Teri Ooms, Institute executive director at The Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development at Wilkes University, said The Institute realizes regional leaders will need reliable information, unbiased fact-based analysis, and real-time data to make the tough decisions necessary for a successful economic recovery.

“These decisions will need to be data-driven and The Institute is answering the call,” Ooms said. “Our region needs a well-defined path forward and we strongly believe that a comprehensive COVID-19 data and research initiative will be critical in this process.”

Ooms said studies include research on the economy, workforce, business and industry, local government, education, housing, social services, health and emergency planning are posted or in process.

She said the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce, Sordoni Family Foundation, and UGI Utilities along with the Luzerne County COVID_19 Emergency Response Fund of The Luzerne Foundation, Scranton Area Foundation’s NEPA COVID-19 Fund and Wells Fargo Foundation are the initial sponsors of this research.

Impact on Social Services

Ooms said the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in greater need among many populations who rely on social service agencies in various aspects of their life (e.g., health and mental health, food, housing, support, rehabilitation, job training, education, etc.). It has also significantly impacted the ability of those agencies to effectively deliver their services to the communities that need their help.

“We have conducted a survey of staff at numerous social service agencies throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania in order to identify the ways in which their organizations have been impacted by the pandemic,” said Andrew Chew, Senior Research & Policy Analyst at The Institute. “The questions focused on the impact on service delivery, processes and procedures, staffing and volunteers, and fundraising. Over 160 organizations responded.”

Chew said the survey also sought to gain a better understanding of how the region’s social service agencies have responded to the crisis, and what actions and best practices can be implemented to best serve the needs of their client populations (in addition to allowing the agencies to continue operating).

The following analysis includes social services organizations in Lackawanna and Luzerne County only. The original study covers the entire northeast quadrant of the state.

Social service organizations were asked how the pandemic is currently affecting those they serve.

Community organizations: Most said that cancelled tours, events, and visitation that account for fundraising and income affected them. Those in education mentioned that the closure of campuses, schools, and in-person instruction as well as the move to remote classes and office were affecting their populations’ needs the most.

Foundations noted that food, housing/utilities, loss of income, and homeschooling were the repeatedly named issues.

Recreation and Arts Organizations: Event cancellations (including fundraising), loss of work, and programming cancellations and limitations were affecting those they served.

Social services and health care: Had far more responses to the survey and have many more ways the pandemic is affecting the populations they serve. They most frequently stated that the overall need was increasing; clients were worried about unemployment, financial insecurity, child care, and, with a far greater emphasis, food insecurity. Clients are largely and negatively affected by isolation; the amount of programming and services shut down and events cancelled; and finally, an increase in mental health issues and/or suicides especially among veterans and first responders suffering from PTSD.

Many respondents said that they were serving low income families and individuals as well as those who are at high risk of falling ill due to COVID-19, whether attributed to health issues or poverty.

Respondents were also asked about the needs of the populations they serve in the long term.

The organizations were then asked about the long term ramifications on those they serve. Many cited mental health and childcare as top concerns beyond the overall need largely increasing. Others also noted that there may be an end to some services for a handful of reasons, including these organizations suffering from a significant cash flow disruption.

Just as there was mention of child abuse and domestic violence in the short term needs of clients, it has been mentioned here as a long term effect because how the pandemic affects abuse rates will not be known until later. They also noted there will be an increased need for public health programs and offerings and that telemedicine may become the new normal.

When asked how they have modified service delivery, many respondents from the two county region noted they use personal protective equipment and require clients to do so as well. They also stated that some services have been moved to a remote setting, if applicable, through Zoom, Zoom support groups, Google Meet calls, and other virtual options. Many also mentioned they follow CDC guidelines. There were a few respondents who remarked that they were unable to modify their services.

“Across the two-county region of Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, more than 90 percent of organizations report the pandemic has affected their financial resources,” Chew said. “A large share of the respondents note that their major fundraising events have been cancelled or made virtual, which have significantly affected organizational finances. Some note their cancelled fundraisers are the only form of income they have.”

Some are looking to other resources for funding and a handful have mentioned that they are more concerned with how COVID will affect future finances. A larger amount of organizations that indicated they hadn’t been affected were sure to note that they hadn’t been yet, indicating they anticipate being affected. Some found a silver lining stating that other opportunities for funding arose in response to COVID.

Those in Southern Luzerne County have noted that being able to go virtual helps finances slightly while another noted that going virtual also costs money that might not be readily available for the organizations and the populations they serve.

One in Lackawanna noted that compensation from insurance companies for telehealth visits has been an issue.

Volunteers utilized

Within the two-county region of Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, an average 86 percent of organizations utilize volunteers. Of those organizations that indicated they do use volunteers, a majority (average of 82 percent) stated that the pandemic has affected their volunteers’ ability to help.

A sizable portion of those who stated it did not affect them was a result of moving volunteer activities online with no detriment. The others said they were not affected because they were closed and there was nothing for volunteers to do.

“The study demonstrates the value of these organizations in our community, as they respond to an unprecedented public health event that impacted every facet of everyone’s life,” Ooms said. “It further demonstrates that these organizations face both similar and dissimilar challenges to other types of organizations as they deal with decreased revenue, employee furloughs and layoffs and technology investments which are a life line in business continuation.”

Ooms said the survey also demonstrates the scope and depth many of vulnerable residents are experiencing and it also demonstrates that social service organizations need to reinvest themselves by ensuring they have the proper technology, PPE and employed staff to operate.

“Finally, it supports that collaboration and data sharing are integral to uninterrupted and more effective service delivery,” Ooms said.

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