Our world is a different place now. The COVID-19 pandemic is shutting down normal life as we knew it and Community Health Centers turn their attention to the business of saving lives. We know that everyday heroics won’t be enough. Even so, we acknowledge their courage on the front lines, the difficult choices they are making as they soldier on and the number of infections continues to climb, knowing the protective gear (PPE) are not enough, the testing kits are not enough, and the cash reserves are low without any end in sight. Not a single dollar of emergency funds has reached the door of a health center — a fact noted by President & CEO Tom Van Coverden in a NACHC statement about the draft stimulus bill the Senate is hammering together.
Meanwhile, a NACHC/Capital Link analysis estimates that Community Health Centers will lose $3.2 billion in revenue from April to June because of the COVID-19 pandemic. To be clear, the impact of COVID-19 is affecting health centers on the front line right now. Health centers are running short of PPE, in some cases reusing it and putting themselves and others at risk with no other choice; some health centers are appealing to construction sites for extra masks. Health centers were already operating on slim margins under the shadow of a major funding cut that happens on May 22. They are appealing to Congress for critical resources as the upsurge of COVID-19 cases continue and threaten to overwhelm hospitals. In a recent public plea, several primary care associations outlined these challenges and sounded the alarm that without adequate supplies and “immediate financial relief of between $3.2 and $3.3 billion through the federal Stimulus Bill” health centers will be significantly hampered in efforts to “relieve pressure on hospital emergency rooms.”
“We are the shock absorbers for the hospitals,” said Chris Kaasa, Senior Policy Advisor for the Washington Association of Community and Migrant Health Centers, a state which saw the first case of COVID-19. “All of our clinics are focused on screening and triage and — where it’s available — testing.” Kaasa was among the health center leaders from around the country who shared with Capitol Hill staff their stories from the front lines [listen to the recording here].
Lack of testing has been a critical issue for health centers almost everywhere. “The virus is being spread unchecked because we don’t have testing kits,” said Tarik Khan, a registered nurse practitioner at Family Practice & Counseling Network in Philadelphia, PA. Khan described how the health center has only been able to acquire 20 COVID-19 test kits in the last month to serve nearly 6,000 patients.
“We literally can’t get it. We can’t get the masks that we need, the surgical masks. We can’t get the gowns we need. We can’t get the respirators that we need, the N95,” said Fran Butler-Cohen, CEO of Family Health Centers of San Diego, in a recent interview with the news outlet KPBS.
The stories from the field are alarming, heartbreaking at times. But the common thread we hear from health centers is unfaltering dedication and courage, even resilience, to forge ahead with addressing COVID-19 amid a lot of uncertainty.
A case in point is STRIDE Community Health Center in Denver, CO. The health center has started COVID-19 testing for hospital workers. “Although our testing supplies and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are limited, we know health care providers need to take care of one another so we are able to take care of our communities,” said STRIDE CEO Ben Wiederholt. “That is why STRIDE Community Health Center has established drive-through testing capabilities with priority given to hospital employees. We are hopeful that more testing supplies and PPE will reach us so we can continue this service.”
Please stay tuned as we keep you posted on what health centers are doing on the front lines of COVID-19.