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Athens Nurses Clinic is a health care clinic providing free evaluation, treatment and education to uninsured low- and no-income residents of Athens-Clarke County and the surrounding communities.

The Red & Black spoke to Paige Cummings, the executive director of Athens Nurses Clinic, to learn how the clinic has been adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic as a health care facility.

Editor’s Note: This Q&A is a part of a Red & Black series speaking with Athens clinics on how they adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been edited for length and clarity.

The Red & Black: Can you give me a run-through of how your clinic has been handling COVID-19 since the beginning of the year [2020]?

Cummings: We had to tell our older volunteers that it might not be safe for them to come in and let them make that decision because, let’s face it, most volunteers are either students or retired people. So it’s kind of hard not being able to see our patients, but we were still calling everybody that had an appointment. We gave them additional follow-up phone appointments, and then late May/early June we started seeing patients again. What’s scary now is, as we’re watching the state numbers in a high and we’re following Dr. Amber Schmidtke’s case reports and the CDC, looking at making a decision, we are debating if we have to go back to telemedicine again so that we are not encouraging people to leave the shelter of their homes.

The Red & Black: What has been the most difficult thing during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the pre-COVID time in terms of handling the clinic and its everyday functions?

Cummings: One of our hardest things is that part of our mission was to go out into the community and do health screenings and education. We can’t do that now. So we would go anywhere from three to four times a month to the Pendergrass [La Vaquita] Flea Market, or we would go to Bigger Vision, or we would go to our Our Daily Bread, and we would test for hepatitis C and for hypertension and blood sugar, and we would provide education for free, but with the coronavirus we had to stop doing that. For a period of about, I want to say eight to nine weeks, we couldn’t even see patients in the clinic; we had to do all telehealth. I think there were three instances where a regular patient had an earache, pain in their nose and throat — non-COVID related in those cases — a practitioner went downstairs and saw them in their car in the parking lot. Then, we went back to see if they’d had a follow-up scheduled.

The Red & Black: Does your staff get tested every day?

Cummings: We get tested often. The Wellness Coalition [a group of clinics that shares resources and health precautions to ensure safety at their clinics] has helped us get some COVID-19 tests, so we’re using some of those. My staff tries their best in getting tested every week, and we’ve all been negative so far.

The Red & Black: Have you seen patient numbers increase or decrease during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Cummings: Strangely enough, we’ve seen people calling us and saying ‘Please can we stay home? Can you do like you did before? We don’t want to go out.’ We anticipate soon we’ll be seeing the people who have lost their jobs and lost their health care will start contacting us, and we have started seeing a mild increase in that, but with a lot of jobs, you still get 30 or 60 days of your health care program [after you lose your job]. But we’re here if someone has lost their job and needs to be seen. Unless of course we have to go to telemedicine, and then there’s no way you can start off a new visit with telehealth because you have to actually [see] them; you have to hear their heart. Sometimes, you have to hear [how] their breath sounds and make sure everything’s going on right.

The Red & Black: How are you dealing with this current surge of COVID-19 cases compared to the past surges this year and what is your biggest fear?

Cummings: Well, my original fear was I would take it home to my husband, who had recently-diagnosed cancer and was in isolation because of his chemotherapy. … My biggest fear now is that [for] my staff, even though we take absolute precautions when you’re in full PPE. We have air purifiers in not only the waiting room, but in every single exam room. We’ll only allow two patients at a time to be sitting in the waiting room … because 59% of COVID is passed through asymptomatic carriers. And I don’t know how many times a day I have to say, ‘Pull up your mask; now it has to go over your nose not under your nose.’ But the biggest fear is that … one of my staff is going to inadvertently be exposed.

The Red & Black: What else would you like to share with the readers of this article?

Cummings: It’s very hard for Athens to maintain a low positivity rate if the counties surrounding us don’t follow the same strong recommendations of the Athens-Clarke County commissioners. Anytime they’re out of their personal homes, whether you’re inside or outside, people need to follow the correct guidelines. The only way to keep this from getting worse, is to use those common sense recommendations that Athens-Clarke County Commission has been pushing since early March. So I would just have to reiterate that prevention is the best way. It’s much better than the treatment of the coronavirus itself.