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O.C. Free Clinic adapts amid pandemic

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By Ike Parrish

Reporter

Nearly everything about how the Orange County Free Clinic operates has changed because of the pandemic. Nevertheless, the dedicated staff continue to persevere and provide free, essential healthcare services to the community uninsured or underinsured.

From volunteer support, to fundraising, to in-office visits, the clinic has adapted amid unprecedented challenges to keep its doors open for its thousands of patients.

The key has been to keep the highly-contagious COVID-19 virus out of the clinic.

The staff of 10 full-time employees and five part-time employees has been operating without any volunteer help since March of 2020.

“We really depend on our volunteers,” said Dorren Brown, Executive Director of the OC Free Clinic. “We’ve had to wear three or four hats each.”

Brown said the free clinic depends on volunteers to help with the medication assistance program and to fill nursing positions, among other tasks. With no volunteers available, due to COVID safety protocols, staff members have had to take on the responsibility of performing additional roles.

Free clinic board president and medical director Dr. Randolph Merrick said they will have to wait for the current surge in positive COVID cases of the omicron variant to subside before considering bringing back any volunteers.

Prior to the pandemic, Dr. Merrick would occasionally bring VCU medical students to the free clinic as part of their curriculum.

“If we get COVID in the free clinic staff of course we have to shut down, so we’ve been very, very careful about not bringing unnecessary exposure and we can’t wait until we can get back to teaching,” said Dr. Merrick.

Fortunately, the clinic was not forced to shut down in 2021. Patients who wish to make an appointment at the free clinic are asked a series of questions over the phone to ensure they are not infected with COVID. If there are any uncertainties, patients are asked to be tested for COVID before visiting the clinic.

As further mitigation, the free clinic offers phone visits for patients to speak with a medical professional without having to leave their home.

Due to COVID, the clinic had to cancel most of its fundraising events this year. They were forced to cancel their annual Gala again this year which Dr. Merrick said might have raised $40,000 to $50,000.

The clinic is uncertain if it will be able to host any of its fundraising events in 2022.

“When we first started this clinic 15 or 16 years ago, we had a budget of around $70,000. Now our budget is approaching $800,000,” said Dr. Merrick.

The clinic has managed to subsist “through the kindness of strangers,” said Brown. “Our community always has been supportive.”

She added that local grants have helped replenish funding deficits associated with the absence of fundraising events. The clinic recently received a donation of $10,000 from the Bama Works Fund of the Dave Matthews Band.

“A great way to help the free clinic is consider contributing financially to the extent that they can,” Dr. Merrick added.

Donations can be made at www.orangecountyfreeclinic.org.

Aside from monetary donations, people donate medical supplies, canned goods, food products, toiletries and other basic necessities like toilet paper and paper towels.

The free clinic has accommodated a substantial caseload this year, providing medical treatment for 1,262 patients in a five-month span from July through November. Brown said the clinic saw an uptick of patient visits in October and November due to a surge in positive COVID cases. The numbers account for both in-person and phone visits.

The clinic has managed to keep its head above water throughout challenging times for medical care providers. It has kept up with an expanding budget with the help of grants and individual donors, taken in every patient in need and managed to prevent any COVID infections within the free clinic staff.

“We really haven’t missed a beat,” said Dr. Merrick. “We’ve had to change how we go about doing what we do and make major changes in our approach, but we haven’t stopped. We’ve been blessed to keep going.”

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