Responding to COVID-19

Marc Herstand

As I write this article our local communities, state, country and world are consumed by responding to Covid-19.

Things are changing with breath-taking speed.

In Wisconsin, colleges and universities are switching to virtual classes, closing their dormitories to the extent possible, and stopping athletic competitions. Elsewhere, conferences, gatherings and meetings are being cancelled throughout the state. Statewide high school sporting events are being cancelled as well as extra-curricular activities. Many residents are stocking up on items from grocery stores. There is clearly a great amount of fear and anxiety in the public throughout our state and nation.


At the Wisconsin chapter, we are adjusting our operations to keep our members and customers safe. We have cancelled our Madison and Milwaukee March is Social Work Month events, which we hope to reschedule in the summer or fall. We have converted our in-person ethics workshops in April and May into live webinars. Hopefully, by the time our annual conference arrives in October, this virus will be under control. However, if in a worst case scenario it is not controlled, we will be prepared to convert the annual conference to a virtual conference with access to all the keynote presentations and workshops.

In terms of the clients we serve, it is very likely that many of them are experiencing greatly in-creased anxiety and/or increased social isolation due to this virus. Many of our clients may not feel comfortable coming to clinic offices for services. Hopefully, alternative methods of treatment and support, including telemental health and even virtual support groups, can be instituted to help individuals needing support.

In this regard, in the current legislative session, NASW-WI helped to pass a telehealth bill that requires the Department of Health Services (DHS) to reimburse independently practicing licensed mental health professionals for telemental health services. Unfortunately, this bill has not yet been implemented by DHS who is working on rules and procedures. Yesterday, I sent an email to DHS asking that they proceed in an expedited emergency basis to implement this bill. In addition, I was informed by one of our Dane County therapists that CCS services will not be reimbursed for telemental health. I then sent a letter to DHS yesterday asking that they suspend this rule immediately and allow reimbursement for CCS clients for now. Just today, I received an email from a member stating that Rural Health Centers are not reimbursable for telemental health services. I forwarded this email to DHS, again, asking that this policy be changed.

Also today, I learned that the State of Wisconsin will be receiving ten million dollars to respond to the coronavirus. I immediately wrote our contacts at the Governor’s office, asking that they consider using some of this money for telemental health.

In every crisis there can be an opportunity. Perhaps our current crisis, terribly managed by our federal government, can show the American people that they do need the federal government to protect them and they need competent leader-ship at the Presidential level. Perhaps this is the time that we can move the needle on paid sick leave for all United States residents and expand on the Affordable Care Act, so all Americans have truly affordable comprehensive care. We social workers understand the impact on society’s most vulnerable clients, of weak public supports (i.e. lack of paid sick leave, low wages and benefits for the working poor, inadequate services for those with mental illness and drug abuse). Let’s hope that this terrible pandemic can lead to actions by our federal and state government to provide better support for the most vulnerable among us.

By Marc Herstand, MSW, CISW