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Detroit area social workers step up to help during pandemic

In this Friday, June 5, 2020, photo, founder Amanda Stein, from left, volunteer Lois Failing, assistant pantry manager Natacha Joyce and lead dispatcher Michael Abbott, all of Madison Heights, box food, in Madison Heights, Mich. State of Michigan social worker Stein, founded the Madison Heights Food Pantry to provide food to people in need during COVID-19. Stein and a gathering retinue of volunteers raised funds. "To be honest, this has totally changed my life," Stein said. (Todd McInturf/Detroit News via AP)

By GREGG KRUPA

The Detroit News

An AP Member Exchange

DETROIT — When Amanda Stein heard the schools were shutting down as the coronavirus spread, she set up a food pantry in Madison Heights.

Three months later, it serves 1,000 people a week.

“When the schools closed, I had an idea of what might be coming,” said Stein, a licensed social worker who had taken time off from regular employment, only to answer the call, again, as the pandemic struck.

“The food, obviously, was a big one, with people not being able to leave their houses and go to grocery stores, people not working. I said, well somebody needs to start a food pantry in the city, because Madison Heights did not have a food pantry at the time.”

As COVID-19 sunk its indiscriminate teeth into Metro Detroit, Stein said her training instinctively led her.

Attentive to forces that create problems for living, especially on the fringes, she said she thought of the needy and vulnerable and realized the critical role schools play in food security.

Councilwoman Kymm Clark got the city to donate a recreation building, Stein said. Her landlord donated some industrial shelving. Restaurants and businesses, including Costco, Sysco and Dearborn Brand, made donations.

And Stein and a gathering retinue of volunteers raised funds.

“To be honest, this has totally changed my life,” Stein said.

“I was a stay-at-home mom for the most part.”

All across Metro Detroit, in the unsettling, hectic days of the onset of COVID-19, social workers encountered similar opportunities and seized them, The Detroit News reported.

Like doctors and nurses on the front lines of the coronavirus or those responding first in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, social workers encountered a topsy-turvy world, especially for people who already live with considerable concerns.

Social workers who usually prepare patients for outpatient routines after surgery responded instead to the awesome tragedy of death in isolation, stricken patients barred from aching families.

“The social work background is really helpful to try to understand a predicament in a specific social context,” said Emily Fagre, a social worker for Michigan Medicine at University Hospital in Ann Arbor.

In a few short days, Fagre went from helping children and women with fairly standard health care to providing the only communication between patients stricken with COVID-19 and their often overwhelmed families.

“As the patient’s needs grew, I moved up to that unit full-time,” Fagre said. “I sought to be their voice, their presence, to see how the families were coping and then talk to them about their loved one’s care.

“The families were so resilient. It was such an unprecedented time,” she said.

“One of the things we are normally able to do is to have conversations face-to-face, to see the loved ones and help them prepare and to advocate for them. This really turned everything upside down in terms of the family understanding what is going on and our ideas about how to make that work.”

Fagre said the situation motivated her to do her work, to bring her training to bear and provide some remedy.

“Adaptability is important,” she said. “Flexibility.”

Brian Nickerson, a social worker from Ypsilanti, usually works with adults who have cystic fibrosis, as an inpatient social worker.

“That’s my bread and butter,” he said. “Suddenly, I was coping with death in isolation.”

With families unable to stand at bedsides to comfort dying loved ones, and many victims sedated and intubated, Nickerson struggled to make critical illness and death more normal.

“They are fighting for their lives and I am supporting the families,” said Nickerson, who works for Michigan Medicine at University Hospital.

“The families themselves are really isolated, given the security check, and most families members are also are quarantining because they’ve had contact with their loved one.

“So it is really a matter of coping with death in isolation,” he said. “Sometimes, I was the only outside voice they heard.

“Sometimes, when the patient is at the end of their lives, in the last 24 hours, I would invite family members to come to be at their bedside and support them, logistically, through the system.”