BRISTOL, Tenn. — Waiting rooms sat empty, and silence filled the halls and offices Wednesday at the Healing Hands Health Center in Bristol, Tennessee.
As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the country, most of the clinic’s staff now work from home, elective procedures have been postponed and in-person visits rescheduled as phone calls to try to limit COVID-19’s spread.
But for patients like Carolyn Pippin, who has tooth abscesses that require removal, the center continues to provide essential services.
“My teeth hadn’t really been hurting, so I’ve been putting it off, but then my head started hurting, and I thought that was from my teeth,” said Pippin, a 63-year-old Washington County, Virginia, resident.
“I actually have two abscesses, two teeth that need to be extracted,” she added as she waited to be seated in a dental chair Wednesday morning.
Health care providers around the country have delayed non-urgent, elective procedures amid the pandemic and are prioritizing emergency care.
“We’re only allowed to do emergency treatment because if a patient is in pain and has a dental infection, it could cause other health issues,” said Dylan Christian, a staff dentist at Healing Hands, a nonprofit that provides low-cost treatment to people who are uninsured and have a total household income of 250% or less of federal poverty guidelines.
On Wednesday, Christian suited up in protective gear before Pippin was brought in for treatment. He and Crystal Simmons, a registered dental assistant at the center, each wore a yellow protective gown, an orange N95 respirator mask and a blue hair net. Simmons also had a face shield, and Christian wore protective eyewear.
The extra precautions follow the recommendations by the Tennessee Dental Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’ve always done a great job here of keeping everything sanitized and disinfected,” Christian said. “We are also incorporating more personal protective equipment like a gown, face masks, the N95 respirator. … This is to protect the staff but also to protect the patient.”
Before Pippin was taken to the dental chair, her temperature was taken to make sure she didn’t have a fever, which can be a symptom of COVID-19.
“You’re good,” Simmons told her, and the procedure was soon underway.
Pippin is one of a small number of patients the clinic is seeing in person these days.
“Healing Hands is completely changing the way we’ve been operating due to the coronavirus,” said Helen Scott, the center’s executive director.
Vision care and chiropractic-related services are on pause, and doctors in the dentistry and medical care departments make case-by-case determinations about whether in-person services are appropriate, Scott said.
Dave Arnold, the center’s medical director, said he’s mostly worked with patients over the phone, but there are cases where he wants to examine an issue in person, such as a recent patient who had swelling in their legs.
“For things that I feel like I really need to see it, if they don’t have a cough or a fever, then I’ll tell them, ‘Come on in to see us, and we’ll take a look at you,’” Arnold said.
Still, that’s only one or two patients a day, he said.
For patients who need to pick up medications from the clinic, staff take their orders to them in the parking lot.
Barbara Boyd, a registered nurse and clinical coordinator, said Healing Hands now uses a locked entrance and a doorbell to control the flow of people into the building and limit the potential for spreading infection.
“I was having people walk in off the streets asking to be tested (for COVID-19), which we are not capable of testing here,” she said.
The center has also received a number of phone calls about COVID-19 tests, Scott said.
Healing Hands does not offer coronavirus testing, so staff members refer those inquiries to Ballad Health, which has a hotline to screen those who may need to be tested.
Beyond coronavirus testing, it’s possible Healing Hands may see an increase in demand for health care services as more workers lose jobs as a result of the pandemic’s negative economic impacts and uninsured people seek accessible health care.
“Right now, it’s too early to say, but I think there’s certainly a possibility that that may end up being the case,” Arnold said.
An application is required to become a patient at the center, but Scott said Healing Hands has temporarily suspended its on-site screening appointments. People who want more information about becoming a member can visit the center’s website at www.healinghandshealthcenter.org, or call 423-652-0260, ext. 7.