When public housing towers were put into hard lockdown last July, our General Manager Mental Health AOD & Prevention, Olive Aumann, was seconded to cohealth along with staff from other community health services, including EACH, to deliver care and support to residents.
On reflection, one of the key learnings from the COVID-19 response in the towers was the health concierge program, which provided a consistent and culturally sensitive approach to supporting the health and wellbeing of residents during the peak of the pandemic and beyond. We spoke to Olive to find out more about the program, and the important role of community health in caring for at-risk and vulnerable communities.
What was your role at the public housing towers during lockdown?
My role during my secondment at cohealth was to establish and manage onsite health and wellbeing responses for residents living in public housing towers in Carlton, Fitzroy and Collingwood. This involved setting up onsite clinics at the estates with GPs, community health nurses, testing nurses, and health concierges, and coordinating with staff in areas such as infection control, security, community engagement and bicultural workers.
Along with establishing clinics, we provided in-home care and support for COVID-19 positive residents whose condition could be safely managed at home. The support we provided included food and essential items (including sourcing of culturally appropriate food and supplies), picking up medications for residents, and regularly monitoring people to check on their condition. Community health nurses also referred and connected residents to other services and community supports when required.
At the towers there were lots of challenges for residents, including families with small children needing to isolate together for several weeks in small apartment spaces, older residents living alone fearful of leaving their home during lockdown, and the challenge of navigating day to day COVID safety in buildings where communal living spaces need to be shared. Because of this, the work of the community health team needed to be adaptable and responsive to people’s different needs and circumstances.
Can you describe the health concierge program?
The health concierge program was an initiative funded by the Victorian Department of Health designed to support residents during and after the COVID-19 outbreak in the towers. The aim of the program was to provide localised community engagement and health promotion, advice about restrictions, information resources, health services, and community supports. Importantly, the program aimed to hear from residents about their lived experience, their challenges and their ideas about how improvements could be made.
We had a very successful recruitment campaign to recruit local residents living in the towers into the role. The health concierges worked on site in the high-rise towers seven days a week supporting residents in a range of ways, including providing culturally accessible information (in a resident’s language), answering and raising questions, as well as mediating and advocating for issues raised. In addition, they provided masks and sanitiser, and importantly worked to build understanding and trust between residents and health clinic staff which supported their access to services.
The health concierges also worked with community engagement staff to produce videos in different languages, helping to communicate important COVID-19 information and support residents’ understanding of changes to restrictions and COVID-19 updates.
How has the concierge program benefited public housing residents?
The health concierge program with local residents in the role has had a range of benefits for residents, particularly in providing them with a friendly face and trusted source of communication during what was a very stressful time.
As the health concierges were residents themselves and often friends or family of people in the community, they were trusted and could act as the link between them and Department of Health and clinic staff. Being able to bridge the cultural and linguistic divide meant that the concierges could get the full story from residents who needed help, mediate situations where residents weren’t getting the support they needed, and help improve our understanding of their complex needs.
Some of the residents working as health concierges had never had a job before in Australia, so the other major benefit was being able to employ them in very meaningful jobs. They were really enthusiastic, committed, and understood the importance of their role in representing their community’s voice.
Do you think the pandemic has highlighted the importance of community health services, particularly when it comes to caring for at-risk communities?
Yes, I think it has shown the value of community health and demonstrated how deeply embedded we are in our community.
Community health is really important, because we are trusted by the community and can quickly and effectively engage with people who might be at-risk. We’re also good at forming partnerships within the health and other sectors, which enables us to build rapport and trust with communities.
Prior to your work with the COVID-19 response, what has been your experience working with at-risk members of the community?
When I first started working at Carrington Health in the late 1990s (back when it was Whitehorse Community Health Service), I coordinated our Needle Syringe Program (NSP) during a time when heroin use was increasing dramatically in Melbourne. This was a great example of us working with the council and partners to help a very vulnerable group of people.
I have always been passionate about working in a way that aims to reduce health inequities and inequalities. Throughout my career, this has involved supporting structural and system changes to help improve the health of people at-risk, such as those living in public housing and other high-risk accommodation settings.
Image: Health concierge staff working at a one of the public housing towers.
For the latest COVID-19 information and updates visit www.coronavirus.vic.gov.au