When the threat of COVID-19 became clear, mass gatherings across the country were quickly cancelled. However, for volunteers with Rock Medicine, the 47-year-old California-based event-medicine provider, the cessation of concerts did not mean the end of their volunteerism. Working with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, Rock Medicine mobilized its volunteers to help staff a field care clinic (FCC) at San Francisco’s Southeast Health Center.
Run out of tents in the street alongside the center, the FCC was originally designed to act as an alternative destination for EMS, giving San Francisco ambulances a third option between leaving patients at scenes and transporting them to emergency departments. However, much of the site traffic has been from patients seeking urgent care, COVID-19 testing, or, recently, vaccinations.
“Southeast Health Center is grateful for the supply of highly skilled and motivated volunteers to assist us as we run basic services and provide medical care, testing, and education for our community,” says Keith Seidel, MD, medical director of Southeast Health Center and deputy director of the FCC. “Rock Med has been invaluable in our unified response.”
Located in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco, the Southeast Health Center is both a primary and urgent care clinic that also provides dental care and a variety of navigation services. This made it an ideal location to receive low-acuity ambulance traffic, giving patients the opportunity to be seen outside an emergency department and establish care with a primary care provider.
“The Bayview area has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, both with number of cases and social disparities,” says Seidel.
According to the 2012 San Francisco Healthy Homes Project Community Health Status Assessment, residents of the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood face higher rates of hospitalization for diabetes, asthma, and heart failure, less access to parks and recreation, lower-performing schools, more violent crime, and higher rates of drug overdose deaths than in the rest of San Francisco.1 Compared to San Francisco as a whole, more Bayview-Hunters Point residents spend more than 50% of their income on housing and live in dense households. The neighborhood also has significant numbers of African-American and Latino residents, groups that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Overall, the life expectancy for Bayview residents is 14 years lower than for those in San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood.
Since April 2020 Rock Medicine has provided volunteers to staff the site, donating more than 10,000 hours of service and helping conduct more than 16,500 COVID-19 tests. Additionally, volunteers have helped screen patients as they arrive at the clinic, provided food delivery to vulnerable patients, and moved between the brick-and-mortar clinic and field care tent to provide patient care.
It has been quite a learning curve for Rock Medicine operations staff, who had to design new trainings, keep up with changing infection-control procedures, and are now preparing volunteers to help with vaccine distribution.
“One moment you’re front of stage at a music festival with the biggest artist of the year, and then suddenly you’re learning how to redeploy your volunteers during a global pandemic,” says Michelle Pimentel, Rock Medicine’s operation manager, who is overseeing the organization’s FCC deployment.
Although the organization was born from San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, Rock Medicine had never operated a clinic on an indefinite basis. “We weren’t designed to respond to disasters, especially not one of this magnitude,” says Pimentel, “but our volunteers are prepared for anything, and all of us wanting to give back allowed us to overcome the challenges.”
While 2020 was certainly not the way any of Rock Medicine’s volunteers expected to spend their year, their commitment to service, as well the passion of new volunteers who joined specifically to participate with COVID-19 response, has allowed the organization to uphold its founding principle that healthcare is a right, not a privilege, and continue its mission of providing nonjudgmental care to those who need it.
Rock Medicine is currently accepting EMTs, nurses, and unlicensed volunteers with approved BLS cards to join its pandemic response. For more see rockmed.org.
1. San Francisco Healthy Homes Project. Community Health Status Assessment, https://sfenvironment.org/sites/www.emsworld.com/files/fliers/files/sfe_ej_sfhh_community_health_status_assessment.pdf.
Daniel Berger, BS, EMT, is a third-year medical student at the Penn State College of Medicine and special projects manager for Rock Medicine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.