Providers in the West Piedmont Health District used creative approaches to provide services during the pandemic.

MARTINSVILLE – Across the state, health districts within the Virginia Department of Health each took unique approaches to COVID-19. Some closed, while others limited hours or switched to scheduled appointments only.

Dr. Danny Avula, state vaccine coordinator, expressed the necessity of the choices the districts made, given the health crisis at hand.

“Health departments have all had to really scale back on the rest of our services because we’ve had to focus on the COVID response,” Avula said. “So whether that was pulling folks off of other projects to lead investigations in contact tracing or to limit our normal clinic operations to really focus on our testing operations.”

The doctor noted that health department clinic offerings in Richmond and Henrico over the past year fluctuated. They ranged between 33% to 50% of normal operations.

“When do I think that’s going to get better? I mean, I really think it’s going to be when we get out of this acute phase of mass vaccination,” Avula said. “When the demand starts to shift and the supply increases and we can move to more of a sort of steady state of vaccination that’s happening through doctor’s offices, pharmacies and other outlets, I think that’s when health departments will start to turn back to some of their core services.”

Avula estimated that health departments could return to more normalized operations by the fall, depending on child vaccination needs.

“It’ll just sort of depend. Can the pediatric offices manage that volume? Or will we need to continue doing some degree of mass vaccination in the fall?” Avula said. “But I think it’s going to be at least then until health departments really get to return back to some of their core services.”

The West Piedmont Health District

In the West Piedmont Health District, health departments in Franklin County, Henry County and Martinsville, Mount Vernon Church and Patrick County currently offer clinic services by appointment only. That decision allowed the district to focus more attention on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

Taking a creative approach to a difficult situation, the various offices work together. Collectively, they coordinate events, such as STI testing, by sharing staff amongst the various departments in the district.

For example, if several people call in with testing needs over the same few weeks, the departments schedule one clinic date for all of the clients.

However, the health departments are not the only healthcare providers in the region. They’re also not the only ones that noted pandemic-related changes.

SOVAH Health – Martinsville, a hospital in Southwest Virginia, experienced a decline of patients from March through May 2020. Since then, Hailey Fowlkes, marketing coordinator, noted that volumes returned to normal pre-COVID numbers.

At the clinics operated by the Martinsville-Henry County Coalition for Health and Wellness, hours remain the same as before the pandemic. The Coalition’s Bassett Family Practice and Ridgeway Family Health facilities welcome patients Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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Doctor Visits

Brittany Anthony served as a spokesperson on behalf of a team of individuals at the Coalition. She is also the director of marketing, development and community relations for the Coalition.

When the pandemic started last year, the team’s practices – Bassett Family Practice and Ridgeway Family Health – jumped into action. However, compared to a year without COVID-19, the facilities noted changes in the number of patients coming to the clinics.

“[The year] 2020 has been challenging due to COVID and the patients’ fear of coming to a healthcare facility. We realize there will be some patients that would prefer not to come in the office, which afforded the opportunity to increase our telehealth visits and provide continuity of care,” Anthony said. 

In 2020, Coalition doctors completed more than 600 telehealth visits, something practically unheard of before. It helped them continue to serve the community, while cutting down on the risk of infection. Now that’s become a normal part of the operation, offering the option of virtual visits.

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West Piedmont Expands Services

Throughout the pandemic, the Coalition coordinated with the VDH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Health Resources and Services Administration. Compiling each organization’s guidance, the Coalition took measures to create a safe environment at their clinics.

First, that meant expanding offerings for some services. As Anthony and team noted, both Bassett Family Practice and Ridgeway Family Health facilities offered telehealth services for patients. The ideal candidates were patients with matters that did not necessarily require in-person care.

The virtual visits connected patients with medical or behavioral health providers from the comfort of their own home.

For both telehealth and in-person services, both facilities asked that patients call ahead to schedule appointments. They also encouraged patients to keep their appointments once scheduled.

“[The clinics] are still offering all of the same comprehensive medical services to our patients,” Anthony said. “We have implemented telehealth appointments and are hosting COVID-19 vaccine clinics to patients who qualify, when vaccine supply is available. We receive a limited supply of vaccine and have a waiting list.”

‘A Superb Job

Throughout the pandemic, area health providers in Martinsville worked together to best serve their community.

“Our community is doing a superb job of offering vaccine clinics when supply is available to those who qualify. It is still very important that healthcare providers continue to encourage everyone to follow social distancing guidelines, wearing masks, proper hand washing and administering the vaccine to as many patients as possible when supply is available,” Anthony said. “For individuals in our community, it is also important for them to take the vaccine as they become eligible.”

At the hospital in Martinsville, the marketing coordinator expressed the same sentiments.

“We work collaboratively with all of our providers in the community and continue to coordinate COVID-19 vaccine efforts to meet the healthcare needs of our region,” Fowlkes said.

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com