Erie Family Health Centers continues its mission to provide high quality healthcare to underserved populations in the Chicago area during the pandemic. 

 “We moved with great haste to transform our care model to be able to safely care for patients and protect our staff,” said Robin Varnado, Senior Director of Operations at Erie Family Health Centers.

 "We started to prepare very early to care for patients enrolled with Erie Family Health Centers," Ms. Varnado said. “We flipped everything on its head and by mid-March were taking appointments over the phone.” She added, “Life goes on, people still fall and break their wrist and need care.”

Erie Family Health typically sees about 300 to 400 patients per week at the Evanston/Skokie center.  Last week Erie Evanston/Skokie saw about 75 patients in-person and 75 patients via telehealth appointments.

Next week Erie Evanston/Skokie will add an additional provider for in-person well-visits. Ms. Varnado said it is very important for people with chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, to have in-person visits so the doctor can examine them properly to ensure they are taking the right medication. Well-pediatric visits for vaccinations are also critical. “We don’t want to keep kids from catching COVID so they can catch measles,” she emphasized.

Erie Family Health redesigned operations, taking many precautions to protect patients and care-givers during in-person visits. “We are working very hard to create a safe space for people who need to see their medical provider,” said Ms. Varnado.

At Erie Evanston/Skokie, the circle entrance on Dempster Street is now dedicated to sick patients with COVID-19-like symptoms. Another entrance is designated for well-pediatric and reproductive health visits. A third entrance is for dental visits. 

All patients are interviewed by phone a few days before their appointment to see if they have COVID-19 symptoms.  Entrance door screeners check patients and staff for symptoms, conduct temperature checks and provide masks if necessary. Every person working in the building – physicians, nurses and staff – is screened twice daily, and everyone is required to wear a mask.

Every effort is made to move patients into examining rooms quickly, said Ms. Varnado.  Waiting rooms are segregated between sick and well areas. Chairs are now six feet apart to prevent the spread of the virus or other infectious diseases in waiting areas.  

Erie physicians and caregivers will not see sick patients and well patients on the same day. Erie instituted a rotation system to protect staff and patients. Physicians conduct in-person sick patient visits for the first two weeks, rotate to telehealth support for two weeks, then rotate to in-person well-appointments.

Telehealth appointments have become an important method for caring for patients.  Telehealth visits now account for half of care appointments at Erie Evanston/Skokie. Erie staff have been pleasantly surprised by the high acceptance and positive feedback from patients of telehealth appointments. 

“Patient satisfaction and feedback from telehealth is very high; they like the ease and convenience of telehealth,” said Ms. Varnado.  Telehealth has also allowed Erie to “robustly maintain behavioral health services during this time,” she said.

 Emergency dental visits will resume this week at Erie Family Health Evanston/Skokie.  Erie is taking a unique approach by testing patients a few days before their scheduled appointment.  This approach will ensure patients are virus-free to eliminate any risk to dentists from close contact with patients.  “We can’t have hands in mouths of people who are sick,” Ms. Varnado said.

 Erie Family Health Centers are funded through insurance reimbursements from patient visits, HRSA (the Health Resources and Services Administration, a federal agency), donations from individuals and corporations, and grants.  Medicaid is the single largest insurance payer. 

 Ms. Varnado said Erie experienced a dramatic decline in system-wide visits in March and now forecasts a multi-million-dollar deficit if current trends in patient volumes and uncompensated care persist. Receipt of federal and private relief dollars have helped to alleviate some of the current financial pressure, and Erie is working very hard to manage costs and address the revenue shortfall, she said.

Erie Family Health Evanston/Skokie, 1285 Hartrey Ave., is one of 13 locations providing primary health care services including medical, dental and behavioral services to underserved populations in the west and north side of Chicago and northern suburbs.