“The Biden-Harris Administration recognizes rural health clinics as critical partners in closing health equity gaps, especially related to COVID-19,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a news release. “Today’s investments will help rural health clinics keep and expand COVID-19 testing and mitigation services for people in rural parts of the country, including those who live in our nation’s underserved communities.” The $460 million testing program was created under a sweeping federal relief package passed in March.
At many times during COVID-19 case surges in Idaho, health officials asked providers to reserve testing only for people who had symptoms. At times in rural communities, “just because you present with symptoms of COVID doesn’t necessarily mean a provider will suggest you get a test,” said Diana Schow, who directs the Institute of Rural Health’s Southeast Idaho Area Health Education Center at Idaho State University. Jeanie Gentry, CEO of Steele Memorial Center in Salmon, said she was still figuring out rules dictating how the funds can be spent. But, she said, the burden of COVID-19 on Idaho hospitals is much lighter than last year’s.
To be classified as rural health clinics, facilities must apply and meet certain requirements, including residing in areas that have been designated as having a shortage of health professionals or being medically underserved. Facilities must provide basic health management services. The state health department says there are 48 rural health clinics in Idaho, according to a list last updated in April. Almost half are located in eastern and southeastern Idaho rural areas, surrounding the larger cities of Idaho Falls and Pocatello. “Honestly, we have hardly had any patients since the first of the year,” Gentry said. “We have a certain small number of people come through the clinic, and every once in a while somebody is diagnosed positive, but I think we have had maybe two inpatients since the beginning of the year.”
“If you get symptoms, and you have to quit work, that can be really financially devastating to families,” she said. Schow said she learned about testing access and other COVID-19 issues in interviews through her work in the CommuniVax project, which ISU’s public health department participates in along with several other colleges nationwide. The team of researchers at ISU focuses their research on Hispanic communities in rural southeast Idaho, interviewing 89 people in total. Meanwhile, she said some people feared a COVID-19 test because a diagnosis meant they couldn’t work.
HHS has allocated $5.6 million for rural Montana clinics, $9.4 million for Oregon clinics, $1.3 million for Utah clinics, $1.6 million for Nevada clinics, $9.3 million for clinics in Washington and $2.1 million for Wyoming clinics. “Hopefully that trend will continue,” she said. “We don’t know what is going to happen with this virus,” such as dangerous mutations of the virus which have largely not caused strains to Idaho health care resources. “… But after last year, I feel much more prepared to handle a lot of things.”
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