Looking Back, Moving Forward: The Power of Community Health Centers in Times of Crisis

Looking Back, Moving Forward: The Power of Community Health Centers in Times of Crisis

By Seiji Hayashi, MD, MPH, FAAFP, Chief Transformation Officer and Administrative Medical Director

March 11, 2020 was the Wednesday that everything changed for Mary’s Center. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread from the Pacific Northwest and took hold in New York, the public schools in the DC region announced they would close. Contracting COVID was still an abstract concept for us since testing was not available, and I would not meet my first patient with confirmed COVID for another week.

The school closings and their impact on our staff were foremost on our minds as we scrambled to prepare for a storm we could not yet comprehend. We quickly converted as many patient appointments to virtual visits as possible and prepared to close two of our five clinical sites.

In order to safely care for patients infected with the novel coronavirus, we split our Silver Spring, MD clinic into two levels with the respiratory clinic on the ground floor and all other patients on the main floor. At our Petworth site in DC, we converted classrooms into a respiratory clinic where we would eventually treat over 1,000 patients with suspected COVID.

With little information, our team of 700 worked together and made the best decisions we could. Our close connection with the community, formed over our 30+ years of service, enabled us to anticipate the disproportionate disease burden and prepare accordingly. Our internal data showed that COVID infected our patients at double the rate reported by public health agencies, and we increased capacity hoping we would not need it.

Unfortunately, even the extra capacity was insufficient at times. April and May were a blur, and there was a stretch I’d rather not remember.

Patients were overflowing in the respiratory clinic, and every day or two, I received notices of patient deaths and staff contracting COVID.

Just as the pain and fatigue of the pandemic were setting in, George Floyd’s death on May 25 and the ensuing rallies for Black lives catalyzed us to look deep inside and outside our organization to create lasting change.

As challenging as this time was, I am also proud of how we showed up for our community, not only providing excellent healthcare in a time of great need, but also addressing our participants’ financial distress by connecting them with resources for food, housing, and other services.

Five months after that pivotal Wednesday in March, we are preparing again for the eventual resurgence. The current reduced rate of COVID infections at least gives us a window to expand service to address all the care that was postponed. We cautiously reopened the two clinics that lay dormant for four months to catch up on vaccinations for thousands of children and resume much needed dental care.

News of phase 3 trials for the coronavirus vaccines gives me hope, but the damage has been done because death is permanent. Prevention is the only logical move, yet like most public health issues, it’s not on the minds of enough people.

Community health centers like ours, therefore, accompany the most vulnerable to prevent a family’s unimaginable event. When we can’t prevent, we bear witness and advocate for a different future. That’s what we’ve done, and that’s what we will continue to do.

As we commemorate National Health Center Week in a year unlike any before, we recognize the critical role community health centers (CHCs) play every day, and especially in times of crisis.

Along with our 1,400+ fellow CHCs across the country and our partners at the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC), we are committed to lighting the way for healthier communities today and in the future.

Our communities will never be immune to crisis, but we can build resilience by investing in programs and services that give people immediate access to quality care, education, and social support.


Join our #2020Vision and help our communities reclaim health, hope, and opportunity.


With your support, we can light the way to a healthier future through our Pandemic Recovery Campaign, which is providing access to medical care and connecting families to vital resources aimed at preventing homelessness, food insecurity, and financial instability.

Our goal is to raise $65,000 by Friday, October 16, the night of Mary’s Center’s first ever #2020Vision Virtual Gala.

Click here to donate now or start your own fundraiser today.