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HLA House Project: Checking in on Central Texans During the Pandemic

July 14, 2021

Students in the Health Leadership Apprentice Program, divided into “house” teams, work alongside Community-Driven Initiatives to help Central Texas community members address health-related issues. This post is by members of the 2020-2021 Purple House: Chumeng Wang, Sathvik Srikalyani, Kayla Northrip, Matthew Lee, Michelle Kim, and Holly Ainsworth. They worked with Dell Medical School’s Department of Population Health to administer the Central Texas Check-In during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following the spread of COVID-19 in Texas, the City of Austin and surrounding areas went under stay-at-home orders to uphold public health standards and attempt to “flatten the curve.” Though necessary, this period of isolation caused significant changes in daily life and brought about a host of new issues, including increased difficulty accessing food and health services, worries about job stability and finances and concerns about maintaining mental health while remaining socially distanced. The winter storm in February exposed even more needs, as Texans experienced state-wide blackouts because utility systems were unprepared for below-freezing temperatures.

We partnered with Dell Med's Department of Population Health to help administer the Central Texas Check-In, an effort aimed at connecting Austin-area residents with needed resources. Our primary role was to conduct one-on-one phone interviews with community members and provide participants with links to resources in subsequent follow-ups. We were trained on how to properly ask sensitive questions, with an emphasis on being empathetic and understanding of each individual’s situation. In total, more than 750 responses were collected and stored.

After preliminary surveys were conducted, system reports were used to organize participants by their needs. The Department of Population Health provided lists of available resources, which house members then used to disseminate information to those in need. Each survey respondent received a personalized text with resources specific to their location, identity and need. Respondents were encouraged to text back if they had any questions or issues accessing resources. With this experience, we helped draft a second survey and provided similar call support following the winter storm. The resources provided then were specific to the aftermath of the storm.

The resilience and friendliness shown by community members was beyond inspiring. Through further conversations with our community partner, the Department of Population Health, we were given insight into how health care inequities around social factors such as race, gender identity and socioeconomic status become further exacerbated in events such as a pandemic or winter storm.

With the COVID-19 pandemic slowly abating, the Central Texas Check-In will most likely come to an end too, along with our involvement with it. However, we hope that future house members will involve themselves in the greater sustainability of our efforts and the efforts of Dell Med's Department of Population Health. We hope that this project will remain in touch with those who have participated in the survey and follow up with respondents to understand whether they’re experiencing any long-term effects of the pandemic. Understanding long-term effects can help us better prepare for how to respond to needs during a crisis and allow for future surveys to be conducted more effectively.

Due to the pandemic, our efforts were completely remote. Our team navigated through a technology-mediated mode of communication. This experience taught us the importance of setting clear goals and how applications such as Google Voice and Microsoft Teams can be used to effectively manage a huge project. Without ever meeting in person, our house made significant contributions to this effort and made meaningful connections with each other and survey participants.

It has been a privilege to help those in need during this dire time, though this could not have been done without the help of others. We would like to extend a sincere thanks to Kacey Hanson, Grace Schrobilgen and Nitakuwa Barrett for introducing us to the Central Texas Check-in and helping us connect with Austin-area residents. We learned about important public health initiatives and gained important communication skills through their mentorship. We would also like to thank Heidi Eisaman and Steve Steffensen for guidance on project efforts and documentaton. We are inspired by our time spent on our house project, and we can’t wait to see the impact that future house members will have on our community.