Health-care professionals say Community Health Centers have stepped in to meet the needs of residents during the pandemic, as the state’s rural areas continue to lose hospitals.
The centers have helped curb coronavirus infection rates by offering COVID testing and vaccinations. According to data from the National Association of Community Health Centers and the Morehouse School of Medicine, areas with health centers have experienced fewer coronavirus deaths and infections.
Libby Thurman, CEO of the Tennessee Primary Care Association, said health centers have been a lifeline for rural residents needing COVID-related care.
“In Tennessee, we’ve had a high number of hospital closures,” Thurman said. “We have seen that put increasing pressure on some of our health centers located in the rural areas, because they then tend to become an even more important source of care.”
Tennessee has lost 16 rural hospitals since 2005, ranking the state number two in the country for closures.
As of last year, at least 24 of Tennessee’s rural hospitals were at immediate risk of closure and another six were at high risk of closure, according to the Center for Health Care Equity and Payment Reform.
Thurman noted ensuring high-risk populations have access to COVID-19 vaccines has helped stem the tide of coronavirus infections across the state.
“Tennessee Health Centers have provided over 107,000 vaccine doses, and 47% of those are to racial and ethnic minority patients,” Thurman said. “We’re really working hard to increase access to vaccines.”
She added centers have tested more than 407,000 individuals for COVID-19.
Dr. Anne Gaglioti, associate professor of family medicine at the Morehouse School of Medicine and senior strategic adviser at the National Center for Primary Care, said across the nation, community health center staff are struggling with burnout and loss from the pandemic, but continue to serve their communities.
“I know that they are tired, and they’ve experienced a huge amount of loss,” Gaglioti said. “Despite that, they’re still coming to work every day and caring for folks, caring for neighbors.”
She added workforce shortages are worsening. Nearly half of health centers reported as of January they lacked the staff needed to administer vaccines, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers.