BeltLine Stories from the Front Lines: Pediatric Care in the midst of COVID-19

Heroes walk among us. Front-line workers. First responders. Essential. We celebrate their contributions, and we honor their efforts during such unparalleled times. These are some of their COVID-19 stories from the front lines.

It happened suddenly. Monday was business as usual for Intown Pediatrics, the cozy neighborhood pediatric healthcare practice with its Glenwood Park clinic adjacent to the Southside Trail and another in Brookhaven. By Tuesday, as the threat and fear of Coronavirus began to settle on the city, the office was empty. Pandemic or not, the need remains for child wellness visits, vaccines, and sick patient care, and suddenly Intown Pediatrics founder and owner, Dr. Deneta Sells found herself and her team of 30 medical practitioners and administrators on the front lines of this essential service.

“In the beginning, we had to figure out how to keep ourselves and the families we serve safe while simultaneously communicating to families about the importance of vaccines and routine wellness visits,” shares Dr. Sells, who first opened her practice in a Grant Park bungalow in 2006 to serve intown families tired of traveling to the suburbs for care.

Clincians pose for a picture wearing masks and eye protection.
Intown Pediatrics staff sport their masks with style.

Several safety measures were put in place almost immediately. Their Brookhaven location became a wellness visits only clinic, with appointments spaced out to maintain social distancing. At Glenwood Park, where they’ve been since 2009, sick patients were seen only in the afternoons. All toys, books, and the beloved “treasure tower” were removed to minimize places where sickness could spread. In addition to sanitizing between each patient, deep cleaning took place at lunch, and they established a rotating schedule so that not all staff were seeing sick patients at the same time.

Like everywhere else, securing enough personal protective equipment (PPE) was a challenge. Clinicians had one N-95 mask, a face shield, and goggles to reuse; however, the lack of gowns meant that COVID-19 testing at the clinic was not even an option. Non-clinical staff were provided with computers and phones to work from home, and the team stayed connected through daily zoom huddles, which have ultimately worked “better than at the office.”

As the pandemic escalated, there were a few scares. Although Intown Pediatrics was not doing COVID-19 testing, they received a lot of calls from parents worried that their kids could have contracted the virus.  They also received reports of parents or relatives of kids who tested positive for COVID-19, but fortunately, the children were asymptomatic. Of those who were sent to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for testing, none came back positive for either the virus or the antibody.

“We had a hard conversation with our staff [about what they do when they’re not at work],” recalls Dr. Sells. “Everyone has been doing a good job about minimizing their risk to exposure while outside the office.”

The most unexpectedly positive adaption to the additional measures was the adoption of telemedicine. With HIPAA-certified technology already built into their current software, it was just a matter of learning how to turn it on, use a webcam, and walk parents through how to give a physical.

Recognizing a need in the community, Dr. Deneta Sells opened Intown Pediatrics in 2006 after completing her residency in pediatrics at the Morehouse School of Medicine. The practice has since expanded to two locations: one in Glenwood Park and the other in Brookhaven.

“I think telemedicine is here to stay. Our clinicians picked up quickly, and many have found it quite enjoyable to see kids in their home environment. Many of the children are more at ease than in the clinic…perhaps with the exception of one of Dr. Bataille’s patients. The parents had to dig the kid out from under his bed!”

As the city continues to open in a phased approach, Dr. Sells has received mixed responses from families about bringing their children in.

“Lots of families are nervous. Some feel safe and reassured about coming in to get immunizations. A few are still waiting, and we understand that.”

Others are ready, such as the family that recently used the Southside Trail to walk to their pediatric appointment from their home on United Avenue.

“I expect to see more of that as weather improves. It’s fun to actually be working on the BeltLine. We love being here, and I’m excited to think about where we’ll one day be able to go walk after work… Maybe I’ll organize a walk [for staff] when it is safe to do so.”

As a medical professional and a mother, Dr. Sells, too, has been concerned about another surge of coronavirus cases as the state lifts restrictions.

“The virus is still out there. It’s still contagious. Because there’s more room in the hospital, it doesn’t mean we have to act like it’s back to normal,” she states, recalling a recent experience walking on the Eastside Trail near Krog Street, where the number of people on the multi-purpose trail was disconcerting.

“Things will get better, but we have to go slowly. There are fun masks out there where people can show off their personality. I think if we can get people to wear masks, that will help.”

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