How’s Rhode Island Managing the COVID Crisis?

Editor’s Note: The following interview is with Melissa Jenkins Ph.D., clinical neuropsychologist and clinical assistant professor at Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

How would you describe Rhode Island’s response to the crisis?

rhode island
Melissa Jenkins, PhD, shares her perspective as a psychologist and community leader on COVID-19 in Rhode Island. (Photo credit: Angelina Rose Photography)

Rhode Island is an amazingly interconnected place. Even when we can’t be physically close to one another, I see all of my neighbors and friends reaching out to donate whatever assets and unique talents they have to help neighbors get through this crisis. We have incredible leadership in this fight. Right now, in living rooms across Rhode Island, little girls are setting up pretend podiums to play ‘Giving the Daily Briefing’, and they’re all saying the same thing. “Knock It Off.”

Rhode Island Governor Raimondo and Director of Health Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott have provided transparent, factual, and in-depth information direct to the public every single day. Local reporters and media have covered it extensively and clearly, and broadcast it widely with open and free access, bypassing their own paywalls even in a time of great uncertainty for that industry. The coordination of effort in calling for volunteers, donated supplies, and charitable giving has been incredible. Healthcare providers have taken leadership roles in calling for PPE and sound policy, and they are readying themselves for the surge. Essential workers are going to work under extremely trying circumstances.

Businesses are gearing up to help, some even hiring new staff. Our Rhode Island Congressional representatives are delivering Federal Aid and keeping us informed, and multiple lines of relief for unemployed workers, small businesses, and the self-employed are rapidly being deployed in a coordinated and effective way. Among the chaos, misinformation, and circus atmosphere at the Federal level, we have shown calm preparedness and an indomitable community spirit. I am so proud to be a Rhode Islander right now, and so grateful to every single member of our community who has stepped into a role they did not anticipate but willingly accept.

Do you think that marginalized populations (poor, elderly, people of color, particularly women) are being prioritized by the state’s response?

These populations are certainly the most vulnerable, and they are going to need the most help as they will be the most affected by this crisis. The early response to open a special healthcare enrollment window to make sure that everyone is covered, to make sure that people are not evicted, to make sure that utilities will not be cut off, and to make sure that food assistance is uninterrupted, are all laudable. Attention to childcare for essential workers has been ongoing.

As soon as schools were closed, meals were available offsite or even delivered. Some senior centers did the same. That’s impressive, and I’m also incredibly impressed by the formal philanthropic response of the RI Foundation and United Way to quickly create a fund to help nonprofits meet immediate needs. I’m also impressed by the informal ‘mutual aid’ helping responses, which are creating networks for local exchanges between those who need and those who can offer any kind of information or help.

I know that the level of anxiety is very high with so many people being suddenly unemployed, but I’m very confident that our elected officials are aware of the needs of vulnerable populations and are doing everything they can to solve problems. Philanthropic groups and our community as a whole are going to fill the cracks to make sure that we all get through this. I know that a lot of people are worried about having what they need, but as I see the responses of all Rhode Islanders to look out for each other, it makes me feel confident that everyone will get the essential tools to be able to weather this storm. If there’s one thing that Rhode Islanders are good at, it’s looking out for each other, and we’re doing more of that than ever before.

What do we need to do more to flatten the curve?

Everyone in Rhode Island needs to listen to and heed the advice of our public health officials when they tell us to stay home, minimize our contacts, track our contacts, and practice good hygiene such as hand-washing and sanitization. Unfortunately, it took a longer time for some to heed this advice and to believe that the infection rates we saw in other countries would similarly affect us, but I think that everyone believes it now. Most of all, stay home.

As a helping professional, how can we attend to self care in this time?

Medical professionals are going to have to step up in a way that we have never stepped up before. Although exposure to traumatic events, illness, death, and their aftermath is a frequent part of our job, this situation is unprecedented in most of our lives. It’s much more akin to going to war than going to work right now. Frontline workers are literally putting their lives on the line to do their jobs, often under extremely trying circumstances and without proper equipment or enough help. I wrote a longer piece about this here.

I think we need to prepare ourselves for war. Mental preparation is helpful, but so is actual preparation in terms of workplaces setting up support networks for critical incident debriefing. We also need mental health support for frontline workers, as well as extra support with the basic needs in order for them to continue to go to work and care for their own families.

The demand for these services will soon be high and we have a little time to put them in place, so I hope to see the same kind of organized response towards this effort as we’ve created for other basic needs. Our healthcare workers are going to need our support to continue to function both during and after this crisis, and it’s never been clearer how valuable they are. We know a lot about how to ameliorate trauma and provide support for soldiers and first responders, and we need to put these supports in place for our healthcare workforce right now.


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Author: Melissa Jenkins, Ph.D.

Melissa Jenkins Ph.D. is a clinical neuropsychologist and clinical assistant professor at Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

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