More patients, less staff hurting free clinic

Just when more people are seeking help from Johnstown's free medical clinic, the program is facing a staffing crisis.

Both situations are the result of the global pandemic of the COVID-19 coronavirus and the state's mandates and recommendations to curb the spread, said Rosalie Danchanko, executive director for Highlands Heath – Laurel Highlands Free and Medical Clinic.

Layoffs and furloughs from businesses that were forced to close has caused not only unemployment claims to surge, but also the number of residents who don't have enough health insurance.

“There's no slowdown for the patients,” Danchanko said. “We are getting calls from the unemployed who need medical care. Those individuals are starting to come to our clinic.”

At the same time, the free clinic's volunteer staff has been decimated. The 11 doctors and nurse practitioners are retired professionals volunteering their time. That means most are over age 65 and have their own health issues, Danchanko said.

“I can't have them coming into the clinic for their own safety,” she said, adding that volunteer nurses are also starting to step back for safety concerns.

Then came the school closures, which included University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and Conemaugh School of Nursing. Both provided student nurses who received credit for volunteering at the free clinic.

“I never realized how important these student nurses were,” Danchanko said.

There were also student interns who helped with information technology, clerical work and more.

New protocols that limit the number of patients inside the 340 Main St. clinic have helped some. The measures that include drive-up medicine dispensing on Wednesdays were developed by Dr. Loretta Opila, volunteer medical director.

“God bless Dr. Opila,” Danchanko said. “Somebody should erect a statue of her in Central Park. As a volunteer, she set it up and she has taken care of every single patient who called or who came into the clinic.”

Additional help would be welcomed. Over the past year, the clinic has received help from more than 140 volunteers.

The Pennsylvania Department of State earlier this week announced temporary changes that allow retired doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to renew their licenses. Danchanko said she will provide any assistance needed for retires to come to work at the clinic. That includes paying for malpractice insurance.

The COVID-19 mitigation limits have also delayed the free clinic's move into the Locust Street Plaza building. Leaders had hoped to complete the move by April 1.

Highlands Health has applied for emergency funding through United Way of the Laurel Highlands. The cash would pay for temporary staff to fill in for the volunteers.

But more volunteers would be welcomed, Danchanko said. Information is available by contacting the her at rosalie@highlandshealthclinic.com.

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The Tribune-Democrat
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