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Urgent care centers close clinics, cut hours as demand eases

The region's urgent care networks are closing locations, cutting hours and furloughing workers as fewer patients visit the clinics during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Executives say visits for twisted ankles, the stomach flu and other ailments dropped sharply since orders requiring most business and public activity to cease went into effect in March.

"It's definitely taken its toll on the finances of the organization. But we feel strongly we're providing a service to the patients of the community, so we're doing what we can to keep the services available to them," said Dr. Kathleen Grisanti, owner of Pediatric & Adolescent Urgent Care of WNY, which temporarily closed one of its two locations.

The decline in urgent care patient volume mirrors what the region's hospital emergency rooms and traditional physician offices have seen.

Hospital systems, large physician groups and other health care providers also have taken dramatic steps to offset their revenue losses.

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Urgent care centers, which promise convenient care for people with minor medical emergencies and other health concerns, had expanded rapidly in recent years. Now, operators say it's possible fewer people may need their services if the public isn't spreading bugs in schools and offices, for example, or engaging in sports and other activities.

"We are seeing, with social distancing, people are not getting as sick," said Grisanti, who estimated patient volume at the practice for young urgent care patients is 30% or 40% of typical levels.

But it's also likely members of the public are staying away because they're anxious about spread of the new coronavirus.

"You just try to reassure people," said Dr. John Radford, founder of WellNow Urgent Care, which has 44 locations in New York and Illinois, including 15 in Western New York.

Radford said the decline in patient visits is averaging 40% to 50% throughout the practice. "We've seen the same thing that's going on across the United States in urgent care," he said.

WellNow initially closed a few locations, for one weekend, but all are now open. Two clinics with extended hours of operation have scaled back to match the rest of the chain.

Western New York Immediate Care closed its clinic in Amherst on Transit Road but kept open its four other area locations, said Dr. Joseph Chow, the company president.

He said patient volume had dropped by about 50% across the system. "I do think it's mostly the shelter-in-place," Chow said.

WNY Immediate Care has furloughed less than 10% of its staff of nearly 200 in the area. It also has cut back the hours worked by much of its staff but Chow said he hoped to begin restoring those hours soon.

Excelsior Express, the urgent care arm of Excelsior Orthopaedics, averaged 300 patients per week before the outbreak but volume has fallen about 60% the past few weeks, CEO David Uba said. In response, the practice closed its Niagara Falls and Ellicottville clinics and reduced hours of operation at the other three sites.

"As part of our mission to serve the community, we will keep our urgent care clinics open," Uba said.

Some administrators say they fear people are letting their conditions deteriorate by unwisely putting off getting an examination or course of treatment for too long.

But officials say they expect patient volume will rebound when the pandemic eases.

"People are still going to need health care," Radford said. "We're just riding it out."

WellNow did furlough "some" employees, Radford said, but is starting to bring them back.

The pediatric urgent care had closed its Orchard Park location on April 18, said Grisanti, while its Amherst clinic remained open with a smaller staff.

The practice on Friday reopened the shuttered clinic and hired back a half-dozen furloughed and laid-off employees with the help of a federal small business loan program, Grisanti said.

She said the practice is seeing more tick bites, as children venture outside; bites from dogs not used to having children around all day; and anxious young patients with headaches and stomachaches.

And both WellNow and WNY Immediate Care have started offering Covid-19 testing in recent days.

The networks say they've seen strong demand for the tests.

At WellNow, it was taking longer than the promised 48 to 72 hours to return results, conceded Dr. Tanvir Dara, the chief medical officer.

About 2,300 tests were performed in three days beginning April 24, mostly antibody tests. Employees told one patient to expect a five-day processing time and a further wait to get the results by mail.

"It was a greater demand than we expected," said Dara, adding WellNow was streamlining the process.

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