An community member wearing a floral face mask as she sits and receives a vaccination.

Founded in 1971 by physicians concerned about migrant healthcare, Healdsburg’s Alliance Medical Center now has four healthcare clinics in Healdsburg and Windsor. Annually, they provide medical, dental, behavioral, and wellness services to over 12,000 patients in the region.

“The great majority of our patients are the hardworking agricultural, retail, and hospitality workers and their families who are the backbone of our economy,” says CEO Joan Churchill. “The pandemic hit them hard, and we are thrilled to begin the push towards ending the pandemic with vaccinations!”

Churchill came to Alliance Medical Center on March 16, 2020, just as shelter-in-place orders temporarily shuttered most businesses throughout Sonoma County. During her first year at the center, Alliance made great strides to adapt to the community’s changing needs. First, they began testing for Covid by the end of March 2020. They have also offered flu shot clinics and most recently began providing Covid-19 vaccine clinics, and in March 2021, recently hit a milestone of vaccinating over 6,000 people who live in Healdsburg, Windsor, Geyserville, and the surrounding communities—with 56% of vaccines going to people of Latinx heritage.

Alliance expects to continue offering mass vaccinations as our State and County opens up vaccine opportunities to people in the grocery and restaurant industries. Alliance will seek to ensure that very small businesses in Healdsburg, Windsor, and Geyserville, especially minority-owned businesses, and businesses employing minority staff in County-sanctioned categories will have access.

Like many other medical centers in Sonoma County, they also quickly transitioned to providing remote appointments.

“Before the pandemic, Alliance provided care to our patients in our clinics—we had zero telephone or televideo patients. By mid-April 2020, 75% of our visits were telephone or televideo,” says Churchill, noting that their dental program had to close down temporarily due to the coronavirus.

Televideo and telephone appointments have ensured accessibility and safety for many patients—a convenience that families and those with compromised immune systems significantly benefit from. With their dental services back in operation, Churchill says that they now see about half of Alliance patients via televideo or telephone and half in person.

Churchill sees long-term benefits to offering patients this expanded access, “it’s great that California is trying to ensure that these options will be available after the pandemic because it makes healthcare more accessible,” she says.

Alliance Medical Center provides people services without regard to their ability to pay, including people that are undocumented. According to Churchill, they take “pretty much any insurer that will accept us—Medi-Cal, Medicare, many private insurances.”  For the 25% of their patients who are uninsured or have high co-pays, they offer sliding scale fees.

The center focuses on holistic health, with bilingual community health workers who can assist patients with Medi-Cal and Cal-Fresh applications and offer a Women’s Infants Children (WIC) program and two food distributions a week.

Despite expanding their patient access with telehealth, there is some concern that Covid and loss of income are keeping people from seeking services.

“We are very concerned that people have been reluctant to access healthcare due to the pandemic. If you lost your insurance, you may not know that there are clinics who will welcome you, even if you are unable to pay,” says Churchill. “The Healdsburg/Windsor community has an incredible “can-do” spirit and hard work ethic but also has a great disparity of high and low incomes. Our goal is to make sure that people with lower incomes have the same access to high-quality healthcare as everyone in the community.”

Part of the success with accessibility comes from support through Healdsburg Forever, Community Foundation Sonoma County’s regional affiliate.

“If it wasn’t for the Foundation, I don’t know if we would have had the ability to purchase all the items necessary to be able to provide our medical, behavioral, and emergency dental care using tools like Zoom, and Doxy, and video cameras,” says Churchill of CFSC and Healdsburg Forever. “We had to re-write how we do everything. It was a huge learning curve for us, and for our patients.”

Despite the learning curves and multiple adaptations—including ramping up on new protective measures for their dental clinic, Churchill is excited about Alliance Medical Center providing vaccines and is hopeful about moving toward the end of the pandemic, especially as they celebrate fifty years of serving the community.

“We want to see the day when we can finally take our masks off! That won’t happen until at least 85% of our population is immunized against Covid-19, so we are doing our part to provide lots of mass vaccination opportunities,” says Churchill. “We hope that our patients will take up the offer for a vaccination, the first step in moving beyond the pandemic. Our goal is to continue to be able to provide quality care and supports so that our patients can be as healthy and hopeful as they can be.”

Story by Dani Burlison, photos by Erik Castro and Caitlin Childs

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