An abundance of healthy selections. Clearly marked nutrition labeling. The ability to pre-order. Fresh produce and meat. The 364,040 people in Connecticut who face hunger—one in every 10 residents—are increasingly likely to find these and other grocery store-like features at their local food pantries.
On paper, the social worker’s role at public K-12 schools is straightforward: to support a caseload of students with special needs to thrive in often-challenging academic setting. But ask a social worker employed in a public school these days, and they’re likely to tell a much different story. For social worker Jara Rijs, who works at Windham Center School, where more than half of its pre-K through fifth-grade students qualify for subsidized lunch, the job responsibilities bleed well beyond the job description, particularly since the pandemic hit. As many in her school community face trauma either induced or exacerbated by the pandemic, Rijs says she considers every one of the estimated 250 students at her elementary school part of her caseload. Beyond providing clinical support to students with individual education plans, in a given day, Rijs might also meet with a student struggling with a family loss or divorce, connect to a community health agency to check availability, lead a staff discussion on self-care, or even don the school’s “froggy” mascot costume—a symbol of the school’s “Froggy Four” character development program.
When University of Connecticut student Natalie Plebanek was 16 years old, she suffered heavy menstrual periods and subsequent fainting spells. But when she asked her pediatrician about a prescription for birth control pills, proven to reduce menstrual bleeding significantly, the doctor balked, citing a common myth. “She thought I would become extremely sexually active,” Plebanek said. Now 21, Plebanek is considering a more convenient method of birth control. Seeking advice from a gynecologist about her options, she was handed a brochure.
Wilfredo Estrada, a 71-year-old New Haven resident and native of Peru, says getting colonoscopies is “muy necesario.” His father died from colon cancer at age 65, and he knows family history plays a role in cancer risk. Estrada described his odyssey fighting polyps detected by preventive colonoscopy screenings, which he has been getting since 2018. During the most recent procedure, Estrada says, the doctor found and extracted 29 polyps, all noncancerous. When asked if he tells people he knows how important it is to get screened, Estrada responded through his interpreter, “No. It’s not something I like to share with others.”
By staying current with colonoscopies, Estrada is doing his part to avoid becoming a cancer statistic.
The fallout from the pandemic has run the gamut from an unstable economy to an uptick in social-emotional problems. Experts suggest the pandemic may also be responsible for a continued upward trajectory in sexually transmitted diseases among Connecticut’s youngest sexually active residents. Conditions during the pandemic, including less access to sexual health care and more free time, have helped to exacerbate the trend among young people, say health care providers. “Most parents are working. Students are home alone. They are having friends over,” said Ceri Burke, a nurse practitioner at Danbury High School’s on-site health center.
Jennifer Lortie is accustomed to facing obstacles to health care. The 37-year-old assistive technology specialist for United Cerebral Palsy of Eastern Connecticut has cerebral palsy. As she describes it, her condition, which resulted in quadriplegia, means “pretty decent use of my left arm, very limited [use] of right arm, and no use of my legs.”
Lortie has worn glasses since she was a young girl; when she was smaller, her father would carry her up the steps of the eye doctor’s office, which wasn’t handicap accessible. When that became unfeasible, she had to find another eye doctor. People with disabilities have long experienced inadequate access to health care.
Thirteen-year-old Estrella Roman and her mother have made the 30-minute walk to Rogers Park Middle School in Danbury several times during the pandemic, even when the school has been closed for in-person learning. That’s because the school’s on-site health center is where Estrella, who emigrated with her family from Ecuador in 2019, receives routine vaccinations, wellness care, and treatment for headaches, among other health services. Estrella’s mother, Katherine, who doesn’t speak English, said through Estrella that she’s “very grateful” for the teachers who told her that Estrella could still receive care there even when schools were closed. She praised the school nurse as patient and Spanish-speaking and said she would not have known where to seek care if not for the school-based health center. During their three decades in operation, Connecticut’s school-based health centers – defined by the state as fully-licensed primary care facilities — have become a critical health care delivery option, especially for children who have limited access to regular medical care.
Felicia Tambascio’s first pregnancy was going fairly smoothly. But on July 20, at week 38, the 20-year-old Brookfield resident woke with horrible upper abdominal cramps, a searing headache, and vomiting. Her boyfriend took her to the hospital, but Tambascio was left to wait in a hallway alone. Per COVID-19 restrictions, no visitors were allowed unless the patient was admitted to labor and delivery. After it was discovered that Tambascio was suffering from the life-threatening condition preeclampsia, she was escorted to the labor and delivery ward and induced.
Earlier this year, a National Institutes of Health (NIH) examination of death certificates in the U.S. showed a sharp rise in alcohol-related deaths between 1999 and 2017. Connecticut mirrored those numbers, and addiction organizations stepped up their efforts to reach those in need. Then came the pandemic. Treatment centers, support groups and the state were suddenly ordered to shut down. “We like to say the opposite of addiction is connection,” said Thomas Russo, spokesman for the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR).
Over the past 20 years, Connecticut women with cognitive or physical disabilities have found their way to the Gaylord Specialty Healthcare’s Gynecological Clinic for Women with Disabilities in Wallingford. There, obstetrician-gynecologist (ob-gyn) Anna Tirado provides routine and preventive gynecological care to disabled women. Now nearing retirement age, Tirado isn’t sure what will happen when she no longer sees patients. “I am very worried. The patients are not going to be easily absorbed into a private practice,” she said.