COVID has been a crisis in our community. Over the past two years, close to 2,000 people in Camden County have died, and we have seen record housing insecurity, food insecurity, and social isolation. Despite the damage the pandemic has wrought, COVID has also shown us what it looks like when a community comes together to work as a true ecosystem of care. Central to this ecosystem and the success of our collective COVID response in Camden has been our COVID Community Ambassador program

According to Victor Murray, Senior Director of Community Engagement and Capacity Building, during the pandemic “the Camden Coalition has been closer to the community than ever before in our history as an organization. The pandemic has forced all of us to think about our work differently.”

The Camden Coalition has worked in partnership with local providers, health systems, nonprofits, and local and state government agencies since our founding, relationships that were formalized through legislation in early 2020 when we were named a Regional Health Hub for South Jersey. The increased collaboration necessitated by the COVID pandemic created closer and more trusting relationships with both longtime and new partner organizations. These deeper connections allowed us to have more challenging conversations with our partners when things don’t always go as planned. And most importantly, says Victor, “we have continued to work together. These difficult conversations ultimately strengthened, rather than severed, our relationships. They were a comma, not a period.”

Trusted messengers were key to the community’s COVID response

As we began planning our collective COVID response in Camden, we knew that we needed trusted messengers who could get accurate information out to residents and bring back community feedback to the Camden Coalition and our partners at the Camden County Department of Health. To do so, we leveraged our former Community Ambassador program, which was originally created as a Census outreach effort, and updated its mission to provide accurate information about COVID vaccines and testing. The COVID Community Ambassador program is staffed and shaped by members of our Community Advisory Committee (CAC). 

The COVID Community Ambassador program was so integral to our COVID response because, according to Miguel Rodriguez, COVID Community Ambassador and former Chair of our CAC,  “misinformation about COVID vaccines was rife in the community. One individual I spoke to about the vaccine was wary because of false information he got from a local nurse,” Miguel says. “The nurse told him that the vaccine wasn’t safe, that they were using people as guinea pigs. I used the information I learned from Dr. Jubril [Oyeyemi, Medical Director of the Camden Coalition], and convinced him to get the shot.”

By late October 2021, the vaccination rate in the city of Camden reached 70%, an almost 20% increase from three months prior.

“We partnered up with so many organizations” for the Camden COVID vaccination effort, says Maritza Gomez, Program Manager for Community Engagement and Capacity Building. “From pharmacies to hospitals to school districts, churches, faith-based organizations — you name it, we’ve done it. And we couldn’t have done this without the Community Ambassadors and their feedback.”

Expanding the Community Ambassador model

Due to the program’s success, we are working hard to make sure that both our increased community collaboration and models like the COVID Community Ambassadors program continue beyond the pandemic and expand into other areas of our work. “We see our Ambassador program as a seed for the future of the public health workforce here in Camden,” says Victor.

For example, our community engagement team and CAC are already working with our clinical redesign team to explore how to use Community Ambassadors to address unmet behavioral health needs in Camden. “The need in the city of Camden is great,” says Miguel. “If you go downtown, you’ll see people using drugs, but something had to come before the drugs — some form of trauma that they’re self-medicating. We can help because we’re boots on the ground. A lot of times organizations don’t see what we see.”

Another byproduct of our COVID Community Ambassador program, says Maritza, is that our partner organizations now want to build their own ambassador programs: “We showed them what works.”

To that end, we are looking to codify the Community Ambassador role and programming for public health promotion activities in New Jersey and around the country. This includes figuring out compensation for community member roles like the Community Ambassadors. For community members enrolled in public benefits like Supplemental Security Income (SSI), extra income may jeopardize their eligibility for benefits.

As we seek to transform the still-fragmented care systems in Camden into an interconnected ecosystem of care in which every individual can receive coordinated, whole-person care rooted in authentic healing relationships, residents like Miguel who are committed to improving the lives of their neighbors will continue to be key to our efforts.

Through his role as a COVID Community Ambassador, he says, “I was able to help bring the change about for the betterment of the residents, and helped the organization to grow. I just love doing it — getting information from the community and bringing it forward, brainstorming with staff how we can make our response even better. The best thing for me was knowing that we could all grow together. It’s a great feeling to be a part of something that big.”