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Wash U-Based ‘Focus-19’ Initiative Puts 211 Call Data To Good Use

For evidence of the coronavirus pandemic’s wide-ranging toll on society, monthly jobs reports and quarterly GDP numbers are go-to sources of information — and highly credible ones. But for a more granular, real-time sense of the extent of community needs, a group of researchers at Washington University has been looking elsewhere: at 211 calls.

Washington University
Matthew Kreuter and his colleagues in Wash U’s Brown School are tracking the day-to-day economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis.

That’s the phone number that millions of people across the U.S. dial over the course of any given year to get connected to a wide variety of social services in their area. Every time a call comes in, it’s recorded, making 211 “the best surveillance system in the country when it comes to the daily needs of vulnerable populations,” Matthew Kreuter said.

“We get new data every day,” Kreuter, the Kahn Family professor of Public Health at Wash U, told St. Louis on the Air. “We can see what people called about yesterday.”

Kreuter and his colleagues in the university’s Health Communication Research Laboratory have been aiming to make the most of the information about these expressed, on-the-ground needs through a project they started several years ago, 2-1-1 Counts. Once COVID-19 began hitting the U.S. hard, they added another component to that work — what they’ve dubbed Focus-19.

Washington University

The initiative is helping people see the needs in their own communities — and the ongoing crisis’ effects in areas beyond the disease itself — in fresh ways. For social services agencies and policymakers, Focus-19 can provide concrete data to argue for critical resources. And everyday people eager to help can get a sense of where their efforts and funds can best be spent.

On Thursday’s show, Kreuter joined host Sarah Fenske for a closer look at what he and other Wash U researchers are learning about pressing needs in the St. Louis region and beyond.

Across the country, one of the most striking areas of need shot up within just a few days of the World Health Organization declaring a pandemic on March 11.

“We saw increases of almost 500% in requests to 211 [helplines] for food pantries and for diapers and for toilet paper and things like that,” Kreuter said. “So you definitely can pick up almost immediately signals of where there are spikes in need. And the other piece of this that’s so important is that 211 captures these data at a highly local level. So we know what’s happening in specific ZIP codes on specific days, so that’s really unique.”

A little over a week ago, the Focus-19 team launched a St. Louis-specific project as a way to zoom in on regional trends. Already the group has begun releasing reports on that front.

“In Missouri in general, we looked at the relationship between unemployment claims and rent assistance requests,” Kreuter said by way of example. “And in fact you find exactly what you would expect to find: that places where there are more new unemployment claims, there are also more rent assistance requests that 211s are receiving.

“We’ve also looked at electrical bill payment requests to 211s, and those have really skyrocketed since Ameren suspended its disconnection prevention notice.”

Local transportation needs have also captured the researchers’ attention.

“Those who are in more densely urban areas are really looking for help with public transportation, passes, vouchers and things like that,” Kreuter said, “while people in outlying areas tend to have cars but they can’t pay to operate their cars. They need repairs or they need fuel or they need assistance just to carry out their daily activities.”

Overall, Kreuter noted, the data and the sheer 211 call volumes in recent weeks and months speak to how much many Americans are struggling.

“Just to put that in some perspective, it’s not just that you’re getting twice as many calls as you used to — every one of those calls is somebody who needs help, [and] they’re getting referred to agencies that do not have an endless supply of resources and assistance,” he said. “There’s just far more demand for help right now than there actually is in most communities.

“We’re gonna have to be a lot smarter and more efficient in how we allocate this. And that’s where I think information like this, as sad as it is to see, can be helpful and can help hopefully direct resources in an optimal way.”

The work of United Way of Greater St. Louis, which oversees 211 helplines in the St. Louis region, has been a critical component in making the Wash U effort possible.

“They're the backbone of all of this,” Kreuter said. “We just are fortunate to partner with them and try to bring about community improvement with their help.”

He added that while the Focus-19 project is still a relatively new one, there is encouraging anecdotal evidence already about legislators and others using data from the Focus-19 dashboard to take action.

“One example is in Connecticut [where new policy] will provide support for those who can’t pay their water bills, and there was no real local resource to help that,” Krueter said. “And there are other stories like that from across the U.S.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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