COVID-19 Community Response: Emerging Themes Across Sentinel Communities

What can we learn at the intersection of resilience, well-being, and equity?

The coronavirus pandemic has elevated and exacerbated deep-seated inequities in communities across the United States. Localities large and small, urban and rural, well resourced and under resourced, are responding to distinct challenges.

The Sentinel Communities project follows the experiences of nine diverse communities and their response to the COVID-19 pandemic and related challenges. 

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation seeks to understand how a community’s past may affect its present. Some communities are better grounded in health and well-being with an emphasis on equity, while others are navigating economic and social challenges with less support.

A set of reports detailing community response during the first six months of COVID-19 reveal emerging themes: 

  • Cross-sector collaborations may be helping communities. Collaborations encourage people to see the connections between their work—whether in health care, education, transportation, community development, or other fields—and their community’s health and well being. Communities that had cross-sector collaborations in place before the pandemic have been able to rely  on strong coalitions to tackle COVID-19-related challenges. Read the blog post

  • How communities collaborate  shapes each locality’s response to the pandemic. Communities are sharing data, bringing together resources and investments, developing mutually beneficial policies, forming innovative partnerships, and more. 

Through our Sentinel Communities research, we highlight how different communities have fared through this crisis and why.

Featured Sentinel Communities:


Tacoma is a small city near the first outbreak in the United States. Tacoma has many health equity practices in place. It made progress in getting different sectors, like the health and education sectors, to work together. Data suggest these measures may help its COVID-19 response, but the city’s health department is independent of the city and county government. Can work carry on effectively to ensure an equitable recovery? See the latest report.

San Juan County

Much of San Juan county overlaps with the Navajo Nation. Despite layers of different jurisdictions, some places in this New Mexico county face deep challenges, like lack of running water or Internet service. These factors impact health, especially during a pandemic. During this crisis, sectors have mobilized to address mental health care cases, but a coordinated response at the county level is still needed. See the latest report.  

Finney County

In rural Finney County, employment is dominated by low-paying jobs in the meatpacking industry. The county is predominantly made up of racial and ethnic minority populations, but it has no concrete plans to address persistent health equity gaps. Locals say COVID-19 has impacted Finney in different ways. See how the non-profit and the health care sectors are leading the community response. Learn more in the latest report.

Harris County

Harris County, home to Houston and one of the most populous and diverse areas in the nation, has experience in disaster response. The collaborations that addressed hurricane relief, for example, have proven helpful in the county’s COVID-19 response. Despite many good equity-centered practices, the pandemic has hit some communities disproportionately hard. The county continues to work across sectors to address education plans and housing support. Get an in-depth analysis in the latest report.  


What does the data tell us about rates of confirmed cases and fatalities? COVID-19 lays bare inequities that have deep roots and whose problems are compounded by poverty. Few collaborations were in place in Mobile prior to the pandemic, so efforts to tackle inequities in health care and other sectors have proven to be limited. See the latest report to understand why.


Milwaukee’s local leaders have recognized that it is one of the nation’s most segregated cities that has suffered from wide racial disparities. Its unemployment rate before the pandemic was nearly twice the national average. Numerous examples of cross-sector collaboration and alignment exist within Milwaukee, but despite strong public- and private-sector partnerships, its citizens are still suffering many hardships presented by the pandemic. See the latest report.  

Sanilac County

The reports look at each community's chronic disease rates. In this small Michigan community with little  diversity, health was never a communitywide focus. Because the pandemic did not spike in this area, the collapse of the local economy is what has troubled residents the most. We will continue to study local collaborations, with a special eye toward economic recovery efforts. See the latest report.

White Plains

White Plains in New York State was one of the hardest hit areas in the early days of the pandemic. Locals, who tend to understand there are many social factors that contribute to health, may have benefitted from cross-sector and neighborly collaborations that were in place well before COVID-19. White Plains’ response efforts are closely tied to county and state efforts. The town is focusing on school and food security issues. See the latest report.


Some communities, like Tampa, have focused on improving access to housing and reducing segregation as a pathway to better health. When the pandemic came, however, equitable practices were put to the test. Tampa-area residents value cross-sector collaboration, with growing acknowledgement that a successful recovery will require a multi-dimensional response. Some local leaders have speculated that these new models of working together may become the “new normal.” See Tampa’s progression toward greater collaboration in the latest report.


The COVID-19 Response and Links to Community Efforts

Nine diverse communities are responding to the coronavirus crisis. Follow their journeys to see how they fared from the start of the pandemic through early October 2020.

Read the report