Beyond being a major health and economic crisis, COVID-19 is also the ultimate spoiler of plans. Had the pandemic not occurred, the Oak Park River Forest Infant Welfare Society (IWS) would be wrapping up the remodeling of its new clinic. Now the plans to move their health clinic are on hold, thanks to the many uncertainties presented by COVID-19.
“What we decided was just to sort of take a step back and wait until we get through this period a little bit more, before we move forward with the construction project,” said IWS Executive Director Peggy LaFleur.
For the last 20 odd years, the century-old non-profit children’s healthcare provider has been operating the clinic out of rented space at 320 Lake St. IWS purchased a former U.S. Bank office building 28 W. Madison St. in January 2019 with the intention of remodeling it into a new health clinic. The purchase was made entirely with donated funds.
IWS had hoped to begin remodeling last April but the pandemic prevented it from doing so. Had the project started then, the new clinic would have likely been completed by the end of this year. IWS will eventually remodel the building, but not anytime soon. As to the duration of the project’s delay, LaFleur is erring on the side of caution.
“I would think at least a year to be practical,” she said.
Two-third of IWS patient visits are for dental services. When COVID-19 hit, routine teeth cleanings and cavity fillings became high-risk activities as transmission of the virus happens primarily through person-to-person respiratory droplets, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Under safety orders, IWS was required to shut down for two and a half months.
“That was a big loss of revenue,” said LaFleur. “Significant.”
IWS reopened the clinic and resumed services the last week of May. However, the clinic is not operating at its full capacity to comply with CDC infection control guidelines. The number of patients coming to the clinic has also decreased.
“I think all healthcare is experiencing some level of reduction of visits because people are nervous,” said LaFleur. “It’s a difficult time, you know?”
While certainly a difficult time, the clinic is not on the precipice of closing. Through fundraising efforts, grants and a Paycheck Protection Program loan, IWS has been able to continue providing care to children of limited means, many of whom are on Medicaid. LaFleur is more than aware that other non-profits and businesses haven’t fared as well.
“We’re in relatively good shape,” she said. “There’s been tons of businesses and nonprofits that have gone broke.”
But the length of the pandemic is still completely uncertain and IWS staff is being mindful of that.
“We’re trying to be financially cautious,” said LaFleur.
IWS has received a fair amount of rapid response funding, including a $100,000 grant from the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation – intended to help recoup lost revenue during the lockdown. The non-profit also sent an emergency appeal to its donors, many of whom responded generously, according to LaFleur.
“We really have jumped on every opportunity that’s presented itself,” said LaFleur.
All of that funding has helped to cover the costs of personal protection equipment (PPE) and other supplies that have become necessities in the COVID-19 era, including masks, gowns, coveralls and air purifiers with filters.
IWS often uses nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas, on patients while performing dental services. In the past, dentists reused the nasal masks that cover patients’ noses – a practice no longer considered safe.
“You’d have one and you’d clean it off,” said LaFleur. “Now you have to buy one for every single child.”
Another continuous cost is the face masks IWS health professionals wear, which cost a pretty penny and are highly coveted.
“People donate them, but they’re hard to get and they’re very expensive,” said LaFleur.
There are six dental chairs at the IWS clinic, but two can’t be used because their configuration is inconducive for social distancing. IWS formerly helped train fourth-year dental students from the University of Illinois. Those students would often be in the treatment rooms.
“Now, we can’t have all these people in the room,” said LaFleur.
To see as many patients as possible without violating social distancing rules and capacity limits, IWS has added more hours which LaFleur said has been working very well. And it is very safe to seek treatment at IWS.
“The dentists know how to practice safely,” said LaFleur.
IWS follows the safety guidelines established by the CDC, the American Dental Society, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
“We’re working really hard to protect the children in our community from a healthcare standpoint,” said LaFleur.
LaFleur said, with the help of the community, IWS staff have been working overtime to keep operations going, so that children in need will always have access to affordable care. And eventually, IWS will be able to provide that care at its new clinic on Madison Street.
“I am very pleased that with the support of a community, we’re still thriving,” said LaFleur. “But that doesn’t mean we want to be rash and move forward with a project that can be deferred right now.”