By Community Education Group
When the COVID-19 pandemic surged in the U.S. in March 2020, CEG was still relatively new to West Virginia. The nonprofit, whose headquarters were previously located in Washington, D.C., relocated to Lost River, West Virginia a decade ago because their work shifted towards addressing the intersection of HIV/AIDS, substance use disorder, and viral hepatitis in Appalachia.
Through CEG’s Appalachian Partnership Fund, managed through a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CEG regranted more than $1.5 million to more than two dozen organizations not just in West Virginia, but throughout Appalachia as a whole. “Through this partnership with the CDC, we had a regranting commitment to the region,” says A. Toni Young, CEG executive director. “Not only is that a core component of how we operate normally, but the pandemic presented real existential threats because of how it had downstream effects on other health states within the region.”
In the first year of the Appalachian Partnership Fund, organizations supported by CEG served more than 53,200 individuals in communities across West Virginia, providing more than 6,800 COVID tests and 4,000 COVID vaccinations, more than 2,290 HIV tests, more than 2,100 HCV tests, and more than 1,790 influenza vaccinations. “There are real and persistent barriers that prevent individuals from accessing healthcare,” says Lee Storrow, CEG senior director of external affairs. “It was important to consider that as CEG and our Appalachian Partnership Fund awardees were engaging with communities about COVID-19, we had the opportunity to provide additional care for other health concerns in those interactions.”
Community Connections, one of the organizations supported through the Fund, reported that they were able to partner with quick response teams in Mercer County to not only assist individuals experiencing an overdose, but were able to also conduct rapid tests for COVID-19 and HIV, while also disseminating information about the COVID vaccine and infectious disease control. “Through the Fund, we were able to help our awardees bring their services to libraries, Walmarts, Dollar Generals, supermarkets, and other locations that are heavily trafficked by community members, and that allowed these organizations to reach people they would’ve been unable to reach otherwise,” says Storrow.
In addition to providing access to multiple points of care, CEG’s Appalachian Partnership Fund empowered other organizations to expand capacity and forge closer relationships with the communities they serve. “APF helped pay for our nurses who worked with our high-risk population and individuals who maybe wouldn’t have felt comfortable in other settings and we were able to connect with our community members in a way that endeared trust and comfort,” said Harm Reduction Coordinator Michelle Perdue from the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, one of the awardees.
Young says that it’s the personal relationships forged between APF awardees and their communities that made the biggest difference. “There’s a historic and justified mistrust of outsiders in Appalachia, and especially outsiders tethered in any way to healthcare,” she says. “But the trust relationships between local organizations and the communities they serve make a huge difference for public health outcomes. Those are the relationships that save lives.”