Helena DaSilva Hughes hosts a show on The Portuguese Channel to help educate the public on a variety of issues, including COVID-19.

 

This article originally appeared in the April 2021 edition of Senior Scope. Article by Seth Thomas.

The current phase of the vaccine rollout has effectively been a race against time. As COVID-19 variants, which are often more contagious, make headlines around the globe, there has been an increased urgency to vaccinate as many people as possible.

For Helena DaSilva Hughes, the executive director of the Immigrant’s Assistance Center, that sense of urgency is something she feels constantly.

“It’s been exhausting because we’re seeing our clients dying,” she said. “We don’t have time to waste.”

The Immigrants’ Assistance Center (IAC), a New Bedford-based nonprofit, helps immigrants overcome language, cultural and economic barriers. The agency serves about 12,000 clients, 3,000 of whom are non-English speaking older adults.

DaSilva Hughes said that for the past year, she has been especially focused on older IAC clients because it’s that group who is most susceptible to severe illness from COVID-19. A demand for IAC services started early and has yet to subside.

“We’re basically a lifeline to the immigrant community,” she said. “Our building closed on a Tuesday. By Wednesday, a client showed up at our front door knocking. I knew we weren’t going anywhere.”

With restrictions on gathering inside their headquarters on Crapo Street, the IAC offered remote services for their clients. They started with wellness calls, and eventually partnered with local pharmacies and their clients’ primary care physicians to pick up and drop off medication.

Since returning to the office earlier this year, she said they have had to add more phone lines to accommodate demand. In the month of February alone, when the vaccine was first rolling out to 75-year-old residents of Massachusetts, the IAC received more than 3,300 calls.

Once the pandemic is under control, DaSilva Hughes hopes to offer in-person services again at the center. For now she has been connecting with clients through TV and radio.

DaSilva Hughes launched a media campaign to provide updates on the ever-changing safety protocols and to reinforce the importance of testing. She said she coordinated with local churches who were televising their services to ensure that messaging about basic COVID safety was incorporated into sermons.

In addition, she said she’s appeared on Telemundo, the local Portuguese language radio station (WJFD 97.3 FM) and even launched her own weekly television show on The Portuguese Channel.

Her show, “Vida Luso Americana,” which started production last fall, airs throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island and is making its way to YouTube.

And all of that outreach has led the IAC to the latest challenge in the ongoing pandemic: vaccine availability.

“Every day, we are getting calls from non-English speaking elders about receiving the vaccine,” said DaSilva Hughes. “They’re looking at it as a shot of hope. We hear that over and over again from our clients. They will be able to go to church or see their grandchildren. They’ve been so isolated.”

She said, with the appropriate funding and resources, the IAC can connect doses of the vaccine to clients. That process has already begun. DaSilva Hughes has been working with the New Bedford Health Department to vaccinate older clients at the Andrea McCoy Recreation Center, and she hopes as the vaccine supply increases, they can bring the shot to church parking lots, much like they did with testing.

“We know how to do this, we just need the resources to do it and, of course, vaccines,” she said. “We are so busy trying to help them and trying to do as much as we can during this pandemic. It feels like every day that we’re hearing about our elders getting sick or dying. We want to make sure that doesn’t continue.”

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