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‘Battle With a Microbe’: Hattiesburg Opens Model COVID-19 Clinic

Forrest General Hospital Family Medicine Residency Program Assistant Director Dr. Rambod Ruhbakhsh, left, answers questions about the community’s COVID-19 response at a press conference with Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker, right, on March 17. Photo courtesy City of Hattiesburg.

Mayors from Oxford to New Orleans Watching ‘Model of What’s to Come’

A new walk-in clinic in Hattiesburg, Miss., will focus solely on diagnosing and treating people with symptoms that could point to COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, regardless of their ability to pay. The Mississippi State Department of Health worked with the Hattiesburg Clinic and Forrest General Hospital over the weekend to hastily convert the Hattiesburg Clinic’s Cloverleaf Immediate Care facility into a cough and fever clinic.

“Medical physicians are thanking God that this is coming up,” Dr. Rambod Rouhbakhsh, the assistant director of the Forrest General Hospital Family Medicine Residency program, said at a press conference announcing the cough and fever Clinic on Monday. “This is a big deal for us. It’s very difficult for our practices to function with this level of protection and see all of our other patients without exhausting all of our supplies.”

Staff at the clinic will take special protections to prevent the spread of the illness that could be too burdensome for other facilities. Hattiesburg is in Forrest and Lamar counties in south Mississippi. MSDH found Mississippi’s first three confirmed COVID-19 cases in Forrest County.

Anyone who has respiratory symptoms such as fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat or difficulty breathing should visit the clinic, he said, so that other health-care providers can treat patients with other illnesses without having to worry as much about whether or not someone could spread the coronavirus in their facilities. The clinic will not see patients who do not exhibit any symptoms associated with COVID-19.

‘A Model of What’s to Come’

With one central location where other physicians can direct potential coronavirus patients, doctors will be able to focus better on serving patients with unrelated illnesses, Rouhbakhsh said.

“This is an example of team-based care. We have this clinic opening up here so that when people call my clinic and they’re being seen for heart failure or COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease—a group of lung diseases that make it difficult to breathe) or something else, I don’t have to worry about intermingling them with patients that are worried about this illness,” Rouhbakhsh said. “I can say, come over to the cough and fever clinic and then come to see me for diabetes and heart failure and all of those other things.”

It will also help hospitals and emergency rooms to be overwhelmed as the number of coronavirus cases mount, Hattiesburg Clinic Chief of Medical Informatics Bryan Batson said.

“Reducing the number of symptomatic patients who go to a primary-care or urgent-care facility or go to the emergency room will be a major step in reducing the spread of the coronavirus and sustaining our health care network,” Batson said.

Rouhbakhsh said that Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer at MSDH, is looking to the Hattiesburg Cough and Fever Clinic as “a model of what’s to come” in other places across the Magnolia State. MSDH set the clinic up as a “center of excellence,” he said, meaning the clinic will have “enhanced access” to coronavirus testing.

“If this functions well in our community, we’re hoping it can be replicated in other places,” Rouhbakhsh said.

When patients arrive at the clinic, they will sign in. Then depending on how many people are waiting to be seen, they will either be seated a safe distance from other patients or asked to “self-quarantine” in their cars until a staff member comes out to get them. The Centers for Disease Control is recommending that people maintain a distance of 6 feet from one another in public places.

“It’s not quite a drive-through. It’s like one of those old ’60s places where you park in your car and order, and they bring it up on roller skates—except we’re not going to have roller skates,” Rouhbakshsh said.

Batson said the clinic’s administrators are “evaluating options” for future drive-through testing capabilities as more supplies become available and as testing becomes more accessible.

Since COVID-19 tests are still in limited supply, physicians at the clinic will first work to rule out other possible illnesses, such as the flu, meningococcal pneumonia and influenza. Batson said it could take an hour or two to get those test results. If patients are not positive for any of those illnesses, the clinic will perform a COVID-19 test, which involves nasal and throat swabs, and send it off to the MSDH lab for testing. Results could take 24 to 48 hours, he said.

‘This is a Battle We’re Engaging With a Microbe’

In a press conference on Tuesday, with Rouhbakhsh and Batson at his side, Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker praised the clinic as an example of “leadership in action.”

“While we know more in our community will be sick and COVID-19 will spread, please be reassured that your medical community, educational institutions, and city and county admins are doing all we can to create a best-case scenario so that we all move through this pandemic together,” Barker said.

Barker said his office was communicating with the leaders of other cities, including New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell and Oxford, Miss., Mayor Robyn Tannehill, to develop ideas and strategies for crafting his city’s response. The mayor announced a series of actions, including an order that will send 82 city employees over age 60 home on administrative leave with continued pay. Barker also restricted operating hours for bars and restaurants and required all restaurants to reduce their seating by 50% and require 6 feet of space between tables.

Even so, Barker encouraged residents to continue supporting local businesses.

“We recognize the threat COVID-19 poses to our seniors and at-risk population. We also recognize the damage this virus will do to our economy and the terrible toll this will likely take on individuals who are going to lose their jobs,” Barker said at Tuesday’s press conference. “Protecting our public health is paramount. Keeping our head about us and making strategic decisions to keep Hattiesburg functioning is also important.”

Rouhbakhsh said actions intended to create “social distance” and reduce the number of crowds and their size are necessary in order to save lives and keep medical facilities running effectively during the pandemic.

“We will absolutely as a species, as a human race, as a community get through this. … In the meantime, we want to mitigate the cost,” the physician said. “This is a battle we’re engaging with a microbe. And we want to suffer as few consequences, as few fatalities and casualties of that battle until we gear up for the next time, because we’re eventually going to conquer this.”

Experts expect it could be a year before a vaccine is ready to combat COVID-19, but human trials are already underway.

The Cough and Fever Clinic opens Wednesday morning, March 18, in Hattiesburg’s Cloverleaf Immediate Care building adjacent to Walmart at 5909 U.S. Highway 49. It will be open seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. and will see any patients with coronavirus-like symptoms regardless of their age, pre-existing conditions or ability to pay. The clinic is asking people who have questions about their symptoms to first call their primary-care providers before coming to the clinic. For more information, call the clinic at 601-296-2800.

Forrest Health has a website devoted to COVID-19 information at fhcovid19.com. The Mississippi Free Press has a map showing diagnosed coronavirus cases across the state.

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