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Billings Meals on Wheels program scrambling to provide service under COVID-19 restrictions

Posted at 6:16 PM, Mar 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-20 20:16:00-04

Yellowstone County's Meals on Wheels program is bursting at the seams as officials consider alternative ways to provide nutritional meals to elderly residents in need amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Mike Larson, executive director at the Adult Resource Alliance, is trying to make up for 11 congregate meal sites across the county that have been closed due to coronavirus safety concerns.

"We have over 600 people throughout the week who eat a meal at one of those locations, some of those five days a week, some only once or twice a week," said Larson. "With our meal sites now shut down, we're trying to add those clients to the Meals on Wheels list, which already serves 400 seniors each week. So that's over 1,000 people who are in need of some assistance to meet their nutrional needs."

In an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton ordered the shutdown through April 10 of restaurants and eateries that serve large groups. Yellowstone County has five reported COVID-19 cases.

Asked if the Alliance has the resources to accommodate such an sudden increase, Larson told MTN News it's a question they are asking every day.

"We have been working, non-stop, to produce frozen meals that meet the nutritional standards set by the federal government," Larson said. "That's what's happening in the kitchen right now. We're producing those frozen meals, but with Meals on Wheels recipients also receiving frozen meals for the weekend, we're pushing our capacity to the max."

Another concern is the lack of social contact for Meals on Wheels recipients. Larson said for many shut-ins, the interaction with their Meals on Wheels driver may be their only contact with the outside world.

"Many of these clients have no family or friends nearby," said Larson. "We ask our drivers to also do a quick welfare check as they deliver the meal, but with the new social-distancing guidelines, that vital safety component of the program might be lost."

Larson said he believes losing social contact for many of his clients may pose a greater risk to their safety than the virus itself.

As the Alliance moves to beef up its meal deliveries, the push is on to find more volunteer drivers. Because each driver needs to go through a background check, Larson said he has turned to the Billings police and fire departments for help, along with using some local teachers who are not working.

"Most of those folks have already passed a background check, so they can move in immediately," said Larson. "Their help will give us some time to get more drivers trained and vetted."

For now, like everyone else, Larson is taking things day to day. Right now, he said the Alliance is working just to stay on top of what's available out there to meet people's needs.

"That's going to be an ongoing situation as this goes further down the road," said Larson. "We are working overtime now trying to look at the what ifs - if this goes on for four weeks, eight weeks, twelve weeks. What is this going to look like?"

The Adult Resource Alliance office hours are from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Larson suggests anyone in need of assistance with meals should call the Alliance office at 406-259-9666, and his staff can give recommendations on how individual needs can be met.