In mid-March, right as the novel coronavirus began to sweep the nation, a patient walked into the Ridley-Tree Cancer Center in Santa Barbara to be treated for pneumonia, on top of the breast cancer she had already been battling.
That was during a time when COVID-19 testing was not widely available, and new symptoms and severities of the disease were still coming to light.
Dr. Julie Taguchi, an oncologist at the cancer center, tested the patient for the coronavirus to take extra precautions. While the test came back negative at first, the patient later tested clinically positive for the virus.
“Right as the coronavirus was reaching the United States, I had this patient who I’ve been treating for breast cancer come in with pneumonia and ended up having COVID-19 as well,” Taguchi said. “She had a rough five days, but that was really inspirational to see her battle all three illnesses and diseases.”
Dr. Taguchi has been an oncologist with the Sansum Clinic, which includes the cancer center, for 27 years, but she said she has had to adapt to new protocols and procedures weekly — sometimes even daily — since the eruption of COVID-19.
“We were the only department other than urgent care that has been open since the COVID crisis began,” she said. “We have all been working hard and haven’t skipped a single day. We’re constantly adjusting to a new schedule, a new protocol, a new precaution.”
The cancer center used to be buzzing with support staff, and now there is just one “skeleton team” in the building at all times, Taguchi said, adding that surgeries had to be delayed at the beginning of the virus, and Ridley-Tree began to see a whole new set of cases.
Patients were wary to come into the center when COVID-19 first hit because they were scared it was unsafe to leave their house, Taguchi said.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, nobody knew what was happening. We had to tell patients to come in and ensure them that this was still a safe environment,” she said. “There were some patients at the beginning whose trip to the doctor was their first time leaving their house.”
Medical personnel still urge patients to come in for routine and preventive care.
With the flu season coming up, Paige Batson, deputy director of Santa Barbara County Public Health, said she is concerned that patients will even be too scared to come to receive a flu shot, a preventive measure that health care professionals say is vastly more important during the times of a pandemic.
“There is a potential resurgence of diseases that have already been controlled if people don’t take the time to get vaccinated,” she said.
At Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics, telehealth visits are a productive way to get these patients their preventive care. The SBNC developed ways to care for patients remotely by phone or video if they are afraid to come into the office, said Charles Fenzi, CEO and chief medical officer at the SBNC.
“We have offered telehealth visits to help, and the goal is to try to get people to continue their partnership in their chronic health care needs,” he said.
Fenzi emphasized that the clinics are taking necessary precautions and are still a safe place for patients.
“The safest place in the community is in our clinics,” he said.
Taguchi said she has been doing more telemedical visits since the virus began, but some patients still need that in-person examination and treatment.
“There are patients who have COVID that still need to come in for their chemotherapy,” Taguchi said. “We’re really meticulous about how we treat people. It took a lot of input, and it really was a lot of work.”
The most difficult thing for patients to adapt to, from Taguchi’s perspective, was that they were no longer allowed to bring a support person in the center with them.
If somebody wishes to visit a Ridley-Tree patient, they have to get selective special permission, Taguchi said. Otherwise, patients now have to put their support person on the phone during visits.
“We have been taking this to the extreme for the safety of the clinic, but it has been a difficult thing to see,” Taguchi said.
Patients coming into the Ridley-Tree Cancer Center are greeted at the door by COVID-19 screeners, who take temperatures and ask questions regarding patient symptoms.
“Everything is very safety-oriented, and people have been very cooperative,” said Larry Kane, a medical assistant at the cancer center.
Jaimie Parsons, a COVID-19 screener at the clinic, hands out surgical masks to every patient who enters the building. If a patient shows symptoms or had contact with someone showing symptoms, they are tested for COVID-19.
“The pandemic has been a huge block in people’s lives. Not a lot of us have been able to go outside,” Parsons said. “We’re constantly making sure everyone and everything is safe. It’s the only thing on our minds.”