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How Safety-Net Health Providers In Kansas City Are Preparing For a Coronavirus Winter Surge

As temperatures drop and socializing outside becomes harder to do, health officials expect coronavirus infections rates to rise.
Vickie Newton
KCUR 89.3
As temperatures drop and socializing outside becomes harder to do, health officials expect coronavirus infection rates to rise.

As health care providers brace for increasing infection rates, one drive-thru food giveaway is adding free COVID-19 testing to the menu and exam rooms are being retrofitted to reduce the risk of viral spread.

As winter closes in and the country's concern over a new wave of coronavirus infections grows, safety-net health organizations in Kansas City are working hard to get their patients ready.

At Swope Health Central on Blue Parkway, a monthly drive-thru charity event will begin offering free COVID-19 testing and flu shots this weekend.

The event is headed up by Missouri Rep. Barbara Anne Washington whose district extends south and east from near Troost and Admiral Boulevard. She started the effort in August and said it's intended to help resource-strapped Kansas Citians get the health care they need but can't always afford.

"They had some resources, which were already limited, to get things," Washington said. "Then this gets compounded with COVID, where you have 200-300% more people needing the same resources."

Washington admits she modeled drive-thru giveaway on a similar program operated by the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. That group helped connect her to the distribution giant Sysco, which is donating food.

"It also helps them get rid of some of the food that they were not able to sell because of the pandemic," she said.

Kansas City Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw also joined the effort this month to donate Thanksgiving turkeys.

Washington said she expects to see 600-750 cars make their way through the Swope Health Central parking lot Saturday morning and noted they are allowing up to two families in each vehicle to accommodate residents who may not have transportation of their own.

The ongoing pandemic has also changed things for patients and health care providers at Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center.

Chief Operating Officer Bob Theis said the biggest adjustment his organization has made is an effort to proactively reach out to patients and ask what they need, including help securing transportation, utility or food assistance and more.

"I think it's so important that we're connectors to other services that people may not know exist," he said. "And if you're frustrated and not getting what you need, our community health workers will reach out and help you."

The Rodgers Health Center is also using a mobile vaccination unit to help charter school students in Kansas City's Northeast neighborhood get their flu shots, and they have secured 500 rapid-result COVID-19 testing kits for patients with symptoms.

Theis said his organization received more than $1 million of Jackson County's CARES Act funding, which they're using to add new dental exam rooms, retrofit existing exam rooms with doors, and add negative air pressure systems to their facilities.

"It decreases the likelihood of anyone passing along any infection," he said.

Those physical improvements and the wider availability of free testing will become more important as hospitals continue to fill up with coronavirus patients, Theis said. That's because patients with less severe symptoms are frequently referred to their primary care providers.

"Just this morning I had a conversation about what is our process going to be for people who are referred to us with COVID," Theis said. "We really don't know what's coming right now in the fall or in the winter, and we just want to be prepared."

The Free Family Health Essentials drive-thru runs from 9 a.m.-noon, while supplies last, on Saturday, Nov. 7 at Swope Health Central, 3801 Blue Parkway, Kansas City, Missouri 64130.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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