By LIZ NASS
Capital News Service
LANSING – During the COVID-19 pandemic, neighborhoods with less access to traditional health care saw a lack of resources for treating the virus.
In September 2020, however, low-income neighborhoods received funds from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for COVID-19 testing in churches and college buildings.
Now, additional plans are in the works to expand the health care provided at these sites.
There are 18 neighborhood sites in churches in Lansing, Detroit, Roseville, Flint, Muskegon Heights, Niles and Grand Rapids, as well as on the campuses of Albion College and in the Wayne County Community College District.
Natasha Bagdasarian, the chief medical executive at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the CDC and her agency used an index of factors to categorize neighborhoods’ health vulnerability by general poverty rate and transportation access to medical care.
“We found during COVID that, No. 1, it was hard for people to get to a health care site because of transportation or not being able to take time off work or all kinds of reasons,” Bagdasarian said. “But also there’s some distrust of going to those sites, and there’s some fear.”
Bagdasarian said that when a local organization that residents know, like a church group, is providing medical resources, it can build more trust in the community and in the medical services being provided.
While neighborhood sites were created to respond to COVID-19, such as providing masks and prescriptions to lower the symptoms of the virus, Bagdasarian said the next step is for them to provide more of the types of services patients would find in most doctors’ offices.
Plans for more services are still being finalized for 2024 and would include substance use disorder services and blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol screenings for general health.
Lynn Suftin, a public information officer for Health and Human Services, said $17 million is set aside in the state’s 2024 fiscal year budget for the neighborhood health grant program.
Bagdasarian said that initiative comes from the social benefits her department found during the pandemic.
One participating site is the Bethel Baptist Church East in Detroit.
Tonya Kennedy, the director of health and wellness at the church, said establishment of the neighborhood site was well received in early winter 2020, yet began slowly.
“At the time, a lot of communities and groups and people were hesitant (to use the site) just because it was new and it was a pandemic,” Kennedy said.
While Bethel Baptist was not holding worship services at the time, Kennedy said the church found it important to use the facility any way it could to benefit the community.
Through its first months of operation, the number of visitors grew.
Although the number of residents affected by the pandemic has decreased since the site’s opening, Kennedy said the number coming in for testing and vaccines has remained steady for the last few years.
Kennedy said that it would be helpful to see more expanded, permanent health resources in the building. For example, a Wayne County health van comes by twice a month and provides free, on-site doctor’s appointments.
Kennedy said having such services at the neighborhood site, as well as vaccinations for more diseases than just COVID-19, would continue bringing health care to the neighborhood.
Kennedy said the site provides residents of an underserved community with care they otherwise could not afford.
“If we expand that, we do justice to those folks who are in that space, those communities, those who are at risk, those vulnerable populations, and we provide and create resources for them where they might not otherwise choose to do so,” Kennedy said.
“It brings value to the community, and I think it’s a necessary resource,” she said.
Melissa Anderson, the vice president of marketing and communications at Albion College, said the neighborhood site on the campus was approved for funding from the CDC and Calhoun County until March 2024.
“The Albion College site has been great for our campus and the community throughout the course of the pandemic,” Anderson said in a statement.
Anderson said the college neighborhood site team will know in March if funding for expanded services will be extended for another three to six months.
Albion’s site also allows students and faculty to pick up free at-home rapid tests, order tests online and be tested on campus.
Bagdasarian said it’s important to see resources brought to a community rather than neighborhood residents having to seek opportunities elsewhere.
“In everything that I do, when I’m evaluating programs and when we are looking at interventions that could be successful, meeting people where they are is a huge priority,” Bagdasarian said.