With over 16,000 clients — many elderly or with physical limitations — the Windsor Essex Community Health Centre had to scramble in the days and weeks after the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With six community health centre locations staffed by over 150 physicians, nurses, mental health workers and other support employees, ensuring access to care and regular programming was able to continue, despite safety risks posed by the virus, was challenging, said Rita Taillefer, WECHC’s executive director.
“A lot of our clients are compromised in terms of getting around (due to age or physical limitations),” she said. “So, there was a lot of concern. But the staff I work with, nobody shied away — the physicians, nurse practitioners, dieticians, everybody. Everyone stayed positive, saw the challenges, rose to the occasion and looked for other opportunities.
“They continued to see their clients through phone or video. We did food deliveries. We held classes though Zoom or online. Our staff never stopped providing care.”
The local community health centres — with four locations in Windsor and one each in Tecumseh and Leamington — provide services to many people who are vulnerable and might otherwise go without.
Included are the homeless, low-income individuals and families, those with chronic mental or physical health issues and migrant farm workers.
Ensuring each of thousands of clients was able to continue receiving medical care, access information or continue with programs that range from exercise and wellness to dietary support for diabetics, seemed daunting when the shutdown was first imposed by the provincial government.
But months later, Taillefer said her organization finally has a moment to look back and realize staff were able to meet the challenges to not only continue services, but in many cases discover improved methods to help patients and clients.
Staging medical or consultation appointments by phone or through online methods has been a huge step forward for WECHC.
“It’s been surprising how many of our clients like that,” Taillefer said. “They don’t have to leave home, get on a bus or drive to a centre to see a physician or nurse practitioner. They can do so right from their home.
“Some of that doesn’t transfer to vital care, so all of our locations have remained open the whole time to see someone in person — and our staff has continued to do so right up until now.”
The pandemic, however, has led to the creation of online interactive exercise classes via Zoom or YouTube videos ( www.wechc.org ); cable television ( YourTV ) exercise and wellness tips (weekdays at 12:30 and 4:00 p.m.); creation of new partnerships with area hospitals; ongoing monitoring of the homeless and those in shelters for COVID-19, plus increased home checks on patients.
Many of the new methods of providing care involving greater use of technology had been discussed within WECHC for years, but never implemented until the pandemic forced those methods to be put in place, Taillefer said.
Many of the changes will become permanent even after the pandemic subsides, she said.
The local organization operates on a $15-million annual budget funded by the provincial government through the Local Health Integration Network. Anticipated added expenditures for WECHC for upgrades in technology will likely be offset by fewer expenses to cover travel costs for staff or rental space for programming, Taillefer said.
“We could not have done this all alone,” she said. “We have had a lot of support to get through this from all our community partners.
“It shows how our community came together (during the pandemic) and worked out so many things. People really stepped up to the plate and said, ‘How can we make this work?’ Now we are preparing for the second wave and that work continues.”