A board member and volunteer for Impact Services, the organization that includes Meals on Wheels, Coffey would normally go into each client’s home and chat with them.
A soft touch on the arm or a face-to-face interaction meant the world to her.
Over the past few weeks, that has all changed.
An invisible barrier has formed between Coffey — who has more than doubled her delivery runs — and those clients she normally interacts with. Many of them are elderly or have medical conditions that put them at high risk to the lethal coronavirus spreading across the globe.
Coffey no longer places meals on the table or directly in the hands of her clients. She now must leave the food on a doorstep or hanging from a doorknob before taking a few steps back. The visits also serve as a wellness check, and Coffey sees if the client is dressed and asks if they are feeling well.
“I enjoy delivering meals because I think everyone needs human contact,” Coffey said. “Now it is different.”
The precautions are not so much about her catching the coronavirus and getting sick. She fears becoming a carrier of the virus without symptoms and potentially infecting some of her older clients.
Many of Minnesota’s organizations and businesses have been shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus. For groups like Meals on Wheels, that is not an option. The community they serve needs them more than ever.
Normally, three out of four Meals on Wheels clients receive a meal every day. During the outbreak, that has been reduced to every other day. On days a meal is not delivered, staff will call each client to check in and see how they are doing.
Clients get a menu at the beginning of the month and choose what they eat on their delivery days. The meals include a hot entree like spaghetti or chicken fried steak, vegetable and potato sides, a roll, milk and a dessert.
The number of referrals for clients to get a meal has increased since the start of the outbreak.
Before the pandemic, 4,000 clients a week were served a meal thanks to Meals on Wheels. Now it is up to 4,416. And that number might still rise. “I expect to see it increase as the outbreak goes on,” Meals on Wheels Executive Director Patrick Rowan said.
HIGH DEMAND, MORE VOLUNTEERS
With meals in high demand, a need for more volunteers has followed.
In a given year, more than 10,000 volunteers serve with Meals on Wheels.
Over the past two weeks, over 2,700 new volunteers have filled out volunteer forms on its website.
Volunteer shifts last about an hour and serve around 10 to 15 meals.
Rowan is encouraged to see the community rally around them during the pandemic. “People have been so responsive,” he said. “It is really humbling to see that outpour of support.”
Another way for citizens to help out Meals on Wheels, Rowan said, is to contribute to the group financially, which helps provide underprivileged families with meals they otherwise couldn’t afford.
Given the number of uncertainties brought on by this pandemic, Rowan wants clients to be certain that their meals will still be delivered and no one is forgotten. “We just don’t want to turn anyone away.”
DON’T FORGET TO SOCIAL DISTANCE
Since a large number of volunteers are retirees, extra precautions are taken to ensure health for those delivering meals.
Two weeks ago, the organization began implementing social distancing measures that reduce face-to-face exposure with clients.
Some of the new policies include leaving the meals at doorsteps or hanging them on doorknobs. Volunteers are also told to take a step back and make sure the family receives their meal at the door. They are told to wash their hands with hand sanitizer before and after delivery.
Before Coffey begins her hourlong route, she uses hand sanitizer, puts on rubber gloves and takes the meals out of her makeshift quarantine in the back of her Jeep.
NO END IN SIGHT
With the safety and health of clients and workers the top priority for the organization, that doesn’t make the separation any easier.
“One client said to me, ‘I just want to see a face today,’ ’’ Coffey said. “It is hard.”
So, even though no concrete end of the pandemic is in sight, Coffey will continue doing what she’s done: delivering meals.
“It is important for people to know it is such a needed service.”