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Massey program helps to address challenges caused by COVID pandemic

Apr 28, 2021

COALESCE Daily Planet image 2

Almost as soon as the double doors at the entrance to West Grace Health Center close, they open again as patients arrive for primary, behavioral and dental health appointments. This Daily Planet Health Services center is a lifeline for Richmond’s homeless population.

“Our patient base that is truly homeless is going to continue to grow, unfortunately, when the eviction moratorium runs out,” predicts Patricia Cook, M.D., chief medical officer of Daily Planet. “With COVID, it’s the reality we’re facing.”

Cook shared the dire circumstances created by the pandemic with VCU Massey Cancer Center representatives during an April 14 tour of the facility, which is a Project COALESCE partner.

Massey launched Project COALESCE, or Clinics & COmmunities TAckling RaciaL DisparitiEs, Systemic in (Colon and Cervical) Cancer ScrEening, in January 2021. The program aims to increase colon and cervical cancer screenings by 5-10% along with greater access to diagnostic follow-up appointments.

COALESCE Daily Planet image 1COALESCE comes at a time when the 2019 novel coronavirus triggered a troubling trend in cancer prevention across all ages, races, ethnicities and genders.

“The rate of screenings is substantially lower,” explains Robert Winn, M.D., director of VCU Massey Cancer Center. “As we come out of one C, COVID, we’re going to be dealing with another C, cancer.”

Add in social and economic determinants faced by individuals not living in a permanent residence, and Daily Planet leaders describe even greater health care barriers for their patient population.

“Massey Cancer Center belongs to the public,” Winn responds with details of his effort to eliminate inequities for Richmond’s most vulnerable community members, including anyone experiencing housing insecurity.

A census completed by Homeward found an increase in Richmond’s homeless population between January 2020 and January 2021. The number rose from 546 to 838 people during the one-year period when COVID initially created unprecedented challenges.

Anita Bennett, chief executive officer of Daily Planet, applauds Massey for offering screenings and diagnostic care to people who have higher rates of illness and die 12 years sooner than Americans with stable housing.

Bennett also acknowledges how awareness of programs like COALESCE can lower barriers for marginalized communities. She once overheard someone describing all homeless people as “them” during a phone conversation.

“Stop for a moment and put humanity back in homelessness,” Bennett recalls telling the individual that day. “These are all people.”

At the helm of COALESCE is Katherine Tossas, Ph.D., M.S., director of catchment area data access and alignment, Harrison Endowed Scholar in Cancer Research and Cancer Prevention and Control research member at VCU Massey Cancer Center.

“We are co-learning and co-creating,” Tossas says of the anticipated evolution of COALESCE to meet needs as they occur, such as Cook’s prediction that Richmond’s homeless population and subsequent needs for medical care will continue to spike due to COVID.

The American Cancer Society oversees COALESCE. It is a two-year program funded by $400,000 from Pfizer Global Medical Grants.

However, Winn hopes it is just the beginning.

“We need to get beyond the grant,” he says about maintaining community relationships and initiatives. “Even when it’s gone, we need to do this.”

In addition to Daily Planet, Richmond COALESCE sites include Capital Area Health Network’s Vernon J. Harris Medical and Dental Center and Southside Medical Center. The program also serves Danville, Lawrenceville and Martinsville.

Written by: Amy Lacey

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