Since the pandemic arrived on the doorstep of Community Health Centers eight months ago we know a lot more than when we started out. NACHC recently conducted a qualitative analysis of their experiences with testing for COVID-19. The report found that many health centers face emerging and mounting challenges, particularly as the demand for more COVID-19 testing is increasing while local businesses and schools attempt to reopen.
According to NACHC Research and Data Manager, Sarah Baizer, the data show persistent challenges with sufficient protective gear (PPE) for staff and testing supplies. “The latter has led to delayed turnaround time with results, which is more of an issue with locations experiencing a second surge of Coronavirus, as some [health centers] mentioned having wait times up to three weeks.”
Brian Haile, CEO, United Neighborhood Health Services, in Nashville, TN, reports that because of the delays “the results of such COVID-19 testing may not be actionable. Worse, the delays may be contributing to the spread of the virus. It is already difficult for our patients to take time off of work; it becomes doubly challenging when we cannot provide COVID-19 test results for them (and, derivatively, to their employers), especially if patients don’t have symptoms or are feeling better.”
Baizer also noted other challenges in the report, such as “staffing shortages, lack of physical space, and inclement weather such as extreme heat or rain affecting their ability to test outside as substantial challenges.” Still, what emerges from this analysis is not just the problems health centers faced on the ground but the resourcefulness they demonstrated in getting around the barriers — forming partnerships with stakeholders to get supplies, cobbling together funding, or adding new operations to suit the new normal of a pandemic.
“We worked with the local department of health to get testing supplies, switched to laundered reusable gowns [and are] looking at purchasing temporary controlled portable containers/temp structures and/or aardvark trucks to house testing staff,” reports Julia DeJoseph, Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Delaware Valley Community Health, in Philadelphia, PA.
Looking ahead, there appears little sign of abatement in the challenges health centers are experiencing on the frontlines. A resurgence of COVID infections going into the colder months has triggered a second surge of patients needing tests as cities reopen. Health centers are reporting even longer turnaround times for test results from labs likely because labs are unequipped to handle the demand.
Additionally, health centers worry that the shortages of testing supplies and PPE will only worsen as the need to ramp up testing continues. The colder weather and worsening weather conditions will also force health centers to devise new ways to conduct tests pop up or curbside testing operations. Adding to the uncertainty is secure and long-term funding for health centers, as time is running out on mandatory funding in December and the Senate has yet to take up another stimulus package. The NACHC report concludes that “while Congress took initial steps to provide critical emergency funding as part of the legislative efforts to address this national crisis, much more is needed.”
As a critical partner in the national response to COVID, health centers have worked in communities to contain the pandemic, conducting 4.5 million COVID tests as of October 9. They have also helped divert nonacute COVID cases from hospitals, cared for America’s essential workers who put themselves in harm’s way and drastically changed the way they practiced medicine in a matter of months to address the pandemic.
Photo Courtesy: Mary’s Center, Washington, D.C.