When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down New York City in mid-March of 2020, GMHC quickly responded by launching a Wellness Call program to ensure our clients’ well-being. The agency deployed staff to make weekly calls to over 1,200 of our highest-needs clients to check in and connect them to any services they needed at GMHC or other agencies.
Almost three years later, GMHC staff are still making wellness calls to about 100 clients every month, even though the shutdowns from the pandemic have lifted. We’ve found that for many clients, the calls are a lifeline to prevent isolation and keep them connected to care.
“It’s a way to keep people from slipping through the cracks,” says Angelo Trinidad, a health care navigator at GMHC who has been making wellness calls since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
He and other agency staff making the calls initially prioritized clients’ immediate well-being. “We were making sure everybody was safe, had food, and some sort of contact. A lot of our clients were isolated,” he says. The calls were “a way to make sure they have human interaction with a live person instead of TV, YouTube, Netflix.”
After about the first year of calls, Trinidad says, a lot of clients said they didn’t need the extra assistance anymore. Others still wanted a call, but just bi-weekly or once a month to touch base. “People are back more to their normal routines. I call to see how they’re doing and if they need anything,” he says.
Trinidad and three other staff members, Reception Coordinator Darryl DeVito, Volunteer Center Director Shelley Levine, and Building Operations Director Imtiaz Waldin, have continued the regular check-ins with GMHC clients who request them. Most are living with HIV and the call list is about 90% male, Trinidad says.
Trinidad calls a roster of about 20 clients every week to check in. He’s got a core group of about 15 people he calls weekly and some others he calls bi-weekly or monthly to learn: How is their mental health? Do they need to get in touch with their case manager or someone in the immigration department? Do they need connections to services? Food? Medications?
The calls are shorter now, he says. “In the beginning, everyone was secluded and scared. Once you got someone on the phone, they didn’t want to get off.”
They appreciate the calls, he says, to stay updated about GMHC’s programs and services. For instance, Trinidad tries to make his calls on Tuesdays, so he can remind people that they can come by on Wednesday to pick up Grab n Go pantry bag meals at GMHC’s office at 307 W. 38th Street.
The calls also allow GMHC to stay connected to higher needs clients. When New York City became the epicenter of the MPOX (monkeypox) outbreak last summer and the vaccine was in short supply, Trinidad and GMHC’s other wellness callers checked in with clients to offer vaccination appointments, which GMHC partnered with the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to coordinate.
Trinidad, who’s bilingual, handles all of the calls to Spanish-speaking clients. Many are undocumented, he says, so the COVID-19 shut-downs hit them hard. A lot were working in restaurants, day care centers or cleaning houses–all jobs that vanished when the pandemic hit.
GMHC prioritized food deliveries during the initial shutdowns and initially sent out grocery store gift cards until pivoting to the weekly Grab n Go food pantry program. “For a lot of my people, if they don’t work, they don’t get paid, so I made it my business to make sure they got the food gift cards,” Trinidad says.
Even though many clients have returned to their routines, Trinidad says, there is still a need for mental health counseling—and particularly for Spanish-speaking counselors.
He estimates that earlier in the pandemic, three out of five people he called wanted to talk to a mental health counselor. He’s not getting as many of those requests now, but he noted the GMHC’s mental health team is still at capacity from the extra strains that clients have been experiencing since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Trinidad will mark his 25th anniversary with GMHC in June. Over the years, he’s gravitated toward client-facing roles, mostly in case management. “I love helping people. I really do,” he says.
That’s why he embraces working as a wellness caller on top of his health care navigator duties. “I’m helping someone who otherwise might not get contact from the agency.”