Mercy Health Center provides free medical, pharmacy and dental care to the uninsured and low-income residents of Clarke County and the surrounding counties. Mercy incorporates Christian values in health care for its patients.
The Red & Black spoke to Michele Johnson, the executive director of Mercy Health Center, 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.
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 ?
Johnson: It’s been a rollercoaster, to say the least. It was a big stop on March 13. There were honestly a lot of decisions being made. The Georgia Department of Health and the CDC were releasing decisions almost every 15 minutes it seemed like. So as a clinic, we had to adapt to these new findings and decisions as they came to us. So essentially we were learning as we were going. So at that point, we had over 700 volunteers and interns working here at the clinic and we had to send all of them home as well as our high-risk staff. We switched over to telemedicine and only called the most severe patients out to our parking lot for a car visit. We really focused on patients having their necessary medications in place, so our pharmacy team worked very hard to follow safety protocols, keep up with the pharmaceutical laws changing at the time and provide refills for patients up to 90 days. We triaged as we saw fit and the spring/summer weather fortunately helped.
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?
Johnson: Putting the emergency preparedness in place was the toughest. Since protocols would change so often at the beginning of the pandemic, we had to adapt differently to each piece of the information we were receiving. For example, at first, we learned that masks were not needed. Then we learned that masks were optional. Finally, we learned that masks were highly recommended for all. New practices were definitely introduced to the staff members and staying vigilant and consistent was key.
The Red & Black: Does your staff get tested for COVID-19 every day?
Johnson: We are using the protocol of testing every day and asking questions about symptoms and if the patient has been around anyone with symptoms. We are making sure all staff members ask these questions in a standard way to all our patients. We are a non-profit, so it took a while to get a hold of the COVID-19 tests. Once we got a hold of them, we created the Wellness Coalition with other clinics in the community and provided tests. These tests became available to use in October, so the first six months of the pandemic, we had no COVID-19 tests for patients. We just knew that if someone got exposed, that we would have everyone get tested at different locations and isolate ourselves.
The Red & Black: Have you seen patient numbers increase or decrease during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Johnson: We worked really hard to maintain our patient care. We serve the hardest hit in the area, so the people who don’t have insurance or the ability to go to the hospital. Overall, from this year to last, we have a less than 8% decrease in patient numbers. We figured out a way to see our patients one way or another using technology or parking lot visits.
The Red & Black: How are you dealing with this current surge of COVID-19 cases compared to the past surges this year?
Johnson: We are staying vigilant. That word is very important here at Mercy Health Clinic. We can’t stay lax with this situation. We make sure to check every patient for symptoms.
The Red & Black: Have you gotten any news about receiving COVID-19 vaccinations for your staff and patients at the clinic?
Johnson: We are aiming to have some vaccinations in our hands in early spring. We have been told to tier out the vaccination on who will receive it and are still receiving information from the Georgia Department of Health. We are hoping to provide these vaccinations to our community soon.
The Red & Black: What else would you like to share with the readers of this article?
Johnson: It’s not about you. It’s about everyone. Help each other, wear your mask, and do the best you can to be a good community member. Please wash your hands and stay vigilant. If everyone tries and does their best, then this rise we see in cases throughout this nation should fall just as sharply. Do the right thing.