The local Virginia Department of Health offices are experiencing some growing pains to enhance its operations as the Charlottesville Free Clinic — which has shared building space on Rose Hill Drive with the state agency — begins to look for a new location.
According to Dr. Denise Bonds, the health director for the Thomas Jefferson Health District, the agency is looking to hire about 25 new staff members for testing, contact tracing and case investigation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As TJHD is part of the state Health Department, it is mandated to provide testing, tracing, and conduct investigations as well as administer any vaccine that could be developed in the future.
“Because we are viewing the pandemic as really a marathon rather than a sprint, we are anticipating needing a sustained response,” Bonds said. “But at the same time, we have to allow regular staff to go back to regular jobs. We have allowed the free clinic to have free access to a portion of our office space, and regretfully, we need to use that space now.”
The collaboration between VDH, the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County has allowed the free clinic to operate in its location for 24 years. The clinic includes a no-cost pharmacy, free medical care, mental health support and dental services.
“We are mourning. This is a 24-year collaboration,” said Charlottesville Free Clinic Executive Director Colleen Keller. “I think I will always carry a real sense of loss of that.”
Keller said the location so far has allowed the clinic to reinvest the majority of its money into patient care and resources. As such, in finding a new location, she said they hope to avoid the costs of new construction while continuing with partnerships.
Relocating administration will be the easy part, but Keller added that the future location will need to be able to accommodate ease of access for the residents it serves and adequate operational space for its volunteers and peak clinic visit times.
“For patients, we need to be on a bus line and have many clinic rooms,” Keller explained.
While some daytime operations have not needed much space, the current 12 clinic rooms and ample parking has been useful during the peak times of treatment that happen Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m.
“We’ve got to run in the evening. It’s the pop-up feature of the evening that is very challenging,” Keller said. “For the volunteers to work, we have to have a lot of parking because everyone comes in at once.”
As the process is underway, Keller said “silver lining” has been working with the Richmond-based VDH offices.
“They have really worked hard to mitigate some of this,” Keller explained. “The original request was to vacate by June 30 which was unthinkable. We now have until November.”
VDH is also working on a separate lease for the dental clinic, which will be more challenging to relocate with the infrastructure in place for treatment.
While VDH assists the clinic in leasing matters, TJHD must continue onward with its hiring needs. According to Bonds, TJHD is finalizing the hiring process for about five employees that should begin working next week, and as VDH onboards new staff statewide, a portion of those will be added to TJHD’s headquarters.
“The free clinic provides a valuable service to our community,” Bonds said. “They fill a really important need and we look forward to partnering with them in the future location.”
Meanwhile, as Keller stressed the importance of a free clinic and the work of the state health department, she noted how the pandemic has caused people to lose their jobs, further broadening the pool of uninsured area residents.
“This is the mechanism by which all those rich healthcare resources come across town and serve other people,” Keller explained. “We are a skeleton for making that happen and it can’t be underestimated how valuable it is to people who are uninsured in this community, which is about to likely become a much bigger number.”