In our series What It’s Like, we speak with people from a wide range of backgrounds about how their lives have changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For our latest installment, we spoke with Meera Shah, M.D., chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic in New York state and a national medical spokesperson at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Planned Parenthood operates over 600 health centers across the country, providing a number of vital services including reproductive and sexual health care. Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic operates 10 centers in New York state and in 2019 provided services to roughly 32,000 patients in over 53,300 visits.
As health clinics are essential businesses, Planned Parenthood centers in New York state currently remain open. Here, Dr. Shah explains how they are treating patients while keeping their staff and clients as safe as possible, along with what she thinks of some politicians’ attempts to block abortion access during the pandemic. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
SELF: Can you tell me about the services Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic provides?
M.S.: We have 10 health centers and two mobile health units serving Suffolk, Rockland, Putnam, and Westchester counties in New York state. Our patients are primarily people of color and people with low incomes. We see patients of all genders, primarily for sexual and reproductive health care services. We also provide gender-affirming hormone therapy for patients in the trans and nonbinary communities.
We provide abortion care, both medication and procedural. We provide prenatal care and link our prenatal patients to ob/gyns in the community for labor and delivery. We provide contraception management, vasectomy, infertility services, menopausal care, cervical cancer screenings, the full gamut.
Before COVID-19, we were super busy coming up with new and innovative ways to meet our patients’ needs. For example, we were in the midst of rolling out a new opt-in prenatal care model where patients would come to their prenatal visits in a group based on the time they were expected to deliver.
When New York state went into lockdown in response to COVID-19, how did you modify the care you offer to follow guidelines while still serving patients?
We switched to a telehealth model within a few days. It’s probably the hardest I’ve ever worked. We really had to put our minds together, working around the clock to get the infrastructure in place to get telehealth up and going.
Currently, we can provide telehealth for all our services except for procedural abortion and prenatal care. For those, we still see patients in health centers. Every other service can start with a telehealth appointment first, then if the provider feels the patient needs to come into the center, they can do so.
We have a lot of availability through telehealth. There really isn’t a waiting time. Patients can get an appointment that same day if they want it. They can schedule their appointment directly on our website with an online scheduling system, or they can call. When they receive a link in their email they click on it, and it guides them, step by step, on how to do it.
At their appointment time, they enter a kind of virtual waiting room until the provider is ready to see them. Then the video and audio turn on, we can see one another, and we begin the visit that way. We can send prescriptions to the pharmacy, provide them with counseling, and if they need labs, we can send them to a lab that is near them so they don’t have to travel far.