Community Health Centers Provide Access to COVID-19 Testing for Utah’s Most Vulnerable and At-Risk Populations

June 11, 2020

As Utah works to flatten the curve of COVID-19, community health centers across the state are taking an active role in expanding access to COVID-19 testing for Utah’s most vulnerable and at-risk populations and communities, including minorities, individuals experiencing homelessness, and those living in low to moderate income households. Together, Utah’s 13 health center organizations operate 54 clinics in urban and rural communities and provide over 500,000 medical, dental and behavioral health visits to more than 168,000 people annually, making them a critical component of Utah’s health care delivery system.

On April 8, 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) awarded Utah’s health centers more than $11 million as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to assist with the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This funding is enabling health centers to address detection, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of COVID-19 while maintaining health center operations and staffing.

The most recent increase in testing capacity is possible through the support of the Utah Department of Health (UDOH). Through this collaboration, five Utah health centers expanded testing capacity at seven clinic sites. UDOH identified clinic sites based on geographic locations without nearby testing access or sites serving particularly vulnerable populations. Three urban clinics s and four geographically remote clinics are now offering drive-through testing for COVID-19.

Since April, 12 Utah health centers administered testing to more than 6,500 patients, 9% of whom tested positive for COVID-19. Ninety-four percent of those who tested positive identified as racial and/or ethnic minority.

Although COVID-19 infection rates remain low in Utah’s rural communities, access to testing is critical, especially as Utah’s tourism industry begins to reopen. Prior to administering testing at their Bicknell and Escalante clinics, Wayne Community Health Center (Wayne CHC) patients traveled up to 120 miles to be tested. This lack of local health care is a common problem in Utah’s rural communities, where a health center may be the only primary care facility within 100 miles.

“As I drive through the small communities we serve, I pass by the houses of so many of our friends and neighbors I know would likely not survive a COVID-19 infection. As the only physician in our county, the responsibility to keep them well weighs heavy,” said Dr. Jeffery Chappell, Medical Director at Wayne CHC. “I feel grateful for the amazing employees of our clinic and so many in the community who help shoulder this load.” 

Wayne CHC provides affordable care to working families and remote communities that would not otherwise be able to easily access high-quality, comprehensive health care services. Many patients they serve are at an increased risk for social determinants of health such as food, housing, and transportation insecurities. Because health centers offer access to care for all individuals, Wayne CHC is in a unique position to identify those in crisis and connect them with community resources. Utah’s rural health centers are a critical community resource and will continue to be so in the weeks and months to come.

During the early stages of the pandemic, Utah Navajo Health System Inc. (UNHS), with four clinics throughout San Juan County, proactively set up outdoor screening areas for patients and increased the use of medical telehealth services to limit contact between patients and staff at all its clinics. To address the issue of spotty internet coverage at many residences in the area, Wi-Fi hotspots were set up in clinic parking lots so patients could speak to medical providers from their vehicles. These initial efforts have proven to be vital, as their communities, including the Navajo Nation, are particularly hit hard by the pandemic.

More recently, through their collaborative efforts with UDOH, UNHS expanded its testing capacity by providing mobile testing. To date, UNHS has tested more than 4,000 community members. UNHS continues to provide exemplary care and supportive services to meet the needs of their community.

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 FourPoints Health staff organizing PPE. 

FourPoints Health, with clinics in Kanosh, Richfield, Cedar City, and St. George, is administering COVID-19 testing for tourists visiting nearby State and National Parks, Native American and Hispanic populations, college students, and rural residents. Their clinics implemented processes to better meet the needs of their elderly and vulnerable patients, including no-contact medication delivery, weekly virtual check-ins, and monthly crisis care package deliveries. FourPoints offers discounted health care services and pharmacy programs for low-income patients and support to patients obtaining health insurance coverage.

“As we have always done, we are here to serve the underserved,” said Tyler Goddard, Health Director at FourPoints. “Through constant outreach to our elderly and vulnerable patients and expanded telehealth, in-clinic, and after-hours services, we are literally available to our patients 24/7.”

Utah’s health centers do not hesitate to rise to the occasion to provide their communities the opportunity to be healthy. Beyond increasing access to COVID-19 testing, health centers mobilize quickly to maintain and increase access to medical, dental and behavioral health services via telehealth.

Carbon Medical Service Association operates clinics in East Carbon and Helper and continuously evolves to meet the needs of their patients. In response to COVID-19, Carbon Medical Service Association offers curbside prescription pickup and blood pressure cuffs to their higher-risk patients to monitor and report vital signs from home.

In Utah and Uintah counties, Mountainlands Family Health Center (Mountainlands) is the sole comprehensive primary care provider offering sliding fee services for the uninsured, with their East Bay Health Center being the only homeless health clinic in Utah County. Their clinics referred more than 200 patients in need of COVID-19 testing and implemented new processes to safely deliver care to members of their community. With approximately 96% of their patients earning less than 200% of FPG and 64% being uninsured, Mountainlands is indispensable to maintaining the health of the communities they serve.

During this time of economic uncertainty, health centers’ commitment to serving medically underserved populations is vital. Those who are facing COVID-19 related financial challenges can still receive comprehensive, high-quality primary and preventive health care, with or without insurance, regardless of ability to pay.

In southwest Utah, where the tourism and services sectors are major employers, the economic downturn related to COVID-19 has increased the numbers of unemployed, underemployed and those experiencing food insecurity. This lack of income will force many to delay preventative health care.  

Family Healthcare operates clinics in St. George, Hurricane, and Cedar City and is poised and ready to respond to the daily health care needs of southwest Utah residents. With clinics designed as integrated health care homes, Family Healthcare provides primary, behavioral and dental care on a sliding fee scale to patients facing financial insecurity; the goal is to minimize the likelihood that barriers such as financial insecurity or lack of insurance will prevent access to high-quality preventative health care.

The story is similar in Green River, Utah, where Green River Medical Center (GRMC) is offering testing for their patients and communities. Throughout the pandemic, GRMC continues to serve the underserved populations of Green River and Moab, Utah, including those who lost their jobs and/or health insurance due to COVID-19 related closures. Many patients employed by the tourism sector are now experiencing severe economic hardship. GRMC’s role in providing affordable health care is essential to ensuring the ongoing health of their communities.

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Donations from community members to Midtown Community Health Centers. 

Expanded testing capacity in Utah’s urban communities along the Wasatch Front is equally important, as many of the vulnerable and at-risk populations residing in these areas experience difficulty accessing testing. Midtown Community Health Center (Midtown) ramped up testing efforts in communities they serve to provide access for populations where COVID-19 is more lethal and spreading faster. Fifty-eight percent of individuals tested at Midtown are Hispanic while 90% are living at or below 200% of FPG. Utah Partners for Health in Midvale has also seen success in reaching the Hispanic community, which has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, to administer testing while continuing to offer virtual visits for medical and mental health

services to their broader patient population. 

“Community Health Centers provide a network for thousands of Utahns – many of whom have come to depend on us for our culturally sensitive staff, high-quality care, and ability to remove barriers to Utah's renowned health care,” said Dr. Kurt Rifleman, Medical Co-Director at Midtown.

Utah’s health centers are among the heroes in this world-wide crisis and remain committed and engaged as they continue to serve their communities. If you are in need of medical, dental or mental health services, find a clinic nearest you. Health centers welcome all individuals, and accept Medicaid, Medicare, most health insurance plans, and offer discounted services for uninsured and low-income individuals. Many offer telehealth options that allow you to speak with a health care provider from the comfort and safety of your home. Please contact the health center by phone for an assessment of your health concerns before going to the clinic.