Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, many residents in underserved neighborhoods of Washington, DC, still didn’t have masks.
Among the reasons: They couldn’t afford them, didn’t know where to buy them or didn’t believe they were necessary.
But without masks, they were more likely to get or transmit the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and they were barred from public transportation and other venues that require face coverings.
In recent weeks, Sibley Memorial Hospital has stepped in, donating 46,000 cloth masks to residents and organizations in the city, mostly in Wards 7 and 8.
The effort was supported by the Sibley Memorial Hospital Foundation’s new Health Disparities Fund, which was created in response to COVID-19. The fund builds on Sibley’s work addressing the imbalances that place black and brown people in Washington at greater risk of illness and death.
“Sibley recognized early in the pandemic this opportunity to redirect our community outreach efforts to the residents who could benefit the most from the masks,” says Andrew Huff, director of community relations and outreach for Sibley Memorial Hospital.
One recipient, he says, is a security officer at a public housing facility. “She had no access to personal protective equipment,” Huff says. “We were able to give her a number of reusable cloth masks, so she can wear one when the others are in the wash. It’s a very simple thing, but it means a lot to someone who has to go out of their apartment every day to work, especially if they are living with extended family.”
To distribute the masks and information, Sibley tapped 19 community-based organizations it already worked with, including the Ward 8 Health Council and Martha’s Table.
Representatives of those groups delivered the masks and flyers to people, gave them out at events like health fairs, and provided them in rental offices, senior centers and homeless shelters.
A Wider Circle, a Silver Spring-based nonprofit organization that works across the region with individuals and families in poverty, has a neighborhood center in Washington Highlands. It’s been busier than ever since the pandemic began, says Amy Javaid, its senior vice president.
Washington Highlands, which includes two large public housing complexes, has no supermarket, she says, and a mask mandate on public transportation makes it nearly impossible for residents without a face covering to buy fresh foods and other necessities.
A Wider Circle's volunteers have been delivering toiletries and other items directly to neighborhood residents to help alleviate the crisis, and they have provided hot meals through a partnership with World Central Kitchen. “A lot of the people we deliver to for those programs are seniors, people with young children, and people who have some sort of chronic health condition or an otherwise compromised immune system,” says Javaid.
Because of the Sibley partnership, A Wider Circle's volunteers have been able to tuck powerful public health tools into the delivery bags: packs of washable cloth masks, along with instructions in English and Spanish for those who don’t know that the masks can be washed and reused.
Javaid says the mask distribution effort is succeeding because Sibley Memorial Hospital has built relationships over time.
“Trust takes a long time to build and is really quick to break in communities that have seen partners come and go in the blink of an eye,” says Javaid. “Sibley is already a trusted partner, so people feel like what they’re saying is true. We were able to provide accurate and reliable health information from a trusted source.”