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Continuing Care in the Community Amidst COVID-19

How Erie Family Health Served Patients

Like most health care organizations, community-based family health center Erie Family Health Centers had to change the way they did everything overnight when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

With seven large primary care centers, five school-based health centers and a health center dedicated to teens and young adults across the Chicagoland area, Erie Family Health Centers serves patients in 185 different zip codes. As many Erie patients are in high-risk COVID-19 groups, living in low-income multi-generational households and essential workers, this was challenging. The operations team established “sick” and “well” sites to keep people with COVID-19 symptoms isolated from those without them. They moved nearly 70% of their regular appointments to telehealth visits and communicated these changes to the patients and communities they serve constantly so that they could continue providing accessible and affordable care.

One thing was missing: Adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff.

“As a federally qualified health center, we had difficulty securing personal protective equipment (PPE),” says Amy Valukas, MPH, chief operating officer, Erie Family Health Centers. “We did not traditionally keep large quantities of N95 masks on hand as an ambulatory care setting, but it was critical for us to continue to provide care across the spectrum, especially for those presenting with COVID-19 symptoms.”

That’s when Erie tapped in to their longstanding partnership with Northwestern Medicine. Northwestern Medicine donated N95 respirator masks, plus additional supplies of hand sanitizer, gloves, and surgical face shields to protect the Erie staff.

This donation was “a game changer in assuring we had sufficient N95s for COVID testing” says Valukas.

Northwestern Medicine has cultivated a long-standing relationship with Erie Family Health Centers. This partnership extends back to 1968 and expanded in 1994 when Northwestern Medicine and Erie launched the Access to Care program for diagnostic and specialty care, providing community-based medical services for low-income families.

During the pandemic, Erie relied heavily on this relationship to make sure that they had the most up-to-date information about COVID-19 for their communities, and protocols surrounding COVID-19 for their staff.

“Erie Family Health Centers’ staff, patients and community deeply value our partnership with Northwestern Medicine, an institution that relentlessly pursues outstanding medicine and shares our belief that all communities deserve high quality healthcare,” says Erie Family Health Centers President and CEO Lee Francis, MD, MPH.

Roughly 44% of Erie patients are best cared for in a language other than English, so Erie worked tirelessly to make sure that they were not only sharing accurate information with these patients about COVID-19, but making sure they understood how to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy as well.

“The guidelines and direction from our academic medical center partner, Northwestern Medicine, helped us tremendously in this time of anxiety,” says Kate Birdwell, senior communications manager, Erie Family Health Centers. “They were an important tool in helping our staff feel safe, knowing we were in-step with gold standard practices.”

Erie also developed a Social Determinants of Health Screening protocol during the pandemic, as their patients were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 both in terms of health and economics. This involves a simple survey question, developed in part with researchers at Northwestern Medicine Feinberg School of Medicine, asking if patients need support outside of the exam room. If they answer yes, a team of 20 staff members follows up to link them to the resources they need for everything from food and housing, to navigating benefits at their jobs to finding lower-cost medication. Erie is continuing to work with researchers at Northwestern Medicine Feinberg School of Medicine to measure this program’s effectiveness.

Erie’s mission, to provide high quality, affordable care to support healthier people, families and communities, keeps their staff going.

“Now more than ever we are committed to our mission and working in lock step with our community partners toward the goal of supporting our patients when they need us most,” says Valukas. “We are preparing our staff for the fact that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and will continue to work toward improving health equity for all communities we serve thanks to help from Northwestern Medicine.”