Clinics Swamped with Flu Patients

Who steps in to help community clinics handling a crush of patients?

Some local community clinics have seen lines out the door – so many people that doctors have had to walk the line telling people to go home if they don’t have key symptoms of the swine flu.

Others have had to keep staff on duty until 11 p.m. just to care for the crowds.

For a system that’s already seen a 30 to 40 percent jump in patients recently due to those who have lost jobs and insurance, the crush of people concerned about the swine flu is straining limited budgets.

“When this happens – it’s just all hands on deck,” said Community Clinics CEO Steve O’Kane. He runs a coalition that includes 16 non-profit organizations operating 98 clinic sites in San Diego, Imperial and Riverside counties.

“We see all types, the uninsured, the under insured, and the insured. We don’t turn anyone away,” said O’Kane.

The San Diego community clinics aren’t alone. There are about 7,000 community and free clinics around the country.

“They struggle on an ongoing basis financially and take care of 16 million people a year,” said Thomas Tighe who runs the humanitarian aid organization Direct Relief International. “With respect to the virus, we’ve heard from a lot of people who are seeing a surge in demand.”

Thousands of masks were shipped to San Diego’s community clinics four days ago by Direct Relief. Before that, they sent shipments of hand sanitizers and hand wipes.

“We started receiving requests a week ago Friday regarding protection equipment for health care workers,” said Damon Taugher, USA Director for Direct Relief. The organization put out an alert to about 1,000 clinics or health centers nationwide and heard back from Southern California and San Diego agencies.

After sending the initial shipments, they asked corporate donors to help replenish some items they hope to have by the end of this week. Those include thermometers, gloves and gowns and some medicines that treat flu symptoms.

“The fact that we have these resources helps us mitigate the unusual expenses,” said O’Kane.

This isn't the first time Direct Relief has stepped in to help San Diego's clinics. They were also supportive during the wildfires of 2007, according to O'Kane.

When the government is tapped -- "They are expected to run everything when things go bad and they don’t run everything on a good day,” said Tighe - the flexibility of an organization like Direct Relief can really work well.

"We can use this as a real test and I think it’s worked ok. I think there is a lot that can be learned," said Tighe. " Normal 0 We have the ability to scale rapidly. "

"If the flag really goes up, it will have to be a coherent rapid response."

For free information on swine flu or the services available, call 211 within San Diego County.

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