Our Health and Human Service Heroes: Organizations On The Front Lines of COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect us all, the interconnections between healthcare and human services are all the more apparent. To highlight Illinois’ organizations on the front lines, we are launching a series featuring interviews with health and human service leaders. They are providing essential services during this public health crisis, and their stories reflect the resilience of our sector.

Our first interview is with the Community Health Care Clinic in Normal, Illinois, led by their Executive Director Mike Romagnoli. CHCC provides high quality care through a free clinic model maximizing resources, volunteers and community partners. They serve primarily uninsured and low-income patients. The clinic receives no federal or state funding, which makes support critical as they continue to build the foundation for healthcare access in McLean County. Our Central Illinois Community Organizer, Holly Ambuehl, interviewed Mike to better understand how his team is adapting and serving their community.

CHCC workers providing vital services to their community

How is the coronavirus pandemic affecting the populations you serve?

With our patient population consisting primarily of service workers, many of our patients are out of work. Besides hotels and restaurants, we have a lot of patients that work in cleaning, and with most office buildings working from home, the cleaning staff has been dramatically reduced as well. Outside of the work situation, people with substance use disorder issues are not benefiting from staying home and being idle. Our patients who struggle with anxiety and depression are also feeling the pressure of being cooped up at home without the usual routine of going to work and having their children at school.

Is your organization experiencing a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?

There absolutely are shortages, and right now, it’s virtually impossible to get any new PPEs. All of my suppliers are sold out with no anticipated restock dates. Beyond PPE, sanitation products are nearly impossible to find either. We are fortunate that with the dental clinic, we use a product called CaviCide for sterilization, which is the solution that is in the CaviWipes that hospitals use. We are making our own wipes with gauze pads and CaviCide, but our dental supplier has quantity limits on the product.

We are members of Direct Relief, a worldwide disaster relief company, and they actually sent out a kit to member clinics with N95 masks, CaviWipes and gloves. So, for right now, I’m good on masks. I actually brought some masks to give to the Normal Fire Department because they were super low on them for their ambulances. Again, PPE is really, really hard to source right now; even thermometer probe covers are completely sold out with all my suppliers.

How has this crisis affected your ability to serve your community? How have you adapted to meet the evolving needs of your community?

Only patients that are scheduled for appointments are being permitted inside the building, and unaccompanied, just to try to reduce everyone’s (patients and staff) exposure. Fortunately, we have exterior windows in our medication dispensary so all medication pick-ups are drive-thru style. Following the directive of the Illinois State Dental Society, we have ceased all non-emergent dental care, such as hygiene or routine appointments, and are doing only emergencies requiring immediate extraction. We’re still triaging dental patients, mainly prescribing antibiotics to calm down any abscess, and only doing an extraction where absolutely necessary. We are also offering telemedicine visits to patients who prefer appointments electronically, versus coming in.

What do you need from your elected leaders and other key decision makers?

Keep beating the drum of staying at home. We’ll never get ahead of this if people don’t drastically limit their exposure. Once this is over, there will have to be some measures taken to allow people to get back to earning money before the bills pile up, primarily rent and utilities. There are lots of efforts around food access, including here at the clinic, but when it comes to rent and utilities, those are big-ticket items. Straight financial assistance may not be the best answer since it would get used up so quickly. The current moratorium on evictions and shut offs will have to be extended well past the shelter in place order is lifted.