The Mount Vernon Neighborhood Health Center Inc., a provider of health care services in key Westchester communities has endured the impact of Covid-19 that infected its leadership and led to the loss of three staff members, making it stronger to fulfill an even more central role in the lives of its estimated 20,000 patients.
“It hit us hard. It came out of nowhere,” Judith M. Watson, CEO of the nonprofit, told the Business Journal about the coronavirus. “Employees were infected. We lost three long-time employees to this pandemic, three long-time employees who our patients adored.”
Watson and other members of the senior leadership team for the organization contracted the virus and had to be furloughed and quarantined. She said it was a challenge adjusting to running operations remotely and compensating for a drop in the number of existing patients seeking routine health care services because of Covid’s impact.
“At the same time, we had new patients coming because Mount Vernon Neighborhood Health Center remained open and accessible,” Watson said, noting that some patients who had been going to Westchester’s largest health care providers such as Westmed started coming to the nonprofit. She explained that while the school-based sites were closed because the schools themselves were closed, the health center’s other sites continued to operate.
“In collaboration with the governor’s office, we established a walk-up Covid testing facility in Mount Vernon,” Watson said. “It’s comprised of tents at our Mount Vernon health center location and one needs only to call the New York state hotline to either schedule an appointment or to walk in.”
Other new services that began during the outbreak are designed to help deal with hunger.
“Since the Covid pandemic started, we have provided testing of more than 17,000 people and have also provided meals and food for more than 19,000 individuals,” Watson said.
“Meals, health care, whatever we can do to serve the population. We provide an array of services. There is such food insecurity right here in Westchester. That was one of the lessons learned going through this pandemic. We knew there were people going hungry, but that number has snowballed as a result of the pandemic and those people are coming here. We established a food pantry in collaboration with Feeding Westchester and we see that service being offered going into the future.”
She said that after April 17, the date their Mount Vernon testing center opened, the number of people walking in to be tested went from 30 to 40 a day to 300 or more each day, Mondays through Fridays.
Watson said that the state provides personal protective equipment and the tents for the walk-in testing site but it is up to the nonprofit to pay for the staff and related costs. She said that the organization stands ready to offer Covid-19 vaccinations and, in fact, did receive a small amount of vaccine, which it used to begin inoculating its staff and a few patients.
“We obviously need much, much more to meet the needs of our population,” Watson said. “We have waiting lists of thousands of patients who are waiting for the vaccine. It’s coming very slowly. Hopefully with this recent change in administration more vaccines will become available so that we can vaccinate the population that we serve.”
The organization was founded in 1973 and originally provided health services in trailers. It now is a federally approved health center under the Health Resources & Services Administrations’ Health Center Program.
“We’re a one-stop shop,” Watson said. ”We’re here, we’ve been here, we’re the trusted source. We care for people from the cradle to the grave, so whether it be pediatrics, OGYN, internal medicine, dental services, behavioral services, specialty services, we have on-site labs and pharmacies, we provide care.”
Watson emphasized that her organization sees patients regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay.
“There are thousands of community health centers just like ours all over the United States,” Watson said, revealing that when she was growing up she received health care from the center she now leads.
“I see myself in every patient who comes in,” Watson said. “My parents were not folks of means so I utilized the services of the health center as a child.”
After high school, Watson served in the U.S. Army and after leaving the service went to Pace University and became a registered nurse. She since has earned a master’s degree in public health.
Watson said that the core population served at the organization’s centers is disproportionately affected by chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and now Covid.
“If they can’t come here, where will they go? They have no place else to go,” Watson said. “We’re always seeking assistance with funding. We get a modest amount of money from the federal government. We write grants, we fundraise, we do what we can, but obviously it’s never enough.”
The Mount Vernon Neighborhood Health Center Inc. operates eight sites, with its headquarters at 107 W. 4th St. in Mount Vernon. There are additional health centers in Yonkers and Greenburgh, an obstetrics location in White Plains, presence at the Coachman Family Center in White Plains and Grasslands Homeless Shelter in Valhalla along with school-based health centers at Mount Vernon’s Edward Williams Elementary School and the Mount Vernon High School.
In addition, it operates a mobile health van that allows its doctors, nurses and community outreach workers to provide health screenings and other services in various areas. The MVNHC has a staff of about 300, including physicians and other medical professionals.