Notes from the Field: CrescentCare’s work to Support the New Orleans HIV Community Through the COVID-19 Crisis

Much like organizations across the country, the onset of COVID-19 turned everything “completely upside down” for the staff of CrescentCare ⁠— but it has not slowed down the pace and urgency of their work.

“We’re out of the initial complete crisis phase and moving into a different level of our new reality,” said Alice Riener, CrescentCare chief of staff.

A member of AIDS United’s Public Policy Council, CrescentCare is a Federally Qualified Health Center that has its roots as an HIV service provider. The agency works to support people living with and affected by HIV in the New Orleans area.

Their vision is “to lead in quality-driven health and wellness care, and to meet existing and emerging needs with active participation from the community we serve.”

“We have a lot of infectious disease doctors on staff, and so they saw this coming and how it could all play out earlier than some of the general public around here,” Riener said. “We started planning probably in the beginning of February. By March 16, about 60% of our staff was working from home.”

Within a week, another 20% of staff was set up for remote work, leaving a skeletal crew of staff on site to do COVID testing and very limited in-person care like STD treatments and vaccines.

They set up three tents in a garage to provide walk-up COVID-19 testing for the community. To date, they have tested more than 800 people.

“We’re working as fast as we can to set up telehealth visits, but there have been some real challenges,” Riener said. “It’s even more challenging for clients across the technological divide who don’t have cell phones with minutes, data plans or cameras ⁠— all of that.”

“We have both of our clinics open. Our case management, supportive services, and behavioral health services are working with clients over the phone and other telehealth platforms. We’ve continued to do our syringe access program on Friday afternoons out of the garage, and we’ve been able to do that uninterrupted” Riener continued. “That population is already marginalized, and we want to make sure that we can still provide services and get them connected to COVID testing or other services if they want it.”

While maintaining connections in an organization of 300 employees has been difficult, Riener says that staff has been trying to make space for folks to grieve losses and come together to support each other amid the toll that COVID-19 has taken on their networks.

“We’ve had staff who have tested positive for COVID-19,” Riener said. Others within the CrescentCare network have passed away.

“It’s about trying to honor them and provide space for staff to grieve and mourn, but also channeling those feelings back into the work in how we help both our staff and our community through this,” Riener said.

“We’ve also had an outpouring of support from the community,” she continued. “The Mardi Gras Krewe of Red Beans and Rice organized bringing food to all the staff that are onsite. It’s a way for the Krewe to help support the local restaurants and musicians too. We’ve received donations of funding and supplies. The level of support has been amazing.”

Although some organizations and states around the country are starting to consider what reopening would look like, CrescentCare is approaching it cautiously.

“As a community we need more tests and more contact tracing capacity. We can’t really start to open up as a community until those pieces are in place,” Riener said. She also wants lawmakers to start thinking about longer term solutions beyond just meeting the immediate crisis.

“What the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed is that we need to plan and invest in our health care infrastructure across the country, and not just in a time of crisis,” Riener said. “This is a new reality, and we need to start thinking about how we can have things like telehealth work longer term and that help us reach and support people in rural communities — because we can’t lose sight of the other Ending the Epidemic priorities.”

To learn more about the work of CrescentCare, visit