MANKATO — Mankato community leaders used a virtual panel discussion this week to discuss how they responded to worsening health and economic gaps during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic’s emergence earlier this year forced nonprofits, schools and medical facilities to drastically pivot to meet the needs of the people they serve. Minnesota State University’s College of Allied Health and Nursing and College of Social and Behavioral Sciences organized the panel to discuss the subject as part of a broader summit on the social determinants of health Wednesday.

Panelists described challenges related to COVID outreach toward immigrant communities, ensuring distance learning worked for all students and addressing food insecurity.

One example is how Feeding Our Communities Partners completely switched its service model in response to the pandemic, said Executive Director Sheri Sander-Silva. School closures in the spring meant the nonprofit couldn’t use them as the conduit to get students their food packs.

The nonprofit’s BackPack Food and other programs have been in schools for years, so the shift to direct delivery to student’s homes was huge.

“This has been seven months of learning for us,” Sander-Silva said. “We’ve been grateful for the community support.”

Families are experiencing greater hardships, she added. And healthy food is sometimes one of the first sacrifices they have to make.

The panel also focused on how the gaps are widening along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. State data show COVID-19 is negatively impacting non-white Minnesotans at a disproportionate rate.

Health and economic outreach to immigrant communities has been a challenge during the pandemic. Many immigrant business owners in southern Minnesota didn’t learn about Paycheck Protection Program funds available to them until it was too late, said Rodolfo Gutierrez, executive director of Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment Through Research, or HACER.

“The last ones to learn about it were the immigrant owners of businesses in southern Minnesota,” he said. “ … Almost all the funding was already used.”

HACER collaborates with the Minnesota Department of Health on outreach to Latinos in southern Minnesota. Certain gaps in services arise because outreach is only in English, Gutierrez said.

Mohamed Ibrahim, community health specialist with Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, spoke about a similar issue causing health care gaps in the Somali community. His work is aimed at bridging that gap, and he said the health system is working to hire more multi-ethnic community health workers.

“When you need to do contact tracing and getting info out you need people who know that community,” he said.

Mankato YWCA’s staff saw socioeconomic gaps arise quickly once the pandemic started. Many parents with children in the nonprofit’s youth programs told YWCA they couldn’t afford it this year, said Executive Director Natasha Lopez-Rodriguez.

The nonprofit offered more scholarships as a result.

“We had an entire program offered during the summer and every single one of the participants except one was on scholarship,” she said.

Many children in Mankato schools remain doing virtual learning this fall. When schools switched to virtual learning in the spring, districts had to overcome technological gaps.

Mankato Area Public Schools Superintendent Paul Peterson said there was an outpouring of support to make sure devices and internet access was available to all students.

Gaps are still widening among students of color, though, he said. And one of the biggest challenges going forward is how schools can keep providing specialty services like speech therapy if everything has to go virtual again.

“Those are things that we are working on constantly about how we do those in more traditional settings, but also thinking of a different platform if by chance we have to look toward a distance-based learning model,” he said.

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