— Public health organizations in Wisconsin have been grappling with new challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For contact tracers and case managers, we were calling people to either tell them to quarantine or to give them their positive test results, we needed a lot of information from them — especially information that people were not excited about giving,” said Maren Hawkins, a PhD student with UW-Milwaukee’s Zilber School of Public Health.

While conducting contact tracing in the Milwaukee area during the pandemic, Hawkins said many people she reached were reluctant to provide details, such as contact information for other people that may have been exposed.

During a recent virtual discussion hosted by UW-Milwaukee, she explained that “listening and building trust was vital” in those conversations.

“A lot of people were hesitant. I mean, we’re just strangers talking as a voice over the phone,” she said. “You really needed to meet people where they were.”

Jonathan Sancen, clinic manager at the Parkway site for Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, also emphasized the importance of catering outreach to the community in southeast Wisconsin. About 85 percent of Sixteenth Street’s patients are Latino, and 70 percent prefer a language other than English, mainly Spanish.

Along with ensuring outreach was culturally sensitive and specific to patients’ preferred language, Sixteenth Street also helped educate and inform employers when patients were required to isolate due to COVID-19 exposure or infection.

“A lot of times, there were providers reaching out to the supervisors or managers, letting them know this is the case, and this is what we need,” Sancen said.

Even as Sixteenth Street was ramping up outreach and conducting widespread testing, the organization was struggling with financial challenges posed by the pandemic. Like many other health care providers, Sixteenth Street saw an decrease in patient visits last year — particularly at the start of the pandemic.

Chris Mambu Rasch, director of community relations at Sixteenth Street, said “the financial impact is huge.” That was compounded by a shortage of personal protective equipment in the early stages of the pandemic, as clinics were scrambling to secure enough PPE to protect their workers.

Hawkins said local public health departments as well as the state Department of Health Services “worked tirelessly” during the pandemic, but added that they have been constrained by a lack of funding. Wisconsin has previously been ranked among the bottom 10 U.S. states for both state-level and federal public health funding.

Still, Rasch noted that federal funding supporting things like rental assistance, FoodShare programs and additional unemployment payments “have all been critical” in broadly supporting public health and economic stability during the pandemic.