In mid-March, a young man came to Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore with a cough and fever.
For Catherine Fowler, the clinic’s director of nursing, alarm bells immediately went off. He became the first of dozens of clients to test positive for COVID-19.
Of all the fast-moving challenges in the early stages of the pandemic, finding an effective way to screen people was the most important.
Fowler helped design what is in place today at the clinic — a free-flowing screening area at the front door and a testing site inside the clinic’s garage.
“I think it was a challenge to be in that state of flux and to have new information coming at us at all times,” said Fowler, 39. “But I also appreciated the challenge, the opportunity to put to use my public health education, my nursing education.”
It’s Fowler’s job to keep everyone safe, making sure the clinic’s 50 to 70 staff members — including two dozen nurses — have the protective gear they need.
The clinic has closed two locations but has maintained the same hours at its downtown location. Since the pandemic, there has been less foot traffic, but the clinic has been able to provide care for some of its 10,000 clients over the phone.
During those early days of the pandemic, Fowler and her husband, Brad, also had to decide how to keep family at home safe, sending their two young boys to stay with their grandparents.
“I miss them an awful lot,” Fowler said. “It’s been hard to be apart, but we see them on the weekends and it has given me peace of mind knowing they are safe and I can do the work I need to do without going home and worrying about potentially infecting them.”
Kristin McCurnin, the clinic’s triage medical provider, finds this time the most rewarding in her profession. A Baltimore native, she went to college in Boston, and is happy she returned here in 2017 to provide care during this time of crisis.
On the front line in triage, she addresses the same acute medical issues clients have always had — hypertension, diabetes, substance abuse, common pain — while educating them about coronavirus.
Breaking News Alerts
Many people experiencing homelessness have a higher rate of chronic illnesses and, along with limited access to hand hygiene and private space to properly social distance, they are at a higher risk for worse outcomes from COVID-19.
McCurnin is doing everything she can to help.
Sixty-eight clients have tested positive — 173 tests had been given as of Thursday — and the clinic has worked with the city health department to provide transportation to hotel rooms for isolation.
“I feel grateful that our clients are coming in and I have the privilege to do that for them in the safest manner possible," said McCurnin, 36, a Fells Point resident who was the recipient of the clinic’s core values award for passion in 2019. "I made the right decision entering this field and working with people who feel the same.”
Fowler and McCurnin say they are only cogs in the wheel — two of approximately 240 employees who share a common goal.
“[We have] a staff which are really passionate about the work they do,” said chief medical officer Dr. Adrienne Trustman. “They’re really concerned about how we’re going to make sure our clients’ needs are met.”
Know a hero?
We want to hear about the essential workers and everyday people who are keeping the Baltimore area safe, fed and cared for. Submit your heroes at baltimoresun.com/heroes.