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Typically a bustling place, the waiting room of the Community Health Free Clinic in Cedar Rapids grew abnormally quiet during the pandemic. The clinic, which began in 2002 to provide free health care to the uninsured and underinsured, was still serving people in need, but protocols changed so patients no longer sat in the waiting area for a room to open. Patients are now checked in at the door and ushered directly into one of the exam rooms inside the clinic at 947 14th Ave. SE — or, if they have COVID-19 symptoms, are directed to an urgent care center for testing and treatment. Those coming for medication don’t even have to go inside, but are given what they need right at the front door. That adjustment is one developed during the pandemic that CEO Darlene Schmidt intends to keep. “I don’t see that changing,” Ms. Schmidt said. “I love that they’re prepared, and we just go back and pick the medicine up and they’re on their way.” During fiscal 2020, which includes the first few months of the pandemic, the clinic treated 4,429 patients of all ages. The majority of those – 99% – make less than 200% of the federal poverty rate. Patient numbers decreased somewhat during the past year, Ms. Schmidt said, as some who lost jobs during the pandemic and qualified for Medicaid could be seen elsewhere. Still, the clinic has played an important role serving others who lost their jobs and insurance, she added, along with those who have high health insurance deductibles they cannot afford. Fewer people were getting sick or injured the past year in general, as more people stayed home during the pandemic, said Jamie Henley, the clinic’s chief operating officer. “For COVID, we haven’t closed down at all,” Mr. Henley said. “We’ve been seeing patients throughout this entire pandemic.” Mercy Medical Center stepped up when volunteers bowed out at the beginning of the pandemic due to their risk factors, he noted. Greg DeWolf, Mercy’s vice president of clinic operations, said in an email that Mercy staff helped cover shifts at the Community Health Free Clinic last spring and summer. “It was certainly an ‘all hands-on deck’ type of situation,” Mr. DeWolf wrote. “Knowing that the Community Health Free Clinic needed assistance to fill volunteer shifts, Mercy staff members were quick to respond. Together, our organizations made sure that individuals in our community had access to health care when it was needed most.” Eye patients are now directed to area eye clinics, rather than being seen at the Community Health Free Clinic, and dental patients are sent to dental offices in the community, a pre-pandemic change. The clinic relies heavily on volunteers, with more than 200 health care professionals, retirees and others donating time during fiscal 2020. Donations also keep the clinic going. Unlike many entities that received federal assistance during the pandemic, the clinic operates on monetary and in-kind donations, grants and community support, and does not receive governmental funding, Ms. Schmidt noted. During the past year, the clinic only closed for three days immediately following Iowa’s hurricane-strength derecho windstorm in August, when the building lost power. Volunteers transported five refrigerators worth of insulin to Mercy Medical Center to ensure it would still be usable. About $2 million in free insulin has been distributed during the past year, Ms. Schmidt said, which helps keep diabetics healthy and out of hospital emergency rooms, underscoring the importance of the clinic to the entire local health system. The clinic is now serving a new role as a COVID-19 vaccination site, in partnership with Linn County Public Health and the Iowa Department of Public Health. Their first vaccine clinic was Jan. 28, and by the end of March, they had administered 748 doses of the two-dose Moderna vaccine. With challenges facing older adults, who were the first group prioritized for the shots, the clinic set up a phone line specifically for people to call in to schedule a vaccine appointment. Those in need can call (319) 200-2550 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday to add their name to the wait list. “We saw a need that people weren’t able to sign up online for an appointment, and that caused so much stress,” Ms. Schmidt said. “People are grateful to get in and there’s no hassle. We’re filling a need for people who just want to call in.” With vaccine eligibility opening to younger age groups, the clinic also developed an online appointment form. Kim Bro, dean of Mount Mercy University’s Martin-Herold College of Nursing and Health, said sophomore, junior and senior nursing students administer injections, under faculty supervision. Four to five students volunteer at each clinic on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “They just love it,” Ms. Bro said. “They’re truly living the mission of the Sisters of Mercy.” Ms. Schmidt echoed her sentiments. “The community has wrapped their arms around us again,” Ms. Schmidt said. “We take care of the community, and the community takes care of the Community Health Free Clinic.” CBJ