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Cyberattack Compounds Coronavirus Problems in Durham, N.C.

Days before the World Health Organization labeled COVID-19 a pandemic, malware infected the city and county systems, placing unprecedented pressure on the agencies and the public.

by Aaron Sánchez-Guerra, The News & Observer / April 3, 2020
Shutterstock/NicoElNino

(TNS) — Just a few days before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, Durham’s city and county services were already struggling with another virus — a cybervirus that knocked out their technology.

The pandemic and the malware attack now have collided for the Durham County Department of Social Services, placing unprecedented pressure on a large network relied on by low-income families, homeless people and other residents in need.

At the worst time, renters who need help from Durham’s emergency financial assistance services have been shut out until the network is fixed, and the agency’s operating hours have been reduced, straining the efficiency of providing social work programs.

“We cannot do any of the financial side of services right now until we get our IT systems back,” said Ben Rose, the department’s director in an interview with The News & Observer. “We’re really having to focus on our core services right now, which are skyrocketing, and kind of put our optional services on hold.”

Though the agency has access to federally mandated services, there’s no access to the county optional services that help affected residents with costs of rent, utilities, food and medical expenses.

It helps that, under Gov. Roy Cooper’s March 31 order, utilities can’t be shut off for 60 days; and a March 15 N.C. Supreme Court order postponed evictions for 30 days.

But Peter Gilbert, an attorney at Legal Aid of North Carolina believes there will huge backup for these services soon. Cooper’s executive order, he said, does not remove the obligation to pay rent and a flood of new eviction cases is something they expect to come.

“[The DSS] had funding to help tenants pay their rent through our Eviction Diversion Program that is needed now more than ever as so many people have lost work,” said Gilbert in an interview with The News & Observer.

Gilbert said DSS also hasn’t been able to give needed attention to emergency rental assistance and the eviction program because of staffing changes.

“Really, none of these things could come at a worse time,” he said.

Two kinds of viruses

“We had to do what we had to do when we got hit [by the malware],” said Rose.

After the March 6 cyberattack, the DSS phone lines and computers were mostly shut down for over a week. Employees had to take Child and Adult Protective Services reports with limited phone access. They borrowed laptops from the Department for Health and Human Services and reconfigured connections to their call center.

Some phone and computer systems have been partly restored. But the department has also had no access to all their digitally stored case files with the documents of recipients of public benefit services such as child welfare, Medicaid and SNAP.

Rose said access could be back in about a week.

“We were doing what we could just to try to keep things to keep things afloat,” Rose said. “Then of course, the coronavirus hit us and it became even that much more challenging because we had to socially distance and reduce our footprint here at the agency so we have more work coming in and less staff to handle it.”

Due to COVID-19, nearly 40 staff members across the department have been out of work due to self-isolation, sickness symptoms and childcare issues — and Rose expects the number will climb in coming weeks.

“It’s the perfect storm, in some ways,” Rose said.

Because of the lack of face-to-face service now, social service applications are being submitted by residents online and assisted by phone. A self-service table with paper applications and a drop box is available in the DSS building’s lobby.

The department is still getting close to a 100 applications for help each day, as residents face economic trouble due to the coronavirus and seek help.

Families Moving Forward, a Durham housing and services provider that provides shelter for homeless families as well as education and self-sufficiency, says the DSS service delays are affecting families they shelter.

“Because we focus on homeless families, just about all our families are eligible for many of types of assistance that DSS provides,” said Ryan Fehrman, executive director of Families Moving Forward. “So, making sure they have every benefit to which they qualify for helps them stretch their limited dollars even further.”

©2020 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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