Taking the Gospel of COVID-19 Safety to the Streets of Baltimore

The Maryland Health Department mobile health education truck outside Patterson Park in Baltimore on Sunday. Photo by Hannah Gaskill.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, Bishop Bruce Lewandowski has seen 36 members of his Baltimore congregation die and countless others become infected.

“Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Patrick’s — we’ve been hit hard with the COVID,” he said.

Lewandowski is the pastor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic parish in Southeast Baltimore’s 21224 zip code — one of the hardest hit areas in the city.

Baltimore City accounts for about 12% of the state’s confirmed COVID-19 cases. The 21224 zip code, which has a high concentration of Latino and Hispanic residents, makes up about 13% of the city’s total case count.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus has had on-site COVID-19 testing through Johns Hopkins for a little over four months now, “sometimes twice or three times a week, depending on the need,” Lewandowski said in an interview Sunday.

After securing testing, he began to see a need for other services, springing the congregation into action.

The church assembled a crew of 20 drivers who deliver food and pass along information about masking and tests to 500 church members every week. But even that paired with news spread through Spanish-speaking media outlets like Somos Baltimore Latino and Ke Pachanga Radio weren’t cutting it, Lewandowski said.

“People are still not getting the information — we’ve got to do more,” he explained. “And so this is just one more way to get that information out to people.”

Lewandowski was talking about a week-long campaign launched by the Maryland Department of Health’s COVID-19 Hispanic Community Support Task Force targeting Baltimore’s Latino residents with public service announcements to mitigate the spread of the pandemic.

A sound truck, which the Department of Health calls the “mobile public health education unit,” is set to drive through several neighborhoods in and around the 21224 zip code over the course of this week, urging residents in English and Spanish to get tested, wear masks and seek medical help when they’re symptomatic.

“Receiving treatment or testing for COVID will not put your immigration status at risk,” the truck speakers blasted outside of Patterson Park early Sunday afternoon. “Get tested.”

[See a video of the sound truck here]

Additionally, volunteers will hand out masks and pamphlets along the truck’s route through the Eastern Avenue business district, Bayview, Canton, Highlandtown, Dundalk, Patterson Park and Joseph Lee Park.

“The pandemic has presented particularly challenging circumstances for members of our Hispanic communities. These Marylanders are struggling not only with access to testing and health care, but also with the loss of wages, locating safe housing for isolating and food security issues,” said Maryland Department of Health Secretary Robert R. Neall in a statement. “The Hispanic Community Support Task Force is working to make resources available, while eliminating the language barrier and other complications that stand in the way of people getting the help they need.”

In addition to the mobile public health unit, the COVID-19 Hispanic Community Support Task Force established a hotline through Catholic Charities’ Esperanza Center for symptomatic members of the Latino community to be connected to services.

“Folks who are trying to self isolate, who are positive and are in need of assistance, they should call that hotline because it will connect them to the multitude of services of which they’re going to need,” Dr. Mark Martin, deputy director of the Maryland Department of Health’s Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities, told Maryland Matters before the truck left Baltimore’s Patterson Park Sunday afternoon.

Residents can reach Spanish-speaking operators to connect to testing, medical care, eviction prevention and cash assistance services by calling 667-600-2314.

‘You have a family’

Lewandowski said Sunday that health disparities in his community run deep.

“We have people who’ve never been to the doctor since they arrived here 15, 20, 25 years [ago],” he explained. “We’ve had men, especially, from our community pass away because they had no regular routine health care practices, they never got regular checkups or physicals and then it turned out that they actually had underlying symptoms … that if they had known, they would know that they would be more vulnerable to COVID, and maybe would have isolated and stayed home.”

The concept of mistrust of governmental and medical agencies among communities of color isn’t new.

The Rev. Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore Chapter of the NAACP, said his organization began to step in when they noticed at the pandemic’s start that information coming from news outlets and Trump administration officials was not penetrating communities of color.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about the virus, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about who can contract the virus and who couldn’t,” said Little. “And so we knew that we needed to go to the streets, take it to the streets, and as a trusted voice in our community, tell people how serious this virus was and what they could do to protect themselves from it.”

The NAACP launched its own mobile public health education unit during the early days of COVID-19, which it relaunched with new messaging in partnership with Strong City Baltimore last week.

“With COVID-19, every neighborhood and individual in our city is at risk. We’re fighting an enemy we cannot see,”  Reginald Davis, interim CEO of Strong City, said at a news conference announcing the truck’s relaunch last week. “However, all of us can fight back like our lives depend on it. Because they do!”

Little said the state “took note” of the work the NAACP had done with its sound truck, and asked if they’d be willing to work together along with CASA and other organizations to spread these messages across other underserved communities in the city.

Jose Melo, a volunteer driver and congregant at Sacred Heart of Jesus, told Maryland Matters that he’s been trying to mobilize his community since the pandemic began by knocking on doors and inviting people to come down to the church to get tested.

“We’re like a family, and so if you’re orphaned, you’re widowed, you don’t have to worry — you have a family,” Lewandowski translated. “And we’re trying to do what’s within our reach to do with our ability to do because that’s what God wants of us.”

Asked how witnessing illness and suffering first-hand has affected Melo, Lewandowski translated that it takes a psychological, emotional and physical toll on him, but that the heaviness he feels only makes him want to do more.

“This isn’t going to end anytime soon, so we just have to keep up our strength and our energy and keep going because there’s no end in sight, at this point,” Melo said.

[email protected]

 

Get more data on our COVID-19 in Maryland page.

Updated daily with cases, hospitalizations and deaths by county, age and race.

Hannah Gaskill
Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.