The Free Clinic In H-Burg Adapts To COVID-19

May 11, 2020

As hospitals and doctor’s offices work on managing COVID-19, the Harrisonburg - Rockingham Free Clinic has also had to make some changes to adapt to the pandemic. 

WMRA’s Chris Boros spoke with the Free Clinic’s Executive Director, Summer Sage.  He asked her to talk about how the clinic is managing during these times.

Summer Sage:  At the very end of February, we got together and had a conversation about this coronavirus and put some protocols into place immediately.  I feel like to a certain extent we were ahead of the game for our clinic and our patients.  We were sending out information to our volunteer providers, we were sending out information to put patients.  The thing that’s been difficult for us is that we do have a majority of volunteer providers who we conversed with and said “Guys, we need you right now to stay home and stay safe.”  We’ve been finessing that for a while now and coming up with our Wednesday marathon clinics where we have a 12-hour day with our staff coming in to provide care to patients either in person or via telehealth. 

WMRA:  For someone who doesn’t know what the model is of the Free Clinic and what a volunteer provider is all about, can you explain that?

SS:  We have one staff nurse practitioner and we have a PRN nurse practitioner.  The rest of our capacity for seeing patients comes from providers in our community who volunteer at the clinic to see patients.

WMRA:  When you say provider, you’re talking about doctors and nurses, right?

SS:  And specialists, absolutely.

WMRA:  And they come in and just volunteer?

SS:  They do.  We’ve had some providers with us since the very beginning when the clinic opened – so people who have been here for twenty plus years. 

WMRA:  Just out of the goodness of their heart.

SS:  Yeah.

Summer Sage - Executive Director of The Free Clinic

WMRA:  Have you had to deal with people coming into the clinic who’ve had coronavirus symptoms and have you had anyone who’s come through the clinic that tested positive?

SS:  We’ve had presumptive positive cases that we know of.  And we are doing a lot of over the phone patient care coordination on that, trying to teach those patients how to stay home and isolate.

WMRA:  Let’s talk a little about funding challenges right now that the clinic might be facing with the virus.  How has that changed?

SS:  The model of the Free Clinic is that we do get a small amount of money from the state.  The city budget came out and we weren’t a part of the city budget.  And the majority of our patients right now are city residents so that was a concern.  However, the community has really has had their eye on the clinic and has been touching base with us.  I’ve received calls from just concerned community members, volunteers, and that’s been a true testament to how much the clinic means to the community and the clinic means to the community.

WMRA:  You had mentioned that you’re offering telehealth now and I’m wondering if that is something brand new that the clinic’s been offering because of the outbreak and how’s that been going?

SS:  It is brands new.  Because of the nature of our patient base, not everyone has the understanding or ability to figure out how to do a video conference.  And if you’re adding language on top of it, it’s definitely a learning curve on both sides.  But if we can’t reach a patent and we need to see them we have the ability to get them in here on a Wednesday.

WMRA:  And are you telling people they should wear masks when they come in?

SS:  I’m glad that you asked that, Chris, because this is my favorite story.  Our volunteers keep saying “What can we do to help?”  Well we’ve had patients come in that need masks and we’ve run out to be able to give masks to patients and have them for our providers.  So we asked “Can you guys make masks for us?”  We received over 350 masks overnight.  And our clinical services director, Meg, told me that after spending that first day passing out masks she went into a grocery store and ran into one of our patients wearing the mask.

WMRA:  I feel like after talking to you today that with your job, you really see the best of the community.

SS:  When I first started at the clinic I remember in my interview the board told me that sometimes that even our patients were donors.  Maybe the first time they came in they couldn’t afford their meds and so they said “I can’t for it this time” and then the next time they come in they say “I couldn’t pay for meds last time, here’s the money plus a little more, keep the change.”  And it’s amazing.  You really do get to see the best in people and the potential in people.  The patients just have great stories about what the clinic has meant to them and how it’s helped them get back of their feet in regards to their health and they impact that good health has made on the rest of their quality of life.