A Year in the Life of COVID-19 – An NCAFCC Staff Report
It was on March 12 – one year ago – that the reality of COVID-19 struck NCAFCC and all its Members like a thunderbolt. NCAFCC’s Board Chair, April Cook, had called a virtual Board meeting to discuss whether to delay the Leadership Retreat planned for May. Midway through the Board meeting, we watched as April’s eyes darted out the door of her office and we could see that she was fully engaged for a minute or so on something other than the Board meeting. We learned that we had observed the Lake Norman Community Health Clinic experiencing its first likely COVID-19 patient. The clinic nurse was in April’s doorway asking her what to do with the patient that just arrived in their waiting room. We soon learned that this scene was happening in NCAFCC’s Member clinics all across the state and, from that moment on, nothing was the same.
NCAFCC shifted into high gear working on our best opportunity to keep Member clinics open and began a rapid deployment of telehealth. Thanks to the diligent work of Mark Scheerer and Dr. Andy Barbash, within two weeks, more than 40 Members had become fully operational using telehealth. Today, more than 50 Members employ some form of telehealth and as a result, more than 60 of NCAFCC’s 70 Member clinics remain open to serve their patients.
The first wave of coronavirus infection in North Carolina was greeted by COVID-19 testing. In the early onset of the disease, the sources for testing were unclear, but our Member clinics prevailed and developed the grassroots connections to testing centers in their communities. In recent months, the NC Department of Health and Human Services recognized the vital role of free and charitable clinics in reaching underserved, hard-to-reach, uninsured patients and donated to our members 3,640 BinaxNOW rapid COVID-19 tests to help with patient screening. At the end of 2020, NCAFCC Members identified 7,239 patients who were suspected to have COVID-19 and confirmed 2,576 cases. Sadly, during the same period seven patients died from COVID-19.
Treatment and Support
North Carolina’s General Assembly stepped forward in the Spring and Summer of 2020 with increasing state appropriations dedicated to NCAFCC and its Members. $12,425,000 were directed to our important work for the uninsured and, as a result, Members treated 128,885 patients. Many North Carolinians had become recently unemployed and newly uninsured, so it was no surprise that 10% of the patient load was new patients. John Francis of the Helping Hands Clinic of Lenoir said, “The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the importance of our work and highlighted something that we have always known: having a high quality free medical clinic and pharmacy in this community is not a luxury, it is a necessity.”
As the coronavirus ran rampant through our state, the battle shifted to onboarding and dispensing the COVID-19 vaccine. Once again NCAFCC played a significant role. Through service on the statewide COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee and the ingenuity and dedication of Members who are determined to serve their communities, NCAFCC is being relied upon by state health officials to assist in the administration of the COVID-19 vaccine. Here are some examples: In Raleigh, St. Joseph Primary Care has administered 1050 vaccine doses in less than a month and Alliance Medical Ministries administered 223 vaccine doses in one weekend. In eastern Carolina, Janet Jarrett of Community Care Clinic is participating with her hospital sponsor in a 3-week supply of 600 doses of vaccine targeted for historically marginalized populations and Sheila Roberts of New Hope Clinic said, “once word got out that we were having vaccine, our phones have been ringing off the hook from all sorts of resourceful people” and Barb Krcmar at MERCI Clinic when speaking about the clinic’s vaccine efforts said, “[it’s] exciting and terrifying at the same time.” To the west, after a vaccine clinic at HealthReach Community Clinic, Bri Niggel said something that many of you could have also said, “I am so incredibly proud of my team!”
A Statewide Symphony of Collaboration
Randy Jordan joined Bri in praising his team at NCAFCC’s headquarters office. During a time of unprecedented difficulty, different team members stepped up to meet the challenge. Mark Scheerer lead the telehealth charge. Cindy Jones spearheaded our efforts on COVID-19 testing and vaccinations and Allison Kelly has been invaluable in administering the NCPRO COVID-19 grant. When the heroic service of Member clinics is combined with our advocacy efforts by Jon Carr, Esq. before the General Assembly and our appeal to other funders during the COVID-19 pandemic, the services of NCAFCC and its Members have been sustained during these unprecedented times.
A National Impact
In February, free and charitable clinics and pharmacies were represented in the White House when NAFC CEO, Nicole Lamoureux, had a private meeting with Jeff Zients, President Biden’s recently appointed COVID-19 Coronavirus Response Coordinator. To help in the preparation for this important meeting, NCAFCC was able to supply Nicole with relevant information about the amazing work that NC’s free and charitable clinics and pharmacies have done during our remarkable year in the life of COVID-19. While the challenges of COVID-19 continue, we could not be prouder of the unique contributions that NCAFCC and its Member clinics are making to help uninsured North Carolinians receive needed health and social services during the pandemic.
As our country is now mourning the loss of 500,000 fellow citizens due to COVID-19 – nearly 11,000 of them in North Carolina – our state’s free and charitable clinics and pharmacies are standing strong in the face of the pandemic. While the vaccine has brought the hope of light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, NCAFCC’s Members continue to play a vital role in serving North Carolina’s most vulnerable populations. Thank you for a year of extraordinary service!