Mary’s Center when its first clinic opened in 1988

People of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and often have less access to care. Our long-term partner, Mary’s Center in Washington, D.C. has put delivering health care to immigrants, minorities and other vulnerable populations at the center of its mission since its inception. That mission has taken an increased urgency amid the current pandemic, and we spoke with Lyda Vanegas, director of communications and public relations for Mary’s Center, to learn more about how the clinic is adapting.

What is the history of Mary’s Center?

In 1988, our President and CEO Maria Gomez was working as a nurse at the D.C. Department of Health, and there she witnessed a large increase in the number of Latin American women migrating to the United States to escape war, poverty and death. Many of these women suffered brutality on their journey north and arrived in D.C. pregnant with no access to prenatal care or other health care for themselves and their children. Maria and other health professionals created Mary’s Center that year with funding from the D.C. Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs and the D.C. Department of Health to deliver bilingual health services to pregnant women and their infants.

Since our doors opened, Mary’s Center has grown from a small basement clinic that served 200 women a year in D.C.’s Ward 1 to a Community Health Center with eight locations across the District of Columbia and Maryland serving more than 60,000 men, women and children. We now have more than 20 programs for the entire family encompassing healthcare, social services, education and workforce development, based on our holistic social change model. Our staff has increased from 10 to 730, and our annual operating budget went from $250,000 to $74 million.

How has COVID-19 affected your community and your clinic?

Since March, Mary’s Center has been at the forefront of the region’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the challenges and financial impact. Every month, we have additional expenses totaling over $3 million to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE), laptops and cleaning supplies and to expand our bandwidth to allow teleworking and telehealth. At the same time, we are losing $1.2 million each month from canceled visits, lower reimbursement rates for telemedicine and providing free COVID-19 tests for the uninsured. We have used all of our reserves and haven’t been eligible for federal emergency relief funding, because it is only available for businesses with fewer than 500 employees. Thankfully, we have an amazing group of friends and supporters, including Delta Dental, who have stepped up during this crisis to contribute to Mary’s Center, which has been a tremendous help.

Mary’s Center has clinicians providing COVID-19 testing in the parking lot

As for our community, underserved populations continue to be the most impacted. Since March, we have performed close to 7,000 COVID-19 assessments and over 2,000 tests, with Latinos accounting for many of our positive results.

Additionally, people in our community are losing their jobs, and this has resulted in increased stress, anxiety, depression and desperation. We have been connecting families with all types of resources to help prevent homelessness, food insecurity and financial instability. We have also been advocating for cash assistance to excluded workers who don’t qualify for the federal stimulus checks, and we are proud to see some funding coming through for these individuals. We know things won’t go back to normal anytime soon, and we are determined to continue to provide the best care and assistance we can to overcome this crisis together.

What changes have you had to make to your operations and procedures to meet these new challenges?

Unfortunately, we had to temporarily close two of our clinics in D.C. in March, and 80% of our staff is working remotely. The remote work itself brings new challenges – internet connection, childcare, not being able to work due to contracting COVID-19 or caring for a family member with the virus and workers who cannot do their jobs virtually, such as dental hygienists.

Also, we have developed many new processes to keep our in-clinic staff and participants safe and healthy, such as screening everyone who comes to the door, separating sick and well patients, requiring masks and social distancing in all waiting areas and exam rooms and increasing cleaning and disinfecting of all commonly touched surfaces.

New personal protective equipment requirements for providers keep staff and patients safe

What long-term changes do you see health clinics like yours facing as a result of the current reality?

Everyone has seen the benefits of telehealth over these past few months, and virtual services will definitely remain at many clinics including Mary’s Center even after the pandemic. However, we want to continue to provide that in-person care that makes our community feel connected and cared for while we increase our capacity for virtual visits, because they have been proven to be an effective option.

How can people support you?

We will stay on the front lines of this fight as long as possible, but we can’t do it alone. Donations are needed now more than ever and will enable Mary’s Center to continue serving our community during this pandemic. Please consider making a financial or in-kind contribution that will touch thousands of families.