SPECIAL REPORT: Northeast Indiana researchers reveal urgent needs during the pandemic

Data collected by the Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation.

If there’s one thing that holds true about the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that information, guidelines, restrictions, and conditions are changing day-by-day. So for foundations and organizations trying to provide relief, understanding the community’s most urgent needs is like trying to hit a moving target.

To cope with the transient nature of this reality, local leaders have been collaborating and working quickly to conduct community needs assessment surveys, so they have real-time data to help them make critical decisions. And the effort began before the COVID-19 pandemic even hit Fort Wayne.

In early March, Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan enlisted the help of the Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation, as well as other community stakeholders to develop and conduct a community preparedness survey. The goal of this survey was to determine what people in Northeast Indiana were most concerned about as the pandemic began, and what their top needs were, says Tammy Toscos, Director of Health Services & Informatics Research, at the Mirro Center. Toscos

To make the survey as well-thought-out as possible, the effort was highly inclusive. A Committee Advisory Group of more than 180 people came together on March 3 at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, representing local businesses, social service agencies, foundations, first responders, schools, government agencies, and healthcare providers alike.

During the meeting, the Allen County Department of Health and other healthcare experts gave a situation update on the novel coronavirus COVID-19 and discussed with community leaders how to minimize potential negative health, safety, and economic impacts.

The group also outlined the needs to be assessed in the initial, high-level community survey.

According to Toscos, while the team sought input from leaders of all types interested in community preparedness, the main “customer” or end-user of the survey was foundations and nonprofit groups wanting to make data-driven decisions on how to direct their resources efficiently during the pandemic.

Meg Distler, Executive Director of the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, explains that the survey has been extremely useful in helping leaders like herself prioritize what to do with limited time and funding.

After all, the COVID-19 pandemic impacts everyone financially—including foundations—many of which have lost money in their endowments.

“We are trying to stretch ourselves thin, but be very responsible with our dollars,” Distler says. “So the survey was important in that it allowed funders and nonprofits to respond and find creative ways to continue serving our constituents.” Distler

The survey was also intended to help government agencies like the Allen County Health Department and the Mayor’s Office keep tabs on residents’ needs throughout the evolving situation, Toscos says.

To make the data as useful as possible to these stakeholders, her team had to make the survey easy for residents to take and work quickly to analyze the results.

“We were really intentional in how we designed the survey because we knew that the data needed to be rapidly analyzed and put into the hands of the policymakers and decision-makers in our region,” Toscos explains.

Working with Research Analyst Jessica Pater, Toscos based the survey on information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ pandemic flu preparedness checklist for employers.

“That anchored the questions, and then we iterated and evolved the survey from that point,” Pater says.

The initial 19-question, three-minute survey was conducted March 12-24, yielding nearly 5,000 responses, and the Mirro Center shared their findings with the public and decisionmakers within a six-week timeframe. That speed is almost unheard of in the research world, Pater says.

“When you consider the fact that we were able to send out the survey and get so many results from our community, it’s really impressive,” she says. “I don’t know of any other group in the U.S. that’s doing that type of intense regional assessment on the various indicators we identified.”

Toscos adds that, in this regard, Northeast Indiana is ahead of the curve.

After findings from the initial survey were collected in late-March, McMahan helped the Mirro Center quickly distribute the data, so it could be applied immediately, Toscos says.

If you ask the leaders of social service agencies in Northeast Indiana today about the state of the most vulnerable residents during COVID-19, they’ll likely offer you the same conclusion: The people most in need during this crisis were living on the edge before COVID-19. Now, this pandemic has only exacerbated their challenges.

But this isn’t just anecdotal evidence. The community needs assessment proves it, showing that about 44 percent of households surveyed said they could make it only one or two weeks without pay.

In other words, many people in Allen County are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and under pandemic conditions, they are unable to meet their basic needs. About 65 percent are concerned about finding and purchasing food, and another 85 percent are concerned about keeping a roof over their heads.

Distler says findings like these from the initial community needs survey have been eye-opening and taken very seriously by nonprofit and foundation leaders, who are now prioritizing food and shelter in their grantmaking.

“A lot of us put money instantly into programs for food assistance and baby formula because it was so clearly stated that people were not prepared,” Distler says.

Overall, the findings have prompted foundation and nonprofit leaders across the region to shift their focus from prevention and education efforts to providing for people’s basic and immediate needs, Toscos explains.

