A health care worker fills a syringe with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in preparation for administration. CNS photo/via Reuters
A health care worker fills a syringe with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in preparation for administration. CNS photo/via Reuters

Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton is playing a key role in the continued fight against COVID-19, with a particular focus on delivering education, testing, contact tracing and vaccine support to underserved populations, including Latino, Black and immigrant communities.

As part of that role, the diocesan social services organization is collaborating with parishes across the Diocese of Trenton. Parish outreach is significant, said CCDOT executive director Marlene Lao-Collins, especially when it comes to reaching populations that are underserved in the context of COVID relief.

“The trust of parishes and the Church by immigrants, I believe, is a natural transition from their homeland where the Church was a trusted place that provided them with both spiritual nourishment and, very often, were engaged in corporal works of mercy to assist their people during difficult times,” Lao-Collins said. “The engagement of their priest or well-known layperson from their parish will go a long way in the community responding positively.”

In support of the effort, Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., has recorded a message to be aired on all diocesan platforms as well as the CCDOT

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made the past year very challenging for so many people. But there are brighter days ahead, especially as vaccines become more widely available every day,” Bishop O’Connell said. “The Catholic Church has deemed vaccine use morally permissible. Getting vaccinated, although not required, is in the interest of the common good.”

The New Jersey Department of Health enlisted CCDOT to work with a regional partner, the Central Jersey Family Health Consortium, as well as local organizations including the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Trenton Health Team. With $100,000 in funding, Catholic Charities is working collaboratively to develop and implement health communication and community engagement strategies, along with the administration of testing and vaccinations.

“Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton was chosen for this work because we have a strong understanding of the needs of the most vulnerable in our communities,” said Susan Loughery, associate executive director and the director of operations. “Throughout the pandemic, we have been open and operational, providing services such as food, housing, domestic violence crisis services, mental health, addictions treatment and integrated health care.”

She added that Catholic Charities has been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its Hope and Healing Initiative to conduct community outreach, and has also deployed its nursing teams for home visits.

“We learned much about increased needs of those we serve as a result of the pandemic,” she said.

The initiative includes building a bilingual and multicultural “COVID Community Corps,” which will involve health workers trained through the New Jersey Department of Health Colette Lamothe-Galette Community Health Worker Institute.

“We are working with the Institute to develop an apprenticeship training program for community health workers and community champions, who are much needed on the front lines of COVID-19 response,” said Loughery. “Additionally, some of our staff will be able to be certified as community health workers with our partner academic institution for this initiative, Ocean County College. Many of the community health workers are bilingual and are trusted representatives of the communities in which they work.”

A key component of this effort will be targeting services to Latino and Black communities, and both documented and undocumented immigrants. They will work to increase access through assisting with vaccine registration and appointment scheduling, and through helping clients with technology and providing referrals for support with transportation and childcare.

At Catholic Charities’ El Centro, which serves the Latino community in and around Trenton, staff have set up a virtual exam room, and medical technicians, nurses, community health workers and mental health crisis staff will be on hand to provide support.

“There’s a lot of mistrust in the Latino community about whether or not any of the information they put into the vaccine pre-registration site would be distributed to other government entities,” said Roberto Hernandez, El Centro’s director. “That’s why having it here at El Centro is so important – because the community trusts us. They trust El Centro and Catholic Charities. We have been in the community for many years, providing all sorts of services.”

Catholic Charities will also launch wellness groups to provide community education and to work with vulnerable and difficult-to-reach individuals through in-home visits, with assistance provided in multiple languages.

The program will also include COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites, as well as interactive Q&A sessions and virtual exam rooms in locations throughout the Diocese.

“Our work at CCDOT reflects the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching, and as such, our doors are always open to all in need,” Loughery said. “We maintain strong partnerships with hospitals, health centers, and social services entities to reduce disparities, improve lives and advance outcomes for social determinants of health. … There is tremendous synergy between the work we currently do and this public health initiative.”

Catholic Charities has already started outreach to parish communities throughout the Diocese, with some 57 parishes linking to their website, 72 including bulletin notices and 24 parishes that, in the first week of the initiative, have registered more than 1,700 collective individuals for a vaccine administration event at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption.

In addition, CCDOT plans to reach out to the 18 parishes with designated Centers for Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese that could help in this initiative.