In late March, an extended family of eight members—two grandparents, two parents and four children—fled the New York City area to escape the spreading pandemic and moved in with a related family of five in the South Hills.

It seemed like a good idea—except that those coming to southwestern Pennsylvania didn’t realize that some of them were already infected.

A few days later, some of the 13 family members now living together in a three-bedroom house were starting to show symptoms while others were still going to the grocery store to get food—an action that could have transmitted the virus widely.

The Allegheny County Health Department referred the case to DHS, which asked South Hills Interfaith Movement (SHIM) to help. It was still early in the crisis, and the family urgently needed PPE and hand sanitizer—items not available in any store at that time—along with food.

SHIM immigrant services coordinator Michelle King sprang into action to coordinate a host of services. She got cleaning supplies and PPE from Pittsburgh Cares and coordinated food supplies through SHIM’s food pantry and backpacks with extra supplies provided by SEND Relief Network. Within one day of the referral, King dropped off a package on the sidewalk, calling the family from the car to let them know of the delivery.

The following week, the family split up into two residences to reduce the risk of virus transmission to other family members. King got them bedding for their second residence and utility bill assistance from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Council, along with mortgage and rental assistance from the United Way Emergency Basic Needs fund. She also referred them for unemployment assistance and guided them through applying for other public benefits—all over the phone to avoid direct contact, while being mindful of the English-language limitations of an immigrant family.

“Both grandparents ended up in the hospital at different points,” King explained. “Since there weren’t enough tests available at the time, we had to assume everyone was COVID-positive and encouraged them to remain as separate as possible.

“Back then, the message was to stay in place, but the family might have saved their lives by coming to Pittsburgh.”

King’s supervisor, Courtney Macurak, agreed. “The grandmother had underlying health conditions and was at high risk,” she explained. “She was able to get specialized care and ongoing medical treatments here, which she may not have been able to access at the height of the crisis in New York.”

Doing complex casework over the phone takes creativity. “I had the family send photos of things like their lease agreement and evidence of unemployment to my cell phone,” King said. “With other clients, I have been texting pictures of forms to them—if I have the forms in their language—and going through an interpreter if I don’t.”

King and Macurak were expecting a long-term case, but their rapid response paid great dividends. When SHIM took a second round of food to the family in late April, everyone was healthy and the household head who had come from New York already had a job in Pittsburgh. “They’ve been very resourceful,” Macurak commented. “They just needed help getting through the crisis.”