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Free clinics in Tampa Bay face challenges adapting to coronavirus, expect more patients

In an attempt to keep up care for the vulnerable populations they serve, free clinics have tried new methods to help patients.
USF BRIDGE Healthcare Clinic set up a drive with Tampa Bay Harvest so their patients could get necessary food.
USF BRIDGE Healthcare Clinic set up a drive with Tampa Bay Harvest so their patients could get necessary food. [ Courtesy of Dr. Lucy Guerra ]
Published May 7, 2020

As coronavirus makes face-to-face medical visits riskier, free clinics across Tampa Bay for the uninsured have adapted how they provide care.

Some of those changes may help them in the long run — setting up a telehealth infrastructure could benefit their population of vulnerable patients, who may have a hard time finding transportation, said Jeannie Shapiro, the CEO of the Clearwater Free Clinic.

Like other clinics, Clearwater Free Clinic has tried to use telehealth for as much as possible. When they do see patients in person, the staff has worn masks — purchased at five times the regular price — and raincoats, instead of the harder to find medical gowns.

“We have to protect ourselves, because we need to stay open for the community,” Shapiro said.

Some other clinics, while still doing telehealth or outreach, recognize they can’t do as much as they’d like.

The University of South Florida’s Tampa Bay Street Medicine clinic mainly serves the homeless population and operates out of a church twice a month. But they haven’t been able to work out of the church for the past few weeks, instead setting up a pop up station in a park, said Dr. Lucy Guerra, a volunteer faculty advisor for Tampa Bay Street Medicine and for USF BRIDGE, another free clinic that caters to the uninsured.

It’s not medical care, but they are able to give out hygiene products, masks and offer guidance, Guerra said.

“The biggest concern we've seen with those patients is they're not sure where to go if they feel like they might have symptoms of coronavirus,” she said. “Some are concerned about reaching out to health departments because of their immigration status.”

The BRIDGE Clinic has had to move from the USF Health main campus, but it is still operating. Instead of medical students helping, the program is relying more on medical residents and faculty to volunteer, Guerra said.

The switch was made because they didn’t want to allocate limited protective equipment to students when frontline workers need it more.

The clinic has only one paid staff member — everyone else volunteers. When the faculty they’d need extra help outside of the students, they put out a call to others.

“People stepped up to the plate when they heard that the option was either closing down the BRIDGE clinic or Tampa Bay Street Medicine,” Guerra said.

They also organized a food pick up with Tampa Bay Harvest after noticing many of their patients were struggling with food insecurity.

USF BRIDGE Healthcare Clinic volunteers worked with a food bank to help service their patients with the greatest need
USF BRIDGE Healthcare Clinic volunteers worked with a food bank to help service their patients with the greatest need [ Courtesy of Dr. Lucy Guerra ]

The Outreach Clinic in Brandon is also fully volunteer-based. Many of the doctors and nurses who come in to help are retired — and elderly. Because of the risk of coronavirus, they haven’t felt comfortable doing face-to-face visits like before, said Deborah Meegan, the clinic’s executive director.

They hope to bring back more capacity by May 18, but it depends on whether or not they can get the right protective equipment, Meegan said.

Finding a way to still care for their patients amid coronavirus was one challenge, Meegan said. But the future looks daunting — Meegan expects more new patients, as unemployed people grapple without having healthcare, and a drop in donations to the clinic because of canceled fundraisers and a dip in the economy.

“Corona is a mess, but healthcare in the United States has been a mess before coronavirus,” she said.

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