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In early March of 2020, employees at InclusivCare were hard at work planning a grand opening event for a new pharmacy. It would be the latest addition to the health system located just east of New Orleans that includes five clinic sites, a mobile dental van, and an administration site—all dedicated to improving access to affordable care for the people of Jefferson Parish in Louisiana.
However, it soon became clear to InclusivCare’s Chief Executive Officer Dr. Shondra Williams that “as COVID-19 was rearing its ugly head” no one would want to come see the new pharmacy, and no one really could.
On March 9, the InclusivCare management team pivoted. Instead of holding the grand opening, InclusivCare would host a drive-in COVID-19 Outreach Event to ensure that Greater New Orleans’ most vulnerable communities were prepared for the coronavirus. Despite having only limited information about the new virus from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, InclusivCare stepped up to share what was known on how the virus spread, how to clean, hand hygiene, and how to properly social distance.
It was a daunting event to plan with Dr. Williams very fearful for her own employees’ safety, but she says she knew—even before a single case was identified in New Orleans—that the need to educate would be critical for the underprivileged community.
“We didn't really know what would be the true impact at that time, but the one thing that we did know is that we had a community who was going to be needing resources,” said Dr. Williams. “I was just kind of waiting for that call for someone to say bad idea. Don't do it. But rather, I got very positive affirmation.”
The event featured a cell phone cleaning station and the local radio station got involved in getting people there and participating in the event. In all, the event reached more than 200 people. The radio station used it as a model for doing similar events in other communities.
The event had another important function: It helped identify the workflow for what would become drive-in COVID-19 testing.
“A lot of the principles that we learned from this initial event, back in March, we were able to incorporate six to eight weeks later with testing,” said Dr. Williams.
COVID-19 Reaches a Community
Inspired by how quickly her team could mobilize and remain safe while reaching the community, Dr. Williams got to work on setting up a testing operation.
But around the same time, the clinic would face its first close-to-home COVID loss. The wife of a long-time InclusiveCare employee passed away suddenly at home after contracting the virus. Two months later, the long-time employee himself passed away himself after contracting the virus. Like his wife before him, he passed suddenly in his home.
“He was just enamored by anything that he could do for the community,” said Dr. Williams. “This is the guy that helped us to start a transportation service. This is the guy that would, on the way from the clinic, when patients are given a prescription, would go in the nearest Walmart and wait in the pharmacy line until the prescription was ready for a patient. He was the guy that would go in his own pocket to furnish a client with a meal if they didn't have food for their family.”
The employee had been with InclusivCare for 13 of its 17 years and instrumental in its growth over that time. The loss hit the company hard. Around the same time the local community had also lost a pastor, his wife, and dozens of church members.
“I was just really floored by the number of people that [my team members] knew personally that had lost their lives to COVID,” said Dr. Williams. “I just felt like our organization had to answer the call of duty when we're in a hotspot.”
The Big Task of Testing
And New Orleans was quickly becoming a national hot spot. Countless calls were coming in to the 24/7 COVID hotline that InclusivCare had set up asking about how to access testing, how to receive results, and how others could receive testing.
It was clear the need for testing was overwhelming—and InclusivCare was ready to step up to the daunting task. There was just one problem: tests and personal protective equipment were very hard to get.
“Just to get one COVID test, it was extremely difficult,” said Dr. Williams. “And literally, I begged personally at the hospitals. I was meeting their supply personnel in the back by the warehouse just so we could support our testing initiative, because everything we ordered from our normal suppliers was not making it to our clinics. Nothing made it.”
As supplies trickled in, on April 10 InclusivCare held their first testing drive in a hard-hit community and tested more than 150 people in just two hours. By June, InclusivCare had completed 20 additional mobile testing events in hard-to-reach communities.
“We had a very demanding schedule working five days a week, and then on Saturdays, going out to various communities, partnering with faith-based organizations, community organizations, and even local government to just fill the need with respect to COVID testing,” said Dr. Williams.
InclusivCare was holding testing drives in their empty parking lot, but also took their mobile dental van to reach more people. Feeling they could do even more, InclusivCare eventually added telehealth visits to the testing drives so that high risk patients, who would not have had access to their doctors during the shutdowns, would be able to access a doctor while getting tested.
“Anything that I can do to roll up our sleeves and dig in, that's what we've done for at least the eight plus years that I've been chief executive officer,” said Dr. Williams.
Hard-Wired for Disaster
During the testing operation Dr. Williams struggled with the challenge of maintaining the safety of her employees, and the integrity of the organization, during an emotionally stressful time.
“Going into the week—what it was going to hold—you really just did not know. And every week was going to present some new, big, gigantic challenge,” she said. Dr. Williams worried about the fact that New Orleans was a city built on connections and interactions—things that now could be unhealthy for you. She worried that employees were going to get tired of being locked down and engage with the community on the weekends.
She worried about how to keep her employees motivated to do hard work despite the challenges and the unknowns of each day, and how to keep up with the regulations and compliance needed for safety standards.
“It’s a hard job under normal circumstances,” said Dr. Williams. “How do you keep the integrity…not only with losing a team member, but we are also in this national crisis of race and inequality. Having a mostly minority staff, those issues could not be ignored.”
But Dr. Williams knew she was up to the task. With a background in emergency and crisis management, she considers herself a thought-leader on the topic. She knew early-on that COVID-19 would have an impact on her community and drew on her experience to lead.
“Being able to galvanize and mobilize is natural for me, and the team followed. They were very confident in knowing that I was walking them into a place that we could make a difference,” Dr. Williams said.
The history of InclusivCare was an inspiration, too. The health center had become a vital part of the community and a major source of healthcare services for the low income and/or uninsured through several disasters including Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Williams took over the organization in 2012, just after the Gulf Oil Spill in 2011. Meeting the needs of the community after public health and emergency crises became second-nature.
“Business is, for us, community,” said. Dr. Williams. “If we do not survive as a business, then a community does not survive.”