The corona virus crisis has exacerbated long-running issues for people living in poverty in the St. Louis area and across the country. Shelters are forced to turn people away due to social distancing measures. Tent encampments have sprung up in the City of St. Louis. This disenfranchisement has made access to virus testing and essential medical and behavioral health services nearly impossible. The Incarnate Word Foundation is supporting the work of St. Louis area health care advocates and leaders to address this need.
St. Louis’s COVID-19 Regional Response Team, led by Jason Purnell, PhD, MPH, Associate Professor in the Brown School at Washington University and Director of Heath Equity Works, tapped the Foundation and other resources in the area for help. Among the team’s goals are to “Identify and prioritize the critical needs of vulnerable populations” and “Deploy critical resources in an efficient and coordinated manner.” Data gathered by the Response Team confirmed what leaders already knew: The unhoused people in St. Louis are in urgent need of virus testing and access to medical and behavioral health services.
“Our region’s most vulnerable populations are historically underserved,” explained Dr. Purnell. “An equitable response to this pandemic requires that we focus our attention on those at greatest risk of contracting this virus and those whose lives were lived in risk before this crisis.”
Dr. Purnell called on Laurie Punch, M.D., a trauma surgeon with BJC HealthCare who works on the frontlines of virus infection and health services inequalities in the St. Louis region, to coordinate the outreach. Dr. Punch, a leading advocate for the unhoused and minority populations, sees the human cost of the virus while treating intensive care unit (ICU) patients at Christian Hospital in north St. Louis County, and in the encampments.
“The work Dr. Punch is doing by going out to the homeless encampments during the pandemic reminds me of how our Sisters have always responded,” said Bridget Flood, IWF Executive Director. “Whether it was cholera epidemics in the 1800s, the scourge of polio or the COVID-19 pandemic, our Sisters and their ministries are doing their part to bringing the healing love of a Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, to those on the margins.”
The Foundation is among several area funders supporting Dr. Punch’s efforts to bring essential testing and medical services to people living in encampments, shelters, and in social isolation in the City of St. Louis.
“There has to be unfettered access to health care in terms of screening, testing and treatment, regardless of economic status,” Dr. Punch said. “The virus is showing us ourselves. It’s showing us the truth of the way in which people have to live in order to survive and do the best for them and their families.”