Pan Asian Volunteer Health Clinic Keeps Asian Community Healthy and Vaccinated During COVID-19
Written by: Daniel Baker | Published: 5/6/21
When you think of culture, what comes to mind? Food, music, and customs likely pop up. Language is certainly a major aspect of a culture, too. The Chinese Culture and Community Service Center [CCACC] started 37 years ago and provides a cultural home to the Chinese and greater Asian community in Montgomery County. The CCACC hosts tons of community and cultural recreational activities.
Often overlooked in the conversation surrounding culture; health care. Mired in the myth of being a model minority, the Asian community lacks an abundance of dedicated health services. “It’s an immigrant issue,” explained Kate Lu, the CCACC Health Center Director. For example, said Lu, “Hep-B [Hepatitis B/HBV] hits 1-in-8 Asian-born community members, compared to 1-in-100 or more for the general population."
Up until the new millennium, the CCACC’s primary service area was an adult day care and home care program. That left a gap in culturally appropriate remedies for community members, failing to address the full range of health care needs of the Asian community.
Representation in health matters. That’s what led a group of volunteer physicians, pharmacists, and registered nurses [RNs] – mostly Chinese speaking – to band together in 2003, in order to provide charity care for their community; the people who are part of their culture with unique health issues. Thus, the Pan Asian Volunteer Health Clinic [PAVHC] was founded.
For the first six years, the PAVHC partnered with Mobile Med (another current clinic in the Montgomery Cares network) to provide a venue for care. Then, in 2009, the organization decided it was time to put down roots in a physical location. Today, they operate from their headquarters in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Aside from the HBV program, they also developed a mental health program that was unique to the Asian community, with a greater understanding of the culture that underlies those mental health issues.
Another illustrative example is chronic pain management. What does the problem look like from an Asian perspective? Lu, a trained social worker, noted that there’s “hardly any coverage about Asian overdose. My patients are in pain, but they don’t take medication, so they suffer pain, develop depression, and some are driven to take their own life. [That experience is] totally different from mainstream literature.”
COVID-19 doesn’t care about culture. It attacks everyone. Still, proper prevention, acute, and terminal care – something that Lu said is lacking in the Asian community – requires a sensitivity and knowledge regarding a specific demographic. Speaking of culture Lu knew that the pandemic was going to be serious well before alarm bells rang loudly across the U.S.
She returned from a trip to China visiting friends and family on January 31, 2020. To her surprise, “Nobody stopped me, took my temperature, or asked me anything. When I got home, I self-quarantined, for the safety of other co-workers,” Lu recounted. While at home, Lu contacted local health officials to start talking about and preparing for the pending pandemic.
COVID-19 turned the lives of the CCACC’s community upside down. Fortunately, the PAVHC, a staple in the community for offering critical and culturally specific care, was more than up to the challenge starting with the initial shock. “We kept the clinic going and once testing was available, we did that. Once rapid testing was available, we did that. We took on all the challenges,” Lu said proudly, looking back on how her team responded to the adversity of a global pandemic.
As the calendar turned to 2021, rolling out COVID-19 vaccination presented a brand new challenge. Many of the patients served by CCACC lack the technical tools to navigate a digital vaccine registration system. Picking up the phone isn’t an option as those resources aren’t available in their native language. Together these challenges formed a logistical nightmare.
Lu and her team started a partnership with the Montgomery County Department of Health to conduct a vaccination program at their clinic. They curated a list for people in the community to give the PAVHC their contact information so that they could get vaccinated. “Right now, we have more than 5,000 names on it,” said Lu.
They still encourage people to get on other lists because, they often get short notice with respect to how many doses of the vaccine they’ll receive. Whenever the staff at PAVHC get the word that doses are coming, Lu and her team hit the phones. “We don’t just share a link. We call every single person on our list to coordinate vaccination.”
That also means hitting the streets, speaking to local businesses like restaurants and telling the owners that their uninsured staff can be covered through Montgomery Cares. “For many people,” Lu said, “it’s the first time they’ve heard about Montgomery Cares,” which is a vital safety net for the underserved residents of Montgomery County.
So far, Lu said that the PAVHC has served more than 1000 community members with about 1,800 shots. “We aim at serving the hard-to-reach populations such as the Montgomery Cares groups and undocumented people we normally don’t see. That means a lot of hard work from our staff and volunteers. But we are all happy with what we can do for the community. COVID-19 has helped us grow and to fulfill the things we had been dreaming about to do for years, that is, connecting the underserved to healthcare.”