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Coronavirus threatens to permanently close doctors’ practices: ‘Uncertainty is overwhelming’

  

Dr. Keesha Williams-Elliott had to cut her practice at her comprehensive eye care center in the District by 90% as part of a citywide shutdown on elective medical procedures during the coronavirus crisis.

Now on the verge of a reopening, the ophthalmologist worries about being able to resume business as usual.

“Until we get back to operating, my practice is going to suffer because we’re mainly a surgical practice,” Dr. Williams-Elliott said. “As things subside, my hope is that we can get elective care back on and have a backlog of patients that need surgery, cataract surgery and glaucoma surgery … and that we have a whole lot to do in a short period of time.”

Operators of dental offices, eye specialty centers, women’s health facilities and other “nonessential” medical services have had significant reductions in their workloads since stay-at-home orders were implemented two months ago.

As restrictions are eased, they see huge challenges in providing services and maintaining their businesses while changing how they serve patients.

Since mid-March, Dr. Williams-Elliott has furloughed most of her employees, reducing the staff from nine people to just herself and one other worker. She said she is waiting on a loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program to get her staff back to work.

Her office went from being open five days a week to two days a week for three hours daily — a total of six hours a week.

The eye care center has been open only for patients with urgent cases, including eye pain, trauma, change in vision and any postoperative treatment. Routine appointments had to be rescheduled. Dr. Williams-Elliott estimates she has seen four or five patients per week since mid-March compared with 150 before the coronavirus outbreak.

Dr. Larry Bowers, owner of East Capitol Dental in the District, is operating at about 10% capacity and is seeing patients only for emergencies such as swelling, pain and broken teeth. He had to cut his staff from eight full-time employees to four part-time workers.

“I’m trying to figure out a way to keep my business intact until we’re allowed to reopen and when more patients are comfortable coming back,” Dr. Bowers said. “You don’t really have any idea what demand is going to be when you open up.”

Data shows the U.S. has about 13,000 dermatologists, 18,000 obstetricians and gynecologists, 24,000 ophthalmologists and 110,000 dentists.

Nearly 1.5 million jobs in the health care sector nationwide, or about 9%, were cut from February to April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a large proportion of those job losses were at dental offices.

Dentists who have reopened in other parts of the U.S. are operating at about 25% volume, said Dr. Bowers, citing the American Dental Association.

What’s more, procuring personal protective equipment, which has been prioritized for hospitals, has been almost impossible for Dr. Bowers. He said he is still waiting for 1,000 N95 masks he ordered earlier this month.

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