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As the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic gripped New York City in 2020, public health officials recognized that shelter-in-place rules, while protecting the most vulnerable New Yorkers like the elderly, could worsen the social isolation. Fortunately, the City’s Health Department was piloting a program to reach community members needing support during weather emergencies.
The Department’s “Be A Buddy Program” connects volunteers from local community organizations with vulnerable older neighbors. During emergencies like heat waves, these volunteers check in on their “buddies” to see how they are doing and determine if they need any assistance. Health Department leaders believed the same program could pivot to respond to people’s needs during COVID-19, but quickly scaling it up from a pilot program to one that could serve many more New Yorkers would be a challenge.
For help, the Health Department turned to the Fund for Public Health NYC (FPHNYC). A nonprofit organization, FPHNYC, was established in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks as a public-private model to allow philanthropic organizations, individuals, and companies to partner with the NYC Health Department on developing and scaling innovative projects that benefit community health. And that’s exactly what FPHNYC did for Be a Buddy: securing funding from foundations and donors and providing administrative support to build capacity so the program could engage additional community organizations and volunteers to help more than 1,000 people in 2020.
Besides supporting the Health Department during crises like COVID-19, FPHNYC is the Department’s dedicated partner for health promotion and disease prevention initiatives to save lives and address long-standing health inequities. Over the last 20 years, FPHNYC has raised over $550 million for public health programs and managed more than 450 projects in partnership with the Health Department.
Although FPHNYC has partnered with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on many important initiatives, there is more work to do. Before the pandemic, life expectancy in New York City had climbed to be greater than the U.S. average. But by 2020, the city average declined by five years, with a more significant drop for Black and Latino New Yorkers.
“We are experiencing the most dramatic declines in life expectancy in more than a century, and it’s not all due to COVID-19,” New York City Health Commissioner and FPHNYC Board Chair Dr. Ashwin Vasan said recently. “Factors include the mental health crisis, increases in chronic diseases, birth inequity, health emergencies, and violence. The simple truth is that people are suffering too much and dying too soon. That hurts every facet of this city—our families, businesses, schools, and workforce.”
Dr. Ashwin Vasan is calling for a “city-wide, all-hands-on-deck” response, and FPHNYC is answering the call to action. Underway or in development are initiatives to improve maternal health, expand mental health programs, fight the opioid epidemic, reduce chronic diseases, and respond to climate change.
FPHNYC’s CEO Sara Gardner shares the Commissioner’s concern. “How we move forward will determine New York’s future—will we continue to see a decline in life expectancy? We are all in this together, which is why FPHNYC’s ethos is ‘Public Health is Everybody’s Business.’ Protecting and improving millions of lives needs collective action and widespread support.”
Make public health your business. Find out more about Fund for Public Health NYC at fphnyc.org/heroes
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The Fund for Public Health in New York City facilitates partnerships between the public and private sector to develop, test, and launch new public health initiatives that advance the health of all New Yorkers.