and emotional skills has moved online using YouTube videos and a virtual summer camp. The program has also provided more than 1,000 gift bags with toys, games and snacks to the families it serves. 
  • In London, Kentucky, a program to prevent child abuse is finding creative ways to stay in touch with families virtually and through phone visits. In April, they delivered 65 Easter baskets filled with food, toys, games and arts and crafts to families they serve, providing useful activities and tips for reducing stress.
  • In Federal Way, Washington, a school-based youth violence prevention program is now offered virtually, and a program to prevent young men from getting involved with gangs has equipped their peer mentors with phones to maintain contact with those they serve. They have also implemented a “buddy” system for the young men to reinforce accountability.
  • In Flaget, Kentucky, our community partner program is working to find new ways for victims of domestic violence to reach out for help during this period of reduced contact (code words for pharmacists, for example) and is looking for new ways to train bystanders who may want to help but not know how.

The timely evolution of these programs to address the immediate and changing needs is made possible by essential community partnerships, forward-thinking leadership and the commitment of CommonSpirit to address the issue of violence.  Among our partnerships are those with external granting organizations and individual philanthropic donors who support our efforts to address the health and safety needs in the vulnerable communities we serve across the nation.