Blackstone Valley health center soldiers through the pandemic: A Blackstone Valley Community Health Care News Article

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Blackstone Valley health center soldiers through the pandemic

CENTRAL FALLS — When Elcimari Campos tested positive for coronavirus disease last month, she was frightened. A wife and mother of three school-age children, she lives with an autoimmune disorder, which put her at high risk.

“I was scared,” Campos said. “I have lupus and I was like ‘Oh my god, now I’ve got COVID, what’s going to happen?’ So I called my primary doctor.”

That is Charlie Imonah, a nurse practitioner with Blackstone Valley Community Health Care, or BVCHC, which has one of its medical offices at 1000 Broad St. in a community that has suffered terribly during the pandemic.

“He said, ‘don't worry, we're going to take care of you,’ ” Campos recalled on Friday during an interview at the Broad Street office. “And the next day, I got an appointment for the treatment. Thank God they put me in treatment right away, with monoclonal antibody therapy.”

Today, Campos is recovered and back to work with her cleaning business — and for that, she credits the center, which also operates medical offices on Chestnut Street, and two offices in Pawtucket, another city that has been badly punished during the pandemic.

“It’s like a miracle,” Campos said.

Safety, strategy, morale are key

“Miracle” is not a word BVCHC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Cristina Pacheco uses to describe the center’s response to the pandemic starting in the earliest days, more than 14 months ago — but “strategy” is. Also, "adjust," "safety" and "primary care."

“We had to figure out really quickly how we were going to adjust our work lives around this, and how we were going to meet our patients’ needs,” Pacheco said on Friday during an interview at 1000 Broad St.

“And so, we had two main goals. One was trying to help keep people safe, both our employees and our patients. And the other one was to continue to provide as much primary care as we possibly could given the circumstances. And I feel pretty good that we managed to do both of those things.”

Early on, the center made provisions to segregate patients with COVID symptoms, and to protect potentially vulnerable individuals – people with underlying medical conditions and pregnant women among them. Telehealth was employed, along with outreach. Eventually, on-site testing and vaccination was brought into the picture.

The array of integrated services BVCHC provides proved an asset: an in-house pharmacy, dental and eye clinics, behavioral health treatment, and family, pediatric and maternal women’s health medicine among them.

Staff morale was key, Pacheco said, and during the early going, when so much remained unknown about COVID-19 and frontline workers were experiencing significant stress, she and her senior staff were connecting daily with employees.

“For a while in this building, we were checking every single one,” Pacheco said. “ ‘How is everybody doing? What are you worried about? Yes, this is really difficult. Let's take a moment and think about that.’ ”

Some 21,000 patients receive services at Blackstone Valley Community Health Care, which has an annual budget of $27 million and employs 214, including 13 clinical providers who have been added during the pandemic.

Many patients live in Central Falls and Pawtucket, but others reside in another 30 or so cities and towns. Campos, for example, is a resident of East Providence, which as of Wednesday had recorded 5,671 cumulative COVID cases — more than Central Falls, with 4,368 cases, though less than Pawtucket, with 11,263.

'A good example'

Asked to assess the role the center has played during the pandemic, the mayors of Pawtucket and Central Falls said they are appreciative.

“Blackstone Valley Community Health Care has been offering testing and their facility for antibody treatments, two important tools helping our highly-impacted city address COVID,” said Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera. “As we work to move closer to the other side of this pandemic, I thank BVCHC for their work to fight this devastating virus.”

Said Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien: “Pawtucket has faced high transmission rates and a great deal of uncertainty in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. Blackstone Valley Community Health Care Center has done a good job of working with the residents to continue providing them with quality care during such unprecedented times and I appreciate their effort and dedication to the community.”

Dr. Michael Fine, chief health strategist for the City of Central Falls, former director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, and the Blackstone center's former senior clinical and population health officer, wrote in an email that “many people and organizations in Central Falls came together to fight the pandemic in these communities in which likely 50,000 people lack access to primary care.”

He added: “BVCHC and its heroic medical assistants, receptionists, nurses and doctors provided critical health services to their established patients during the pandemic, heroism for which their patients in Central Falls will always be grateful.”

Said Dr. James McDonald, the Health Department’s medical director: “As the pandemic has progressed, BVCHC has continued its mission in one of the harder hit communities in Rhode Island. And they have stepped up yet again during the vaccination campaign to get community members vaccinated. Community health centers play a critical role in Rhode Island outpatient healthcare, and BVCHC is a good example of community meeting health.”

An entire family affected

Campos did not suffer through coronavirus disease alone: her husband, who works for a construction firm, and their three children all contracted the disease.

But unlike Campos, who experienced fevers, coughing and difficulty breathing until her treatment, “they didn’t have a lot of symptoms,” Campos said.

And now, “everyone’s fine,” she said.

Campos credits their healthcare team.

“I just want to say thank you for the doctors, thank you for the community center, thank you for the treatment, it really worked,” Campos said, noting that not everyone has been so fortunate.

“Some people I know died,” she said. “Some people I know still feel like tired, still have symptoms,” the symptoms of Long COVID, also sometimes called long-haul syndrome. Debilitating complications can persist for weeks or months, and much remains unknown about Long COVID.

Campos's message to Rhode Islanders?

“Get vaccinated so you'll be safe and you can save your community and your family,” she said. “It’s not just for you, it’s for the ones you love, for the community.”