Sometimes help is just a phone call or a mouse click away.

The American Red Cross created its Virtual Family Assistance Center in May because of the coronavirus pandemic to emotionally support front-line workers and others dealing with grief and stress.

“The coronavirus pandemic was really ramping up at that time … and saw the need for grief counseling, spiritual care … for people who had experienced loss, especially losing loved ones because of the pandemic,” said Lynette Nyman, a Red Cross official.

Lynette Nyman is the regional communications manager of the American Red Cross Minnesota and Dakotas Region. Submitted photo
Lynette Nyman is the regional communications manager of the American Red Cross Minnesota and Dakotas Region. Submitted photo

A four-week study during the spring 2020 pandemic surge was used to assess symptoms of COVID-19-related posttraumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder in front-line health care workers at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York.

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A total of 3,360 of 6,026 individuals took the survey, and 1,005 (39%) met the criteria for symptoms of COVID-19-related posttraumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, according to the study reported in the National Library of Medicine.

American Red Cross volunteers Sean and Kristen Flanagan speak with Virginia in front of the home where she lived that burned down in the Oregon wildfires in Gates, Oregon, on Sept. 19, 2020. Scott Dalton / American Red Cross
American Red Cross volunteers Sean and Kristen Flanagan speak with Virginia in front of the home where she lived that burned down in the Oregon wildfires in Gates, Oregon, on Sept. 19, 2020. Scott Dalton / American Red Cross

“People who are affected and want someone to talk to, we have actually professionally trained actual licensed mental health responders who can help people, and I think that in my experience people don’t know that this is a resource that the Red Cross has,” Nyman said.

Nyman is the regional communications manager of the American Red Cross Minnesota and Dakotas Region. The region serves more than 7.3 million people in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Lalean Doucette (left) of Little Falls listens to attending American Red Cross volunteer Sarah Quigley of Clear Lake while donating blood during the collection drive Tuesday, June 16, at First United Church in Little Falls. Diana Poehler / First United Church
Lalean Doucette (left) of Little Falls listens to attending American Red Cross volunteer Sarah Quigley of Clear Lake while donating blood during the collection drive Tuesday, June 16, at First United Church in Little Falls. Diana Poehler / First United Church

“As a disaster responder with the American Red Cross, I do find that people are surprised that the Red Cross provides disaster mental health services,” Nyman said.

Grieving is always difficult and the coronavirus pandemic creates additional challenges and needs, according to officials, so the nonprofit’s online assistance center includes phone numbers to call or a weblink to click to request to speak with a mental health professional.

“People are having such trauma over this past year now that we’ve been through the pandemic,” Nyman said of the more than half a million people who have died in the U.S.

Debra Vaughn, a disaster responder with the American Red Cross, checks on Clifford French at a shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center, in Houston on Feb. 16, 2021. A winter storm left millions of Texas residents without electricity. Scott Dalton / American Red Cross
Debra Vaughn, a disaster responder with the American Red Cross, checks on Clifford French at a shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center, in Houston on Feb. 16, 2021. A winter storm left millions of Texas residents without electricity. Scott Dalton / American Red Cross

The Virtual Family Assistance Center is available to provide emotional support and to assist people in finding the resources they need. The call center’s webpage lists organizations that can help, as well as weblinks to click to request a callback.

“The call center provides disaster counseling for people affected by COVID-19, and that’s open to everybody in the country who is affected and has experienced grief and loss because of it,” Nyman said.

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There is also free individual and group emotional support available for front-line workers to cope with the stress of working with families affected by COVID-19. They can call 833-492-0094, or groups may schedule a support session using the online training request form on the webpage.

“Front-line workers, who have been really right there, face to face, experiencing the trauma of COVID of patients who’ve passed, or whatever they’re going through, we do have group classes, opportunities, that is all part of the free Virtual Family Assistance Center,” Nyman said.

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Red Cross volunteers who are professional health care providers, mental health providers and spiritual care providers will work with the front-line worker directly or can schedule a group support session. All services are free and confidential.

“For some of them, it’s needing help with even trying to make a decision about whether they’re going to cremate or not cremate their loved ones … and help with funeral expenses,” said Rose Olmsted, a Red Cross mental health volunteer who works from her home in Albert Lea.

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People can also enroll in an online course offered via the Virtual Family Assistance Center website that will help them build resilience and support for themselves and others during the global health crisis.

“The primary people who are calling are folks who are in the rural United States … that don’t have access to the internet, so we’re looking at resources for them on the internet,” Olmsted said.

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“Most of these people have not been able to be with their loved ones before they die. Some of them die very suddenly. And some of them are in the hospital and they’re not able to be with them when they’re dying, so it’s very difficult.”

— Red Cross mental health volunteer Rose Olmsted about COVID-19 fatalities


Olmsted has served as a disaster mental health volunteer since 2009. She was vetted, and then had an additional two weeks of orientation, according to officials.

“Most of these people have not been able to be with their loved ones before they die. Some of them die very suddenly. And some of them are in the hospital and they’re not able to be with them when they’re dying, so it’s very difficult,” Olmsted said.

Olmsted is also part of an outreach committee providing information about the Red Cross to indigenous communities in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

“They’re an underserved population and the indigenous community has been highly impacted in terms of death,” Olmsted said of the pandemic.

For more information about the Virtual Family Assistance Center, visit rdcrss.org/3sMPpL1. Those without internet access can call 833-492-0094 for help between 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday.

American Red Cross

The team at the Virtual Family Assistance Center includes volunteers trained in:

  • Behavioral health that can provide emotional support, advocacy, referrals and education on COVID-related stress or mental health issues, including issues related to children.

  • Spiritual care that can provide both spiritual and emotional support, connection to faith-based providers and resources related to virtual funerals and memorial services.

Health services that can provide emotional support, assistance with basic medical questions and referral to community resources.

Source: American Red Cross

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.