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Firefighters, volunteers deliver masks, hand sanitizer to low-income communities

Masks handout Jake.jpeg
Masks handout Jake 1.jpeg
Posted at 6:23 PM, May 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-12 23:06:59-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Gregory Gaskins lives just off Cool Lane in Richmond’s East End and getting hand sanitizer and a face mask since the COVID-19 pandemic began has been nearly “impossible.”

“Sold out, and the ones that are there are almost $10,” Gaskins said.

State and Richmond leaders launched a pilot program in neighborhoods near Armstrong High School, like Gaskins’, on Monday. Over the course of the next few days and weeks, Richmond firefighters and volunteers plan to distribute 20,000 masks and 20,000 bottles of hand sanitizer in low-income parts of the city.

Multiple state and local leaders said healthcare disparities existed long before COVID-19 in many neighbors in Richmond. Using mapping technology, leaders targeted several corridors in the city to distribute the protective supplies, where levels of poverty and chronic disease were both high.

“As long as all those kits are gone, that’s success. We won’t skip one door, and we will continue pass them out until all of them are gone. And until all of those are gone, we’re going to think about how do we re-up our supplies,” said Dr. Janice Underwood, Chief Diversity Officer for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

“Although I’m excited to do this for COVID, I understand that healthcare disparities have been around since the early 1900’s,” said Lt. Travis Stokes with Richmond Fire.

The Virginia Department of Emergency Management supplied all the hand sanitizer and half the masks, Dr. Underwood said. Deloit Health 360, who collaborated on the mapping portion of the project, donated 10,000 masks too, according to Dr. Underwood.

Richmond firefighters, trained in health equity and diversity issues, lead teams of volunteers, faith leaders, and community activists as they went door to door handing out bags with the supplies.

Each bag included literature in both English and Spanish about health care programs available to residents of low income during and after COVID-19.

State health officials said African American and Latinx populations account for 64% of all positive cases in Virginia.

“We know that everybody doesn’t receive the same information the same way, so it’s so important that we’re thinking about getting information in culturally affirming ways,” Dr. Underwood said.

The large group of state and city officials, firefighters, and volunteered gathered in the Armstrong High School parking lot for briefings and supply collection before heading out. CBS 6 asked what social distancing protocols were in place to ensure safety of the group and residents.

“Safety of the volunteers is of the upmost importance,” Dr. Underwood said. “As you can see, we’re all wearing masks, and we also need to make sure that we’re going into neighborhoods with people that are already trusted in the neighborhoods.”

“This is a pilot. It starts here, and what we learn from this effort will instruct us on where we need to go going forward, how we need to do it,” said Chief Melvin Carter with the Richmond Fire Department.

For Gaskins, the protective gear means he could soon visit family members for the first time since the pandemic began.

“Hey, I’m a great grandfather. It’ll mean everything!” he said.

Similar programs are in the works in both Harrisonburg and Chesapeake, program leaders said.