In strip malls and along tree-lined streets, community health clinics are found where hard-to-reach patients live. Two of the largest in Santa Barbara County just got a booster shot of $150,000 from Direct Relief to help underwrite their role in the nation’s quest to immunize the population against COVID-19 through large-scale vaccinations.
The Community Health Centers of the Central Coast’s 31 locations range the North County from Guadalupe to New Cuyama, and from Los Alamos to Nipomo. They’re convenient for people without transportation and affordable for those with little money to spare. The same spirit engages the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics, whose offices are on both the Eastside and Westside of the city, and in Goleta and Isla Vista.
The clinics experienced both a reduction in regular patients — who were sheltering in place — and an increase in patients seeking help with mental wellness and substance use. The coronavirus’s year of fear also required more minutes between patient visits, greater separation in waiting rooms, extra clearing and sterilization of surfaces, and new screening protocols — not to mention the need for testing by anxious patients, the introduction of telehealth visits via computer, and the new demand for reporting to California’s public health agency.
The new protocols affect nearly all practitioners, and Direct Relief — a long-established medical relief nonprofit based near the Santa Barbara airport — captured the need in the course of its regular emergency response this past year, donating $350 million in financial aid and materials such as protective gear, medicines, and oxygen concentrators to nearly 3,000 health-care groups nationwide. Clinics received more than $10 million from Direct Relief for the vaccination effort alone, which will reach the 29 million people in the country who use community clinics, among them children, people living in poverty, those in rural areas, members of minority groups, and Medicaid recipients.
Clinics sought Direct Relief’s help, providing “a keen awareness of how hard COVID-19 has slammed the communities in which they work, the people who rely on them, and their own critical operations,” said Thomas Tighe, CEO of Direct Relief. The clinics were worried about the effect on their primary care services from the demands of fighting the novel coronavirus. Big contributions to the $10 million in aid came from Direct Relief’s board and former boardmembers supporting DR’s hometown, and also Santa Barbara Vintners and the group’s foundation. It was private charitable support Tighe hoped would increase so that more funding could go to reaching underserved and impoverished areas.
Dr. Charles Fenzi runs the Neighborhood Clinics and expressed his gratitude for the large donation they received, which came during a year when many patients avoided routine care, especially dental care, as they worried about the risk of contracting the disease. It’s a toll that has affected his staff members, as well. “The risk of caring for people during a pandemic, coupled with the challenges of the closure of day care and schools and worry about aging parents has created enormous stress for them,” Fenzi said.
The Community Health Centers of the Central Coast, which is based in Santa Maria, is focused on harder-to-reach populations, such as Spanish- and Mixteco-speaking residents and the Southeast Asian population, all of whom had higher rates of coronavirus, said Magdalena Serrano, who leads the clinics’ behavioral wellness wing. Her hope was that the new funds would help them combat the myths that have circulated on social media, such as the vaccine causing sterility or a being a secret way to plant microchips, neither of which is true.
“We’ve found it more productive to focus on why the vaccine is important,” Serrano said. “An adult who gets the vaccine is protecting their children, because those under the age of 16 will have to wait a good six months before they can be vaccinated. And if Grandpa and Grandma are in the house, they may be more susceptible to the disease, so the vaccination is important.”
For Fenzi’s staff, the start of vaccinating en masse was a matter of getting more vaccine doses: “The system we have built will operate five days a week and will utilize volunteer physicians and nurses … and a wonderful group of volunteers to support them,” he said.
For everyone at the clinics, from the telephone operators — whose brief appointment calls have become lengthy conversations with patients on safety procedures — to the doctors and nurses working full-time caring for patients, Direct Relief’s donation is also a morale booster. As the mass vaccination effort turns to reaching patients on weekends and after hours, “whatever we can do as far as outreach and education to make their lives easier will help,” Serrano explained.
“Folks on the front line have been running a marathon for a year,” she observed. “They’re now being asked to pivot again and be on the frontline for a mass vaccination initiative.”
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