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Urgent care in the age of Covid-19: Check-in from your car

The region's two top urgent care companies announced changes this week to limit exposure to Covid-19 for providers and patients who use their services.

Approaches vary, though all look to assure distance between those sick with flu-like symptoms who wish to talk with a medical provider.

WellNow Urgent Care instated a new triage process in which patients will be asked to complete an in-vehicle check-in before entering an urgent care facility. The company also expanded its telehealth platform at wellnow.com so that patients with any urgent medical needs can have them addressed without potential exposure to the novel coronavirus.

Western New York Immediate Care announced on its website that staff at its site at 2099 Niagara Falls Blvd. in Amherst prefers to see only occupational health patients with work-related injuries and needs, including physical exams.

Sites in Buffalo, Cheektowaga, Orchard Park and Williamsville will continue to see patients – although staff will treat those with flu-like symptoms differently than others with urgent health needs.

"You're going to bypass the waiting room," Dr. Joseph Chow, president of WNY Immediate Care, said in an interview. "Let's say you came in and you sprained your ankle or have a urinary tract infection. You probably don't want to be in a room full of people potentially with Covid-19."

Staff will treat all those who show up on-site with flu-like symptoms as if they have Covid-19, Chow said. They will be greeted just inside the door by a triage health care provider wearing personal protective equipment. Patients with a fever will need to wear masks and be ushered into a separate room near the entrance to be seen by another provider, also in protective gear. If they have to wait for a room, they'll be asked to do so in their vehicle.

"If anybody is really sick or having chest pain, we would still bring them in right away," Chow said.

He said the company prefers on-site exams to telehealth visits, though will consider providing them depending on how the Covid-19 pandemic progresses. He also said coronavirus testing is unavailable at urgent care centers in the region and must be arranged by priority through a county health department process.

Patient service representative Kendra Feldmann sits face to face as she registers arriving patients upon their arrival at WNY Immediate Care in Orchard Park on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Covid-19 symptoms include a fever and a dry cough. If the cough worsens and shortness of breath develops, that suggests the condition is worsening and patients are encouraged to visit a hospital emergency room. Chow said Immediate Care staff has made that recommendation to a small number of patients they've examined.

"Most of the people are going to come in with mild disease," he said. "As it becomes more community spread, then the likelihood of it being Covid-19 increases" and staff will assume they have the condition. ... Tests or no test, we're making sure that we protect our staff, protect patients, and get them into a room very quickly. If you need further testing, if you need hospitalization, or if it's OK to go home, we'll certainly evaluate you and make sure there's nothing else going on."

John Radford, the founder and owner of WellNow Urgent Care, said the business will continue to evaluate its patient protocols.

Meanwhile, a sign has been posted on the front door of all eight of its urgent care centers across the region, as well as more than 30 other locations in New York State and Illinois, outlining new triage instructions. Before patients can enter a facility, they will be asked if they are experiencing a fever, cough or shortness of breath, or had contact with someone who tested positive with Covid-19.

Those who answer no to both questions can register inside. If they answer yes to either question, they will be instructed to use their mobile device to scan the QR code or type in the URL on the sign to complete check-in, then wait in their vehicles for a text with further instructions. Patients unable to check in online can call the facility directly.

Public health officials urge all those with manageable flu-like and Covid-19 symptoms to call primary and urgent care offices before they think about driving to an office or emergency room, and enter a place where the risk generally climbs for contracting the novel coronavirus.

“Growing telehealth as part of our practice was already part of our 2020 plans for WellNow — in fact, we’ve been ramping up our team of over 100 doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants for months,” Radford said. “Given the current crisis, our team has literally been working around the clock to make telehealth available to all our communities sooner. ”

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