Telemedicine helps Open Cities continue to help those ‘hit very hard’


Open Cities Health Clinic is still welcoming patients during this pandemic at both its North End and Dunlap locations and is doing everything it can to continue to serve the St. Paul community.

“We want to keep everyone safe, so we have moved a lot of our service to telemedicine,” said Dr. Ritesh Patel, CEO of Open Cities. “We can provide the same level of service over the phone rather than have people come in and possibly be exposed to coronavirus.”

Patel said the clinic asks that everyone call in to make an appointment. Once a potential patient calls in, the clinic gets the person’s email address and sends an appointment along with a link that allows the patient to interact with a doctor when accessed. According to Patel, having the email address allows the clinic one more way to send appointment reminders to patients.

“We don’t take walk-in’s. We want every patient to call the clinic,” explained Medical Director Dr. Cynthia Woods. “We will coordinate testing for the patient if they have pre-existing conditions.

“We are trying to prioritize the testing of patients based on the CDC and Ramsey County guidelines. These guidelines are there because of the limited access to tests. We will go out to their car and swab them after they have been screened by telephone.”

However, according to Woods, people are still just showing up to the clinic. While that is discouraged, anyone who does show up is met by a greeter at the door who is fully outfitted with protective equipment including face shield, N95 mask and gloves.

The greeter screens patients at the door of each of the clinic’s locations. If you do not have a vehicle, you are brought immediately to an isolation room. Only 25 people have been tested at the clinic to date; two people have tested positive, and both were nursing home workers.

Last year, Open Cities was faced with possibly closing for financial reasons but was rescued by the community including local nonprofits and healthcare organizations. Patel said the help came with “no strings attached.”

Related Story: St. Paul’s Open Cities needs stopgap funding to survive

“We were just getting back on our feet and then we got hit by the coronavirus,” said Woods. “This organization is like a cat with nine lives. We have a lot of low socioeconomic patients and homeless patients, and they are being hit very hard.”

Submitted photo Dr. Cynthia Woods

Getting COVID-19 test results can take at least three to four days, and according to Woods some of those tested have reportedly gone back to work. “People are like, I am not going to miss putting food on my table waiting around.

“We had one patient who went back to work in a nursing home and was COVID positive. The person came in with symptoms and was initially diagnosed with the flu, but we tested for coronavirus too. We told the person to go home and self-quarantine. They ignored that because it was a choice between putting food on the table or not, so they went to work… They are now staying home,” said Woods.

According to the doctor, Open Cities hopes to partner with Mayo Clinic, “to get more rapid COVID-19 tests for people who are not willing to wait and to try to offset any socio-economic burden they may endure as a result. Some things have already been put in place.”

Woods added, “if we can help pay for medications or if we can help pay for food while you are off work. Those are the qualitative things we are working with Mayo to eliminate to offset some of the socio-economic hardships that our lower socioeconomic population experience as a result of the COVID crisis.”

Woods pointed out that some populations are struggling more than others. “If you are homeless, you don’t get unemployment. It’s nearly impossible to isolate yourself if you are in a large family… If you don’t have a lot of money to begin with and you are laid off, those are the people who are being forgotten.”

Woods admitted that while the hospital is sufficiently equipped for now, there is a need for more surgical masks to give to patients, and they are lacking N95 respirators, hospital gowns and head and shoe covers. She also wistfully wants the community to know that the clinic would like to take greater advantage of grants for which they qualify, but they lack a grant writer.