“It’s giving people fish instead of teaching them how to fish,” she says, paraphrasing Distler’s comments in a March 28 Journal Gazette article.

The St. Joseph Community Health Foundation is supporting efforts to get food to community members, like this program at the YMCA.

In its own efforts to support the community’s most pressing needs, the St. Joseph Community Foundation has given more than $80,000 to emergency response efforts since the pandemic began, Distler says. They’ve also been collaborating with other Northeast Indiana foundations to develop a coordinated system of rapid response grants, all informed by the community needs survey.

Among the recipients of their funding dollars is Miss Virginia's Soup Kitchen, which needed assistance to purchase milk and vegetables. Another social service, the Women’s Care Center, used funding to purchase baby formula. Wellspring Interfaith Social Services' mobile food pantry program is another beneficiary.

Now, Distler and other foundation leaders are encouraging residents to take the next round of the community needs assessment survey, so they can better understand the region’s ongoing needs and stay abreast of changes on the hyper-local level.

As the second round of the survey is now open to residents, Toscos says trying to reach all populations in Northeast Indiana equally has been one challenge her team has faced. In retrospect, she wishes they had captured more information regarding underlying health disparities in the region to help put the data into greater context.

Even so, as her team has presented their early findings to groups like the Allen County Health Disparity Coalition (ACHDC), they have received positive feedback that the information is moving the needle by identifying urgent needs, particularly in underserved communities. The ACHDC is comprised of more than 80 organizations addressing the lack of adequate healthcare for minority citizens in Allen County.

“I had someone say to me, ‘You’re doing God's work,’ and it was pretty overwhelming in a good way,” Toscos says. “For me, that was very validating, because (Pater and I) are two white women who’ve had our own struggles, but are not living in poverty right now or trying to help people who are challenged with economic or social issues.”

Delivering groceries to those unable to leave the house is one way to help during the pandemic.

In times of hardship, fast and effective data collection is an important public service, too.

While seeing research make such a direct impact on people’s lives can be gratifying for researchers, this is no time to rest on their laurels, Toscos says. On Friday, May 1, Gov. Holcomb announced a five-stage plan to re-open the state in coming days and weeks, but the lingering presence of the pandemic and its effects for many asset-limited families are likely to continue for months and potentially years.

As such, Toscos says the Mirro Center’s ongoing survey and data collection work will continue to be a “wakeup call” for Northeast Indiana leaders, illuminating the true state of the region’s wellbeing.

“Other than doing these types of surveys, there's not really a way to get a broad view of where people are in their daily needs at the moment,” Toscos says. “I think that as we move through various different phases of this journey, making sure we're taking the temperature of our community and understanding needs is going to be important.”

Residents across Northeast Indiana are encouraged to take the second round of the community needs assessment now.

This Special Report was made possible by Parkview Health.

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Jessica Pater
Jessica Pater
Research Analyst
Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation

IFW: Tell us how your educational professional background has prepared you for this role.

JP: My background in human-centered computing has prepared me for my role at Parkview and for this project by giving me a foundation of understanding people’s needs. For the last 15 years, I’ve worked at the intersection of technology and health, assessing how technology impacts people’s everyday health and how it can be harnessed to improve people’s connections to information and services.

IFW: What can readers do to help address some of the realities identified in the community needs survey?

JP: One way readers can help address some of the findings is to connect with family, friends, and neighbors. A quick conversation can help with loneliness and also be a way to make sure people are getting their basic needs—like food and medication—met.

IFW: What did the collaborative process of creating and deploying this community needs survey teach you about Northeast Indiana’s community?

JP: Being newer to the region, it showed me how connected and supportive the people of Northeast Indiana really are. So many groups came together very quickly to create the survey and rallied around Dr. McMahan to get it distributed across the region. Over 5,000 people gave their time to take the survey. I was happily overwhelmed by the community support and response.

IFW: The Mirro Center recently deployed a second community needs survey. What are the next steps?

JP: The next steps are to assess whether people’s needs are being met. The first survey gave us a high-level understanding of potential issues. We hope the new survey gives us a more nuanced understanding of what the individual needs are.

IFW: Based on the initial survey’s results, how can Northeast Indiana better prepare for a disaster like a pandemic in the future?

JP: I think the survey showed us that our community is actually more prepared than I would have assumed. Using surveys like these to help ground needs in data will help drive community leaders’ response. That means we need input from all neighborhoods across the region to ensure that we know what needs really are.