A Year Like No Other: Lessons From the COVID-19 Pandemic

Photo credit: KevinNeilson.com

One year ago this weekthe Commonwealth of Massachusetts declared a state of public emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemicFenway Health began to dramatically adjust our operations to deliver on our mission while protecting the safety of our patients, clients, and staff. And I began my tenure as the organization’s new CEO.  

None of us quite knew what we were in for in those first, early days of the pandemic. As the full impact of the public health crisis unfolded and we hunkered into our new reality of social distancing, remote work, masks, and an uncertain future, the team at Fenway Health drew upon the lessons we learned in our first 50 years to deliver on our mission in the face of these extraordinary circumstances:  

  • We launched a new telehealth program that allowed us to offer care and services to the people who count on us. It also allowed us to expand our reach: we now care for patients in 38 states, many of which have limited networks of care for LGBTQIA+ people.  
  • Our ACCESS: Drug User Health Program team went out on foot, on bicycles, and in our mobile van to deliver Narcan and safer injection supplies to people in shelters and outdoor encampments in Cambridge and Boston.  
  • Our volunteers madcalls to older adults in Fenway’s LGBT Aging Project’s database, offering help with immediate needs like grocery store runs, prescription pickups, and dropping off face masks.  
  • We worked to reduce community spread of COVID-19 by providing evidence-based public health guidance on COVID-19 for the LGBTQIA+ community and people living with HIV 

We also have made significant contributions to the fight against COVID-19, again drawing on our deep experience in tackling major public health challenges: 

  • We launched free COVID-19 testing site in Boston open to our patients and one in Everettopen by appointment to anyone 
  • We worked with MA Community Tracing Collaborative to help with COVID-19 infection contact tracing, and our team brought multilingual Spanish, Vietnamese, and Portuguese capacity as well as experience working with LGBTQIA+ communities to that effort 
  • We are currently running a Phase 3 clinical trial of the Astra Zeneca COVID-19 vaccine and participating in the CoVPN 3502 COVID-19 antibody study to learn more about how antibodies can be used to potentially stop the spread of COVID-19We have partnered with other organizations to ensure that participants in our research studies were racially diverse and representative of the communities we serve 
  • We are proud to be offering COVID-19 vaccinations to our patients in accordance with availability and the guidance set forth by the Massachusetts Department of Health and HRSA.  We are all eagerly looking forward to seeing the supply of available vaccines increase in the coming weeks. 

We have learned a tremendous amountHere are three key lessons that will guide us as we set our sights on the year to come and beyond: 

There is no going back.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the disparities in health that occur based on race. BIPOC people in America have much higher rates of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death than white people. Racism is a public health crisis, and Fenway Health must become an antiracist organization to deliver on our mission. Moreover, the murder of George Floyd by police in late May, and the tremendous surge of energyengagement, and expectation that followed it, presents an opportunity for real progress that we simply must not squander. 

In 2020, Fenway Health committed to becoming an anti-racist organization by working to overcome the disparities and inequities that exist in the services we provide, the people we reach, and the outcomes we achieve. We established a Racial Equity Action Team to develop an ambitious, achievable racial equity action plan for Fenway Health. We created a Health Equity Task Force that is using a data-driven approach to identify gaps and opportunities for improving our care and service delivery models that result in health inequities for our patients and clients. We actively expanded our community engagement and partnership efforts to collaborate with organizations to guide and strengthen the intersection of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ issues in our programs and services and increase health equity in the communities we serve. We know that we are only at the beginning of this transformative journey, but we are committed to this path. 

So much of the capacity we have developed – telehealth, being the brightest example – has proven to be a potent addition to the array of services and tools we can offer to our patients and clients.  COVID-19 has affirmed that we are nimble, resilient, creative, and innovative. We will continue to exercise these muscles as we develop a vision for our organization in a post-pandemic world. 

Our voice matters.  

Advocacy is a core component of our work and our voice matters when public policies impacting the people, families, and communities who count on us are being advanced. In July, Fenway Health joined a broad coalition of health care providers, LGBTQIA+ advocacy groups, and patients as a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging a decision by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to eliminate the protections against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in healthcare that were put in place by the Affordable Care Act 

Throughout 2020, we published policy briefs, submitted public comment and testimony, wrote opeds, participated in media interviews, and joined coalitions in partnership with other institutions to advance and disseminate LGBTQIA+ and HIV-related health policy research. 

We will continue this work in 2021. Much of it will focus on undoing many of the LGBTQIA+-hostile policies enacted over the past four years, but we are also deeply excited to once again work with the Administration, Congress, and state and local governments to advance policies that support our health, our civil liberties, and a host of other issues of vital importance to our mission and our communities.   

Past is prologue, and our future is bright 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Fenway Health’s foundingWe opened in 1971 as a one-day-a-week drop-in center located in a church basement. We were staffed by medical students and primarily served low-income older adults, students, and LGBTQIA+ peopleOur goal then, as now, was to provide the highest quality health care.  

We were successful. Just ten years later, in 1981, Fenway Health made the first diagnosis of AIDS in New England. By 1991, we were performing 40 percent of all anonymous HIV tests in the state, and our HIV caseload of 500 patients was second only to that of Boston City Hospital’s. During our 30th year, in 2001, we launched The Fenway Institute, which conducts original research that contributes globally to new knowledge about HIV treatment and prevention and LGBTQIA+ health and well-being. Ten years ago, during our 40th year, we boldly recommitted to our grassroots origins by opening a new HIV counseling, testing, and health care connection program at the site of our first offices on Haviland Street.  

In 2021, our priority will be to continue providing high quality care to under-resourced and marginalized communities. Just over 40 percent of our patients identify as lesbian, gay bisexual, or queer, and about 12 percent are transgender or gender diverse. Nearly one-quarter of our patients qualify for Medicaid. In the next 50 years we are looking forward serving an ever-broadening community of patients and clients.  

On March 16, 2020, in my first communication to the broader Fenway community, I wrote:  

“Joining Fenway Health at this moment in time has been an extraordinary experience. It has afforded me an immediate and incredible opportunity to see firsthand what the Fenway Health team of health care providers, scientists, researchers, and community advocates are able to accomplish during times of challenge. I have been witness to so much great collaboration, innovative problem-solving, calm and disciplined decision making, generosity of spirit, and goodwill.” 

And that was just in my first weekWhat’s true is that I could have written those same words every week of these last twelve months. Time and time again I have been humbled and astonished as I watched our team rise to the moment with expertise, compassion, and grace. It has been difficult, to be sure: the demands placed on each of us have been relentless, we are drained by the constraints under which we have had to live, we have suffered loss, and we yearn for the ability to live unencumbered and in community with the people we love. But we have persevered. 

As we mark one year in our collective experience with this public health crisis – and I mark one year as a member of this extraordinary organization – I want to express my heartfelt gratitude and enormous pride in what this team has accomplished. Thank you to the team, and to all of you who are part of the Fenway Health community. I am blessed to be here. 

Ellen LaPointe,
Fenway Health CEO

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