By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
International Community Health Services (ICHS) learned of the possibility of COVID-19 prior to the worldwide outbreak, as many patients and employees are from Asia and learned from family and friends or through travel to Asia.
Even with forewarning, the organization had to swiftly pivot in protecting themselves and their patients as the pandemic threatened many of the vulnerable communities it serves.
ICHS provides health care services in 11 locations throughout the region. It offers a variety of services, including medical, dental, mental health, nutrition services, and more to a diverse community of people. This includes a great deal of the Asian and elderly population relying on the services of ICHS.
“We were already being careful,” stated President and CEO Teresita Batayola, based on the news from Wuhan, China. The clinics experienced a downturn in drop-in visits as well as no-shows, which was an indicator that patients were concerned about the virus.
In February 2020, ICHS was the nation’s first community health center with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. ICHS identified high-risk patients and informed them not to come into clinics for appointments and risk getting exposed to the virus. Only those that were deemed necessary to see a physician in person could come into clinics.
“We had to change the way we were operating,” Batayola said. “At the beginning of the year, we had zero capabilities of telehealth.” ICHS converted most of the patients to telehealth appointments. Of course, the conversion came with obstacles as the digital divide for older patients and those with language barriers had a tough time with the transition. There was a concern of making sure that community members had the right device—whether it be a laptop, mobile device, or desktop—to have the visit. Then there is also the question of navigating websites.
ICHS set up drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites and targeted testing specific populations, such as the hard-hit Pacific Islander community. They have also been helping with in-home visits and prescription deliveries.
“We also had to put in a lot of protections in place for staff,” Batayola said.
“There was frantic search for PPE.” She’s referring to Personal Protection Equipment, which was in short supply at the start of quarantine last spring.
Batayola noted that members of the community donated surgical masks as a way to help.
With necessary patients that visited the clinic, measures were taken to ensure safety. There was temperature screening at the door, social distancing guidelines, and the clinics shortened their hours of operation. Yet, there were still unknowns as Batayola explained.
“There were questions regarding how long after disinfecting an exam room that another patient could safely enter.”
Due to the shortened hours and reduction of in-person visits, some employees were furloughed while a few were laid off. While these decisions may have hurt employee morale, keeping everyone safe was at a premium. As of this February, no employees of ICHS have been infected by the coronavirus at work. She notes that a couple of employees contracted COVID-19 outside of work and were quarantined.
“An important part of worker morale is keeping them safe,” explained Batayola of the health and safety protections ICHS has provided its staff.
They are also kept up to date on new information provided by the federal and state health officials.
Of course, the pandemic is taking a toll.
“People are feeling the burnout.” She noted that many employees have children still doing online courses and are not physically in school with classmates, which is a great concern. “We talk openly,” she said of the physical and mental strain it is having on individuals. “There are no easy solutions.” However she notes, “They know the community needs them.”
A new part of the pandemic for ICHS is attempting to obtain the vaccine for community members. Resources are scarce and Batayola has been vigorously advocating for ICHS to receive a share of the allotment given to Washington state.
“We have an equity issue here,” said Batayola. “Communities of color and seniors have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.” She has spoken with King County Executive Dow Constantine, as well as Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan about this issue. With a shortage being the reality, Batayola has lobbied for the vaccine, imploring the city, state, and county to recognize the vulnerability of the population ICHS serves.
For more information, visit ICHS.com.
Jason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.