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Teresa Tyson column: The Health Wagon responds to the COVID-19 pandemic in Southwest Virginia
The Health Wagon

Teresa Tyson column: The Health Wagon responds to the COVID-19 pandemic in Southwest Virginia

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As communities across the state respond to the pandemic courageously, swiftly and with characteristic Virginia grit, it’s instructive to understand how the commonwealth’s diverse regions have been approaching patient outreach and care. This is my dispatch from southwest Virginia.

First, some background. The Health Wagon has been providing critical health care by climbing the hills and navigating the sharp turns of Appalachian roads in our mobile clinics for 40 years. Access to health care always has been important, though never more so than during this pandemic. Our mobile clinics are a welcome sight.

The Health Wagon is the only free clinic operating in a six-county area of Southwest Virginia, providing care to people in the mountains of Appalachia through four mobile health units, outreach events and stationary clinics. We focus on preventative, primary and specialty care, care that is both inclusive and culturally sensitive.

We are the medical home for more than 5,600 people. This past year, as the pandemic swept across the state, our units logged more than 18,000 health visits, a record for our team. The numbers point to the extent of need and how integrated our services are within the rural areas of Virginia.

Our patients are hardworking, doing their best to get by amid both daily and persistent challenges. Statistically speaking, we know that our neighbors face higher rates of cancer and chronic disease compared to the state at large, a fact compounded by lack of access to regular health care. The pandemic has made the situation especially problematic. COVID-19, it should be said, is a bully that attacks the vulnerable.

Our partner, the United Health Foundation, recently released the America’s Health Rankings Annual Report, a state-by-state analysis of key health metrics. The report aims to drive change and improve health outcomes by promoting data-driven discussions among individuals, community leaders, media, policymakers and public health officials.

The report reveals that Virginia ranks 21st for people with multiple chronic conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Such underlying conditions put people, like our patients in Health Wagon’s service area, at a greater risk for severe cases of COVID-19. Given the health disparities in our community, we recognized very early how vital our services would be. And since the pandemic began in March 2020, we never have taken our foot off the gas.

To start, we knew testing and getting people into treatment was key. We donned personal protective equipment and tested thousands of people at pop-up events at stores and community centers. We partnered with local churches and organizations to distribute thousands of free masks to residents.

In December, we opened the country’s first post-COVID-19 clinic at our office in Clintwood. The facility is a stable site where we can help manage the lingering symptoms patients can experience after surviving COVID-19.

Also significant is the fact that we now are seeing patients for critical preventative care. We know from experience that early detection and treatment of disease is vital for improving the health and well-being of the people we serve.

Thanks to a $1 million grant from the United Health Foundation, we are able to provide no-cost diagnostic and specialty services, such as vision, ultrasound, X-ray and dental care to our underserved communities. Virus or not, we were not going to let the pandemic get in the way of this essential health care.

All the while, we’ve been educating our patients about the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine. If COVID-19 is a plane crashing, then the vaccine is the “parachute,” a lifeline to a safe landing. The metaphor must be resonating: More than 500 patients have joined a waiting list.

As vaccination rollout plans continue to gather momentum, the Health Wagon stands at the ready to leverage our resources as a trusted site for providing them. As always, we will travel the last mile to see that everyone receives the care they need.

Dr. Teresa Tyson is president and CEO of The Health Wagon. Contact her at: drtysonnp@thehealthwagon.org

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