POMEROY — The Meigs County Council on Aging has experienced a huge change in operations due to the Coronavirus event. Serving one of the most vulnerable populations affected adversely by the virus played into every decision made about the services that would be offered and those that would be put on hold.
The center-based operations were the first to be closed. The congregate dining site was closed on March 12 for lunch and activities and the wellness center followed on Monday, March 16. At first congregate lunches for seniors were offered as carryout then as pick-up at the front door. Other services such as homemaker and transportation were curtailed and then cancelled for the time being.
The emphasis has been on protecting the population that is served to the best of their abilities and the focus turned to Meals on Wheels as the means to do that. Nutritional status is important in the body’s defense against disease and in boosting the immune system, so feeding people became the primary service. The secondary benefit of home delivered meals is that it could reduce the frequency that consumers would be making grocery stores trips.
The attention turned to getting the congregate diners enrolled on the home delivered meal program as quickly as possible and the Council’s partners at Buckeye Hills Regional Council Area Agency on Aging were quick to help make that possible. Instruction from the Ohio Department on Aging and Buckeye Hills permitted a shorter, phone intake process that replaced the longer in-home, face-to-face assessment process. Four of the Council’s staff were soon put to the task of calling people who had been their congregate diners and offering them a home delivered option as a temporary measure. At the same time information was going out on Facebook and WYVK radio picked up the info and shared it with their listeners. In about a week more than 100 new people were enrolled on the temporary home delivered meal service.
While intakes were ongoing other staff were diligently trying to obtain additional food to cover the increase in the number of meals to be prepared and to get shelf stable emergency food bags into these homes. This was during the mad rush and emptying of food from the shelves of the local grocery stores was ongoing. Partners were found in the staff at Save-A-Lot and then Powell’s Food Fair, who allowed Council staff to come in on more than one occasion to buy in bulk while the stores were struggling to keep their shelves stocked. Sturdy bags to package this food for delivery to the consumers happened because of donations of bags from Mark Porter and OSU Extension and 4-H for the first round of deliveries. A trip to Mason Walmart to purchase bags for the next round of deliveries resulted in a gift certificate from them to help purchase the bags. The Council on Aging staff spent several days delivering these bags to the people on the home delivered meal routes and urging them to keep this food as emergency in the event that regular deliveries couldn’t be made.
The usual suppliers of supplemental meals options, such as frozen and boxed shelf stable meals, which are commonly the go-to suppliers used by Meals on Wheels providers around the country were overwhelmed with orders that first week and every call the County Council made ended up in a dead end. Knowing that getting emergency food to the consumers was vital led to seeking that food locally. Eventually, the major suppliers were able to fill back orders and the deliveries started to arrive.
With all center based operations shut down and the building being closed to anyone other than staff, the center room is now a food packaging area where the Council on Aging staff put together emergency bags, sort prepacked meals for delivery and is the staging area for the expanded Home Delivered Meal deliveries.
Since Governor DeWine’s Executive Order went into effect on March 17 the Council on Aging has delivered more than 7,000 meals to our people.
To ensure the safety of the staff and the consumers staff follow all of the recommended precautions. The staff check their temperatures each morning, practice social distancing, and wash and sanitize hands frequently. During deliveries the staff do not go into the consumer’s homes. The driver has to see the consumer and leave the meal at the door so there is no physical contact, but the well-being of each consumer is observed at the time of delivery. Vehicles are sanitized daily as is the kitchen, offices, center room, hallways, bathrooms and foyer. The Council takes every measure possible to ensure the safety of those who work at the center and those they serve.
Working with Buckeye Hills Regional Council Area Agency on Aging staff and the local Department of Job and Family Services permitted the transfer of current funding to concentrate on home delivered meals.
On Friday, the Council Executive Director, Beth Shaver, signed an addendum to the current contract with Buckeye Hills for the additional funding that was made available through the Family First Coronavirus Response Act. These federal dollars will help cover some of the meals that will be provided in April. Federal and state funding have never covered the total cost of the Council’s meal program and averages about 21 percent of the total senior nutrition budget. Local levy dollars, fundraising, earned income and contributions make up the remainder.
The last few weeks have seemed endless at times and while the staff have tried to always be proactive the best laid plans were constantly changing to accommodate the changing reality that the circumstances brought. It has been challenging, worrisome, and emotional, but the staff at the Council have always met every challenge head on and seen it through to the end.
There are other concerns of some short-term and long-term effects. The Council’s earned income was immediately curtailed and that comes from bakery items, lunches, caterings, and wellness center classes. Also affected was fundraising. March is always March for Meals time when the Council hosts its annual dinner, cake contest and auction held on the last Thursday of the month and is the biggest fundraiser of the year.
The Council staff are thankful for those who have made donations, have sent their well wishes and offers of assistance. There are many who have offered help in the form of volunteering and that may be an option before all of this is over. The Council staff are very appreciative of the expressions of support that have flowed in. One driver commented on a passerby on the walking trail in Middleport thanking her for what she is doing. Another shared the responses of some of the people on the route who accepted the emergency food bags with appreciation and tears. The thank you cards on the Bravo Board in the center’s hallway from those receiving the service continue to grow. Phone calls of thanks, text messages, cards, and emails arrive daily from consumers, families, and the public.
Now comes the planning for the return to full operations and trying to figure out how that will look and when it can happen. The staff are looking for the silver lining in this disruption to normal operations and the lessons to be learned are many. The mission will always be the guiding principle for the staff as a new normal unfolds.
Enrollment for the temporary home delivered meal service is still open to those who meet the guidelines. To find out if someone is eligible please call the Council at 740-992-2161.
Beth Shaver is the executive director of the Meigs County Council on Aging.