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Community clinics help North Texas hospitals manage burden of the coronavirus surge

Community clinics help North Texas hospitals manage burden of the coronavirus surge

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Lucía Mendoza hesitated for several months about getting the coronavirus vaccine. But after her brother in Mexico came down with COVID-19, her doctor told her if she didn’t get inoculated, she would become sick too. She decided to overcome her concerns about the shots.

As a patient of the Parkland Primary Care Community Clinic in Irving, Mendoza got the encouragement she needed and received her second dose two weeks ago.

“My brother was getting really sick, and I got scared,” said Mendoza, 36. “I was offered the vaccine at the clinic, and I got both doses there.”

It’s at such community clinics that many people approach doctors with questions and concerns about the coronavirus vaccine and end up convinced of the importance of vaccinations.

With Dallas County’s large population of uninsured people, community clinics have taken on the mission of buffering the impact of the wave of the coronavirus driven by the delta variant.

By encouraging inoculations and providing care to coronavirus-infected people that keeps them from becoming more seriously ill, the clinics are helping to prevent further stress for the area’s overburdened hospital systems.

Community clinics improve health care access for uninsured residents by treating patients for relatively modest fees, which are based on people’s incomes and where they live.

Regardless of whether residents have money when they fall sick, they can get treated at the clinics.

Some of the clinics are funded by local governments or charity programs, and others are part of nonprofits that are dedicated to helping vulnerable populations.

During the COVID pandemic, community clinics have helped more patients than ever before.

Dallas County has been averaging more than 1,000 COVID cases a day and, as of Friday, there were 18 adult ICU beds available, according to county data. Pediatric hospitals have raised alarms about the strained supply of care for children with COVID.

Parkland Health System manages the largest network of community clinics in North Texas, with 12 primary care clinics. In 2020, the clinics treated 481,871 patients. This year, the number is expected to top 500,000.

“This last month, we have seen a 27% increase in the number of doctor’s appointments, compared with the same month last year,” said James Pérez, vice president of clinical operations at the Parkland Hospital System. “Many more people are coming now because they are concerned about COVID-19.”

Pérez said community clinics play a crucial role in ensuring hospitals aren’t overwhelmed. They’re the first step in preventing many people from becoming ill enough to require hospitalization.

“If somebody has symptoms, we want them to come to have a checkup so we can test them and isolate them,” he said. “Because if they do not take care of themselves, they keep on with their normal life and become virus spreaders.”

Pérez said people are visiting doctors more often during this wave of the coronavirus because a rising number of younger people without underlying health problems are getting ill. That’s also leading unvaccinated residents to get vaccinated.

“It’s been slow, but we have seen more people coming to get the vaccine.” he said. “One of the reasons younger people are not getting vaccinated is because they’re unaware of the importance of this vaccination. They haven’t seen the diseases vaccines protect us against, such as polio and smallpox, which older people did see and that’s why they didn’t think twice about getting vaccinated.”

Mendoza was one of them. After her brother was hospitalized in Mexico with COVID-19, she decided she needed to get her shots. Before, she had worried about possible immediate and long-term side effects from the vaccine for her and her husband, though hundreds of millions of people worldwide have been inoculated safely.

Her brother’s illness changed her perspective, and then she only needed a little encouragement from her Parkland community clinic doctor to get vaccinated.

“I was afraid, but I talked to my doctor because I really don’t want to get sick,” Mendoza said. “One day I went for an appointment and he told me that if I didn’t get vaccinated, it was almost certain I would get sick. That scared me even more because I have seen it up close.”

Mendoza received the vaccine at the Parkland community clinic in Irving, where she has been a patient for a little more than two years. She has been treated several times there and was tested twice for COVID because she suspected she had symptoms.

All Parkland community clinics are giving COVID vaccines for free to anyone who wants them, whether or not they live in Dallas County.

Agape Clinic, one of the North Texas community clinics that offer care to hundreds of people at low cost, has seen a stream of patients who fear they have COVID-19 symptoms.

In 2020, Agape Clinic treated 18,223 patients from underserved communities.

The ones who get the disease diagnosed in time often can be treated for the illness before it becomes serious and take preventive measures to avoid spreading it further.

Paul Hoffmann, executive director of Agape, said the clinic in Old East Dallas has seen a rise in visits in recent weeks because of the prevalence of coronavirus in the community.

“Yes, we have seen more young people coming in with these symptoms who didn’t get the vaccine earlier, and now they have caught COVID,” he said. “It’s sad these people who decided to not get the vaccine can fall ill now.”

The rise in unvaccinated young patients has led the clinic to focus on persuading people to get inoculated to avoid more deaths. Agape Clinic is not administering the vaccines because it doesn’t have the refrigeration equipment to preserve them, but it helps patients find out where they can get shots.

“The Latino community trusts us. They come here when they’re afraid of going somewhere else,” Hoffmann said. “That’s why it is important to tell them the reasons they have to get vaccinated. We have been changing patients’ mindsets — one at a time.”

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