WILLMAR — Last fall there were approximately 11,500 Kandiyohi County residents on medical assistance programs, which provide subsidized medical care for low-income households. In the past eight months of the coronavirus pandemic, that number has jumped to more than 12,500, more than a third of the overall population.

Other financial assistance programs, overseen by the state and delivered by Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services, have also seen an increase in need and usage as the coronavirus pandemic hits the pocketbooks of those who can least afford it.

"The financial assistance programs were there as a financial safety net for people to fall back on as they face not only economic challenges but also physical and mental health challenges," said Deb Grunwald, HHS supervisor.

Grunwald gave an update on the financial programs at the Oct. 20 Kandiyohi County Board meeting.

The Minnesota Family Investment Program, which provides cash payments to eligible households, now has 322 Kandiyohi County households enrolled.

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"It has jumped over a hundred," Grunwald said.

Food assistance, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has seen an increase in need within the county. The federal government established emergency programs because of the pandemic to provide additional benefits to families including children who received free or reduced lunches at school.

The pandemic also changed how Grunwald and the staff she oversees deliver the assistance programs. Since face-to-face meetings with clients was deemed too risky during the pandemic, the state and federal government waived those requirements.

"The waivers shifted the policies quite drastically and there were weekly, sometimes daily, changes to those policies that DHS required counties to implement immediately," Grunwald said.

Staff have been bombarded by telephone calls and paperwork from households as they apply for benefits.

"Our phone volume has been about 1,000 calls a week," Grunwald said. "We have increased the number of times our office support staff checks the drop box so we can keep up with the massive numbers of documents and applications that are coming in."

Even with all the changes, the state continues to hold each county to a very high standard of accuracy and delivery of programming.

"Our staff strives to achieve those high standards," Grunwald said.

Grunwald said her staff has been wonderful during this challenging time, especially as they too have been living through the pandemic and dealing with the fallout.

"Our staff has done a really great job being flexible and brainstorming new processes quickly to make sure accurate and efficient program policy is followed," Grunwald said.

Other agencies, such as United Community Action Partnership, the Kandiyohi County Food Shelf and the Link, have been instrumental in helping the community, Grunwald said, offering help the county can't.

"We thank all of those for helping fill the gaps for those most vulnerable and in need," Grunwald said.

Grunwald said the county will continue to work to provide assistance to those who need it.

"As the health pandemic continues our agency strive to meet the need of the people in Kandiyohi County while we ensure we apply consistent and efficient service to those in need," Grunwald said.