LEARNING FROM THE PENDEMIC: Community health centers adapt to new challenges in the aftermath of COVID-19.

AuthorJohnson, Sharon

Nearly three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States is still reeling, with multiple variants of the virus having caused more than one million deaths. Up to twenty-three million Americans may be battling the symptoms of long COVID, including chronic fatigue, brain fog, and shortness of breath, leaving an estimated one million of them unable to work, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Mental health has also been affected on a mass scale, with surveys indicating an increase in anxiety, depression, and alcohol consumption across the U.S. population, as well as difficulty sleeping and eating.

The effect of all of this on low-income communities and communities of color is particularly severe. In 2021, Black and Latinx people experienced a 2.9-and three-year decline in life expectancy, respectively, largely due to COVID-19 deaths, according to the Brookings Institution. That is 2.5 times the decline for white people during the same period. In addition to hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions that often go untreated, poor Americans also face higher incidences of eviction, food insecurity, and other socioeconomic problems that can lead to illness.

Fortunately, a powerful ally exists in the 1,400 community health centers around the United States, which have served as a medical safety net since their founding during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. These nonprofit health centers provide care to patients regardless of their ability to pay. About 20 percent of patients who use their services are uninsured, and 59 percent receive health insurance through Medicaid or other government programs. Ninety percent of these patients are considered low income.

In 2021, community health centers provided care for more than thirty million Americans at 14,000 locations across the country, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC), an advocacy organization founded in 1971. That was a record number which included one in five rural Americans.

The centers were also at the forefront of a national movement to vaccinate people disproportionately affected by the pandemic, such as essential workers, agricultural and migrant workers, public housing residents, the elderly, and people experiencing homelessness. To date, 72 percent of the 22.2 million vaccinations provided by the centers were administered to people of color.

"Our medical model emphasizes the importance of looking beyond the walls of our centers to provide primary health care, dentistry, behavioral health, and other services, as well as socioeconomic support to people who live in the shadows," Ron Yee, chief medical officer at NACHC, tells The Progressive.

"From day one of the pandemic, we used this model to attack the virus on every front," Yee...

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