The community relies on organizations like Open Door Clinic and Charter House. How has Covid-19 affected their practices?

By MICHAEL FRANK

BENJY RENTON
Due to the increasing risks of the Covid-19 outbreak across Addison County, the Charter House Coalition transitioned all its residents from their North Pleasant Street house to local motel facilities. This is one example of organizations in Addison County having to alter their practices in order to continue providing their community-dependent services.

Community-based organizations, tasked with helping the county’s least-privileged residents, are now more necessary than ever. As the town of Middlebury begins to see more cases of the novel coronavirus, local aid organizations like the Open Door Clinic (ODC) and Middlebury’s Charter House are bracing to serve the crush of residents who will be hit hardest by Covid-19.

“Right now things are very quiet, but we all expect that to change,” said Heidi Sulis, executive director of the ODC. “We have a very, very committed staff who want to continue to serve our patients.” 

The ODC counts on a small network of volunteers to provide free healthcare services to adults who lack insurance or are under-insured. As the number of Covid-19 diagnoses increases throughout Vermont, pressure for the clinic to take precautions has grown. Still, Sulis said, the ODC is “certainly hoping” not to close its doors to the people who rely most on its services: Latin American migrant farm workers who service dairy farms around Addison County. Up to 270 farm workers per season can rely on the clinic for health care, according to the ODC’s website

Sulis said that the clinic has seen many cancellations of non-essential appointments over the past few weeks, and that nurses have shifted to conducting “triage calls” — conversations meant to gauge the urgency of patients’ symptoms — to reduce in-person contact and possible exposure to Covid-19. “I think the public health priority right now is to address and not contribute to the threat of the transmission of Covid-19,” Sulis said.

“We [have] thermometers, we can [provide] education, and we can get bar soap, if it comes to that,” Sulis said. The organization hopes to offer boxes of supplies including sanitizer, masks and education materials, though these items have become difficult to obtain.

“Community groups are sewing masks for us and that’s really lovely,” Sulis said. Middlebury College recently posted on social media that seamstresses from the Theatre Department have been making masks for medical workers in the area.

In a period when many Middlebury residents may be struggling, Sulis believes that the ODC should remain an option for those in need of care. “One of the things I’m really worried about as we move through this is the number of people who are being laid off and losing jobs,” she said. “We might see a huge spike of people in need of health insurance.”

Up on North Pleasant Street, the Charter House Coalition, a Middlebury-based non-profit committed to providing basic food and housing security, has had to make changes to its normal slate of services.

Before the Covid-19 crisis, the Charter House served at least one “big, wholesome meal” every day a week to upwards of 50 or 60 people, according to Walter Stugis, chair of Charter House’s board of directors. 

“We changed that operating model in early March or late February when we saw what was coming,” Stugis said. “We still recognize that we can’t completely eliminate [the possibility of Covid-19] and if the virus does get in the building, Charter House could be a hotspot for spread.”

The Charter House’s volunteer rotation, which forms the life-blood of its meal prep and other services, has also been limited to only a handful of staff servers who provide limited meals to the public without moving in and out of the building. Those not living in the shelter are now being offered “take-out” meals handed off at the organization’s door.

Whereas the Charter House once provided on-site shelter, the organization has worked to find different living spaces to limit the risk of virus transmission. As of now, barring the staff, no residents live at the Charter House’s facility on North Pleasant Street.

“We moved our most vulnerable individuals into hotels [at first],” Stugis said. “Then we just made the decision [to] close the shelter and house all of the homeless folk in local motels and hotels. It’s just not safe [otherwise].” 

Despite major upheavals to Charter House’s established structure, the volunteer staff has been quick to adjust. “It’s amazing — the volunteers continue to provide meals,” Stugis said. “As everything changes in terms of protocols, they pay attention and say, ‘OK, we’ll adapt to that.’ No one says, ‘OK, I’m done.’”

Stugis also praised the work of college dining staff for aiding the limited Charter House network, providing an ongoing supply of meals to former Charter House occupants. “God bless Middlebury College. Their food service program has been working to feed these people in their hotels. This is all while operating to serve the students who are still living on campus. It’s amazing.”

Donations can be made both to the Open Door Clinic and the Charter House Coalition on their websites.

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