Laois County Council County Hall in Portlaoise lit up in support of the frontline workers. Picture: Denis Byrne
Following the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions on March 27, and the placing of the local authority at the centre of the local response, a Community Response Support Forum was established by Laois County Council.
Convened on March 29 under the Chairmanship of Laois County Council Chief Executive, John Mulholland, the Forum is comprised of an extensive list of state and voluntary organisations, and the Council is tasked with coordinating and connecting the wide range of supports and services that are available.
As well as the Cathaoirleach and management and staff of the Council directly involved in the response effort, the membership of the Forum extends to include a local Community Champion, Paddy Buggy, and representation from a range of statutory agencies and voluntary community organisations including: HSE, An Garda Siochana, Laois Partnership Company, An Post, Tusla, Laois Public Participation Network, LocalLink Rural Transport Company, GAA, IFA, Citizens Information, Laois Chamber of Commerce, Laois Volunteer Centre, Age Friendly Alliance, ALONE, Order of Malta, Laois Asylum Migrant Integration Service and Voice of Migrants Ireland.
The council says the Forum has convened on a twice weekly basis since formation, while continuing to observe social distancing requirements, sharing all relevant information and consolidating and ensuring that the response at local level is delivered in an organised, collaborative and targeted way.
The council says all of the organisations involved are key players in terms of mobilising their own resources within Laois to address the challenges posed by COVID-19 and ensuring assistance is readily available to the most vulnerable within our community.
As well as the essential front line activities of the HSE, other services include those offered by An Post like Request a Check in, and newspaper deliveries, and revised arrangements for pension collections, the delivery of test samples and essential medications by Laois Civil Defence, the supports offered by the Laois Partnership Company as part of an enhanced response under social inclusion measures, the engagement by local GAA clubs with major supermarket chains for delivery of essential groceries, and the level of response to the unprecedented circumstances.
A key element of the overall response was the establishment by the Council of a dedicated Laois Covid-19 Community Response Helpline available 8am to 8pm, seven days a week, to facilitate the most appropriate community response to the needs of vulnerable people living in the community where their usual sources of support have become unavailable due to the virus.
The council says this confidential free helpline service is focused first and foremost on ensuring that vulnerable members of the community or those living alone can access deliveries of groceries, medicine and fuel.
Work on establishment of the helpline commenced on the night of Friday, March 27 and continued over the weekend with the Council’s ICT staff installing a new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system capable of being operated remotely in accordance with social distancing guidelines.
Over that weekend with most businesses closed, suppliers were sourced, system installation and set up commenced, delivery of a new 1800 number was arranged, and equipment deliveries arrived.
The council's Community Department staff devised the training and operating guidelines for helpline staff on management of calls and gathered the wealth of information that the helpline operator needs to have available to arrange the most appropriate response for each individual caller.
The helpline was widely publicised through the Council’s website and social media pages, as well as by erection of signage on major roads in the county, and continues to be manned remotely by council staff, many working from their own homes, on a daily basis.
Up to Easter Sunday the helpline has received 184 calls. 25% of calls received to date are from vulnerable individuals seeking collection/delivery of groceries/medicines/fuel. 9 % have been from individuals experiencing social isolation or expressing concerns with regard to someone who may be in that situation, and seeking information on supports and engagement with specialist service providers such as ALONE. 8% were medically related queries and referred to HSE, with Meals on Wheels service and An Garda Siochana related support requests making up a further 5%.
Overall, 53% of calls received to the Helpline, are coming from individuals, not seeking help, but rather wishing to volunteer to help with the response effort, and these callers are redirected to the local volunteer centre.
The council says that the quantity of calls received is not the key concern, but more importantly that the public are aware and especially the most vulnerable members, that help is at hand and that someone is there to listen and to assist you with your particular concern. As the Easter Weekend approached, the Laois Volunteer Centre reported 160 volunteers have applied specifically to assist with Covid-19 activity and the skillsets of those volunteers include nursing / healthcare, engineering, first aid, teaching, counselling, trades and IT skills.
Such a response is testimony to the tremendous community spirit at play in our county at this difficult time.
Likewise, the Laois Public Participation Network has set up and widely publicised an interactive map of the County showing Community Groups that are offering supports during Covid-19 to the elderly and vulnerable in the county. At the last count 87 different community groups had registered for inclusion.
The map can be accessed on the Laois PPN website laoisppn.ie
The council says that most importantly however is that the Community Response Forum has been at pains to ensure that volunteers do not put themselves in harm's way and that they adhere strictly to public health guidance in the course of volunteering activities.
As the current Covid-19 restrictions continue until May 5, the Community Response Forum and Helpline will remain in place to monitor developments and deliver an appropriate response to this constantly evolving situation.
Laois County Council also participated in the #shineyourlight initiative on Saturday, April 11 at 9pm by lighting up some key Council buildings in a show of solidarity to honour all the sick, those who have lost their lives, frontline staff and healthcare workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A link to the Community Response Support page is included at www. laois.ie