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Coronavirus Fears Drive More Patients to California Health Centers

Patients are requesting flu shots and other services at health centers and clinics in counties where coronavirus cases have been confirmed.

Front desk staff at North East Medical Services wear surgical masks as a protective measure. (Photo courtesy of North East Medical Services)
Front desk staff at North East Medical Services wear surgical masks as a protective measure. (Photo courtesy of North East Medical Services)

Since the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, China, Los Angeles’s Saban Community Clinic has seen zero cases of the deadly disease – but a lot more patients.

“Anxiety is making a lot of patients with simple upper respiratory tract infections, who would usually take care of themselves,” seek medical care, said Dr. Armen Arshakyan, the clinic’s chief medical officer.

Where a clinic location might normally see three or four walk-in patients with respiratory infections in a day, now it might be as many as eight or 10, Dr. Arshakyan said.

It’s not just Saban.

“People…panic when they get the flu,” said Izabella Sahakian, chief operations officer at AGHABY Comprehensive Community Health Center, also in Los Angeles County. “They can’t tell: Do they have the flu, do they have the virus?”

Sahakian estimates that her walk-ins have increased by more than 50%.

For health centers and clinics offering primary care in counties with cases of the novel coronavirus, the disease – and the fear and anxiety it’s caused – has brought complications.

Supplies of masks and other personal protective equipment have dwindled. Staff members carry out screening measures – both in exam rooms and over the phone – to assess a patient’s potential risk.

Patients who come in with respiratory infections and a history of recent travel to China require consultation with public health officials – and in some cases, immediate transportation to a hospital. Even some staff members are apprehensive about staying at work.

After Chinese New Year, it’s “kind of a taboo to go to the doctor’s,” said Dr. Kenneth Tai. Dr. Tai is chief medical officer at North East Medical Services, or NEMS, which serves primarily patients of Chinese descent in the Bay Area – including both San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties, which have confirmed coronavirus cases.

But even so, clinic attendance is unusually low. “People are not as willing to come to the clinics, just because they know they don’t want to come to a public place,” Dr. Tai said.

The exception? Patients with flu symptoms. “Besides the fever and cold symptoms, they may either have travel history to China or specifically to Hubei province, or they [may have had] close personal contact to someone with coronavirus exceptions,” he explained.

Patients who have symptoms and a history of travel to China are quickly isolated and the local public health department alerted, Dr. Tai said. The health center asked some staff members, recently returned from China, to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Thus far, no one at NEMS has had a positive result for the coronavirus.

But that doesn’t stop patients – or staff, for that matter – from being anxious.

“There are still a lot of uncertainties and potential fears and panic,” Dr. Tai said. “Really, the risk of getting this infection is really, really low, but there’s so much press around it.”

Patients aren’t just anxious for themselves, Dr. Tai said. Many also have family in China, where masks are in short supply. “In the beginning when we were just putting the masks out in the waiting room or the exam room…we just ran out of masks for people,” he recalled.

Sahakian reported a similar urgency around masks. “We’ve had some patients say ‘I have family in China and I haven’t been able to purchase masks anywhere,’” she said.

As part of its coronavirus response, Direct Relief has supplied masks – along with exam gloves and isolation gowns – to a number of health care organizations in the United States, including NEMS and AGHABY.

The coronavirus appears to have inspired a rush on another medical commodity: flu vaccines.

At St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in Los Angeles County, flu vaccines are generally given between October and early January, said Sam Badianat, the health center’s pharmacy director. “Typically it drops off quite a bit because people are either vaccinated or they refuse to get a vaccine,” he explained.

This year, though, St. John’s has seen what he called a “huge influx” beginning in late January.

In some cases, Badianat said, people seem to think that the flu vaccine may offer them some protection against coronavirus – a misconception that health providers will correct.

But many are simply doing what they can to care for their health. The coronavirus “puts their health at risk,” Badianat said. “I think, in a bigger picture, they’re trying to be more healthy with whatever we can provide to them.”

Dr. Tai agreed. “People are definitely more amenable to getting the flu shot,” he said. “They feel a little bit better.”

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