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Local health departments scaling back services due to COVID-19 response

Virginia covid-19
(© Ingo Menhard –

A reader told us last week that she had been told by the Waynesboro-Augusta Health Department that it was going to be discontinuing family planning services due to COVID-19.

We looked into it, and turns out, it’s not just family planning services that are being cut.

“The Central Shenandoah Health District has decided to scale back clinic services, which would include family planning services, at this time while our public health staff are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Laura Lee Wight, the population health community coordinator at the Central Shenandoah Health District.

CSHD actually began scaling back operations in mid-March at the beginning of the pandemic, Wight said, including halting in-person clinics, switching to a secure telehealth platform for clinical services, prescribing birth control for an extended period of time.

It sounds like the reason is lack of resources – primarily, staff.

“Our public health staff are working tirelessly to aid in providing free testing to our community, investigating positive cases of COVID-19, providing contact tracing, and working on community mitigation efforts. Our health district is also gearing up for COVID-19 vaccine distribution to the public. So it is due to the competing demands of the public health crisis that we find ourselves in and the upcoming mass vaccination campaign that influenced our decision to scale back on clinical services at this time,” Wight said.

We followed up with Wight to ask about community impacts, given the role local health departments play in providing services particularly to low-income residents.

“We are working with our clients to help them find the appropriate services in the meantime, and this meets one of our core public health functions of assuring that members of our community are linked to appropriate medical care,” Wight said. “We’ll continue to ensure that all of our health department patients have access to care, whether it is through reduced operations in the local health department or through referrals to community partners.”

We asked about possible financial assistance for those with low incomes now being sent out to those community partners – and about the capacity of those partners to be able to handle the extra patient loads.

“We work with a wide variety of community partners, private healthcare providers, and Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) in our district. Many of whom operate their services under the same grants that we do, which allows them to offer their services at low to no cost as well,” Wight said.

“We are only able to comment on the capacity of our own organization, not the capacity amongst community partners,” Wight said. “Community members and clients can still call the health department, and we will refer them to the services that are available to them in the community. If there is no other option for our clients, then we will continue to provide the services needed through our modified operations.”

We asked how many people are impacted by the modified operations.

“There is no way to estimate how many clients and families have been affected by our modified services, but we will continue to make sure that each of our clients have the healthcare support that they need,” Wight said.

Final question: how long until local health departments can get back to normal operations?

You already know the answer to this.

“Given that we are about to embark on a mass vaccination campaign for the COVID-19 pandemic and given that we are seeing an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases, we don’t expect to return to normal health department operations until COVID-19 cases are significantly lower and the local COVID-19 response has abated,” Wight said.

Story by Chris Graham

augusta free press
augusta free press