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LI's nonprofits adapt, face hurdles amid coronavirus outbreak

"It's really important for people to know that,

"It's really important for people to know that, even during this time ... the nonprofit community is still there for them," Rebecca Sanin, president and CEO of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, said.    Credit: Johnny Milano

Nonprofit organizations that serve tens of thousands of Long Islanders say the coronavirus has meant changing operational procedures, such as having staff work remotely and communicating with clients by phone or online.

But representatives for others who must meet clients in person say they face difficult challenges as they try to keep both staff and clients safe.

Nevertheless, the nonprofit groups say they remain committed to helping people through the crisis.

"In general, we moved our staff and programs to remote operations, to the greatest extent that we can," said Rebecca Sanin, president and chief executive of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, which provides programs for poor clients, as well as assisting some 200 nonprofit agencies that serve such clients themselves. 

"It's really important for people to know that, even during this time that we have to change our operating modes … the nonprofit community is still there for them," Sanin said.

"We’re one of the organizations, as are many organizations, working remotely," said Theresa A. Regnante, president and chief executive of the United Way of Long Island. 

Regnante said there was concern about how to interact with seniors especially; "the more vulnerable population. All the agencies running those senior programs are reaching out by phone call."

Regnante says the United Way operates a 211 informational call system for Long Islanders — outside of Nassau and Suffolk counties it can be reached at 888-774-7633 — noting, there's a "level of fear." 

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Regnante added, "As we look at the data coming into the call center, we’ll be able to mount a better response in terms of services. … We know the economic hardship people will face. The panic of just everybody's shopping bill — $300, $400, $500 — is fairly significant when you’re in a paycheck-to-paycheck environment. We never give clients a check, but we usually pay a bill. We do massive distribution with food cards."

Regnante said "the dialogue started [Monday]" among agencies that are part of the Long Island Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, which is administered by the Health and Welfare Council, about ways to help vulnerable people during the coronavirus crisis.

"It's definitely difficult right now," said David Nemiroff, president and chief executive of Long Island FQHC Inc., a network of 10 health centers across Nassau County. The acronym stands for Long Island Federally Qualified Health Center. "We’re a medical facility" providing a full panoply of diagnostic and treatment services for 40,000 people a year, Nemiroff said.

"Our biggest challenge is getting enough equipment for staff: masks, gloves, face shields," Nemiroff said. "Our regular orders are not coming in because of the influx of everybody seeking these things." Nemiroff said the center had to turn to the Nassau County Office of Emergency Management for some supplies.

Jeffrey Reynolds, president and chief executive of FCA, also known as Family & Children's Association, said, "We've never been in a situation like this before.

"We serve about 30,000 people a year, [and] while we have well-established emergency procedures, some of this is changing on the fly," Reynolds said, citing "evolving" government mandates. 

"There are some programs where government has said just stop face-to-face contact all together," Reynolds said. That meant the agency could no longer send in trained volunteers who are patient advocates in nursing homes. "Face-to-face contact has been eliminated, yet we’re making sure patients there have access to somebody via phone."

Reynolds added the agency didn't have that luxury with its shelter program. "We run Nassau County's only shelter for runaway, homeless and trafficked kids. We don’t have the ability or desire to close that program. It’s the only one of its kind. There are no options available. In that case, we stepped up [health] screening when kids present for shelter," he said. "So far we haven’t had anyone present with concerning symptoms."

"We’re limiting visitors to the house or the number of staff cycling in and out." He added, "It's not lost on me we might have to quarantine that house or the people in it."

Colleen Merlo, executive director of L.I. Against Domestic Violence, had similar concerns. "Our nonshelter services are operating remotely. We are providing counseling via telephone and also secure video conferencing."

"If somebody needs shelter, we are trying to get them into our shelter as safely as possible. That means we’re asking questions over the phone" about their health. "After the phone conversation, they come in. We take them into the shelter doing our best to maintain CDC guidelines," Merlo said, such as keeping people a safe distance apart, and keeping people in different rooms.

Merlo said, "We’re all still trying to do the best we can to meet the needs of the community. If somebody needs help call the hotline: 631-666-8833."

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