By Dan Baron
Jennifer Vargas, MD, medical director at Alivio Medical Center, recalled a phone call she had with a woman at 3 a.m. one day, a patient whose boyfriend had just died from coronavirus (COVID-19).
“She was grieving by herself and wanted to share stories about her boyfriend’s life, Vargas said. “I didn’t want her to be alone.”
Vargas recalled another Alivio patient, a single mother with asthma who has three kids—all of whom got the virus and recovered. Vargas, a family physician by training, said such stories stand out among many examples reflecting how Alivio and the community it serves are facing the pandemic.
While the virus has changed everyone’s lives since March, Alivio has met the very 2020 challenge of pivoting to serve patients in new ways during COVID-19 while maintaining a close connection to its community.
“It’s important for people in the community to understand that we are here for them,” said Vargas. “What has happened during this time is that this pandemic has united us more.”
For more than three decades, Alivio Medical Center has provided health care services to underinsured and uninsured people in the community. The center also runs a clinic in Berwyn, IL. Each year, more than 22,000 people come to Alivio for services.
Alivio Medical Center opened in 1989 as a bilingual, bicultural, nonprofit community health center located in the Pilsen community. Today, Alivio operates an urgent care center and six community health centers, three of them based in schools. (Its Benito Juarez High School and Little Village Academy High School sites currently are closed because of COVID-19).
Carmen Velasquez founded Alivio and served as executive director for 25 years. Velasquez now serves on the executive board of the Healthy Illinois Campaign, a statewide effort to make quality, affordable health care accessible to all people in Illinois.
Velasquez pointed to one example among many of how Alivio is serving the community – the work of Alivio staff who are testing community residents for COVID-19. “When people talk about ‘essential workers,’ that’s one way of putting it,” she said. “But when you see these people providing this service all day, every day – you see there’s a purpose in having Alivio around.
“We must continue to provide services to immigrants, undocumented people, and others in our communities – and that’s what Alivio does,” Velasquez said. “We’re under the gun now. We need to protect ourselves and each other. That’s what this is all about.”
Alivio primarily serves Latino communities, and more than 50% of the people who come to Alivio are undocumented Latino immigrants. Many people Alivio serves not only work in the factories, restaurants, and grocery stores often linked to higher COVID-19 rates but do not have health insurance. According to the Latino Policy Forum in Chicago, the COVID-19 “Latino per-100,000 case rate exceeds that of all other racial-ethnic groups.”
In mid-March, during the virus’s early days, Alivio stopped seeing patients on site for a few months—a big change, as the center focuses on in-person preventive care. Alivio also closed its senior center, which remains closed, although it still provides outreach services to patients. In early July, Alivio started seeing patients in its clinics again.
While Alivio (a Spanish word meaning “relief”) has emphasized its connection to communities since it opened, the coronavirus led to a new challenge over how staff would come together to plan a response to an unpredictable pandemic. At first, they held Zoom “huddles” twice daily, before and after clinic hours. The huddles allowed Vargas to update staff about guidelines and help ensure their safety as the team mapped strategies during a time of change.
“We want people to know that our services have resumed and they can come in for doctor’s appointments, medical needs, and preventive services,” said Vargas. “We have a safe environment that they can trust, and we are making sure that the risk of exposure in our clinics is minimal.”
Alivio also has worked with patients’ transition to telehealth. For elderly patients, that can mean helping them learn how to take a selfie. In addition, while the center’s health promoters, who go out into the community, have not made many home visits since March, they do call high-risk patients. Health promoters also connect patients to counseling through clinical psychologists or social workers—an increasingly critical service during the pandemic.
“I really have to credit the community health workers,” said Esther Corpuz, Alivio’s CEO, who link with the community in part through social media. “It’s not only an outlet for them to stay connected to the community; it’s a way to offer activities like Zumba classes or to share information about resources for food, counseling, and other needs,” Corpuz added.
Alivio also has launched drive-through and walk-up testing for the virus (testing occurs done outside) and has increased testing capacity. Social distancing means less crowding in waiting rooms, and while the numbers vary, often fewer than five people occupy Alivio waiting rooms these days.
Over the years, Alivio has partnered with other community organizations while advocating to improve policies on issues including immigration and mental health. That work will continue, even as Alivio remains dedicated to its main mission: a close connection to community residents.
“We have to keep reinforcing messages about COVID through social media, phone contact, and telehealth now, and as we head into winter,” said Corpuz. “At the same time, we will share the message to people that we will be there for them. They are not alone.”
Alivio’s medical centers are at 966 W. 21st St. and 2355 S. Western Ave. in Chicago and at 6447 W. Cermak Rd. in Berwyn, IL. Call (773) 254-1400 or log on to aliviomedicalcenter.org.