BY BY ANITA RUFF, Executive Director – Oasis Free Clinics

It was this time four years ago that our world turned upside down.
Returning home from a trip in early March 2020, I noticed a few people wearing masks on the
airplane. Despite my public health training, I remember thinking that perhaps they were

Boy, was I wrong.

While we had been reading about a new virus and its global impact since January, it was
business as usual for us at Oasis. That changed on March 12 th when the first presumed case of
COVID-19 was diagnosed in Maine.

As we, like the rest of the world, learned more about the coronavirus and how it is spread, we
made small adjustments. We intermittently began to wear masks found in the dental clinic. We
discussed whether we should continue having patients come to the clinic, how we could provide
dental care in a safe environment, and how we would get lifesaving prescriptions to those who
need them.

On March 18th, the day Governor Mills closed all restaurants, prohibited gatherings of more than
10 people, and urged non-essential businesses to close (for two weeks!), we closed our dental
clinic and stopped seeing patients in our office. The impact was immediate. A patient called us
that morning, telling us that he had a terrible toothache and needed help immediately. I told him
that we were unable to take care of the affected tooth but could have a provider prescribe him an
antibiotic to help with the infection. He remained on that antibiotic until we re-opened the dental
clinic after Labor Day.

A lot of our patients were afraid to leave their homes. Some were forced out by employers who
insisted they come to work; after all, there is no remote option if you work at a convenience store
or chain restaurant. The complexity and stress of their lives was compounded by this new
emotional, mental, and financial toll.

Four years later, some things have changed dramatically while others have stayed the same.
During the pandemic, many people in our community were able to access MaineCare, our state’s
insurance program for those with low incomes. This caused a decline in the number of patients
we saw. Now that the emergency coverage has ended, we are seeing an increase in patients as a
result. Our providers report that many people are experiencing anxiety and depression at higher
rates than before the pandemic, which is the trend nationally as well as locally. To address this
need, we have re-vamped our counseling services to help more people. This includes recruiting
more community mental health providers to volunteer with us. We have some great counselors
who answered our call and are helping our patients get back on track with mental wellness.
Our dental clinic is forever changed. We added a new ventilation system to reduce risk of
exposure to aersolized particles for our dental team. It is effective and keeps people safe. It is also very loud, and our office constantly buzzes with its sound. We all breathe a sigh of relief at the end of the day when we turn them off. We are grateful to have this important system, and we also miss our once quiet office.

We also lost almost all of our dental volunteers. Our dental clinic was fortunate to have a steady
group of 15+ dentists from our community who volunteered regularly. The pandemic changed
that. Because they were either too busy in their own practices or were at high risk for COVID-
19, most of our dental volunteers did not return. We realized that we would have to create a new
model for providing dental care. This included adding a staff dentist to our team. We also
continue to experience ongoing supply chain issues for equipment. The post-pandemic costs to
our clinic have not been insignificant.

There are countless other ways we have changed as an organization. From masking to the way
we clean to reconsidering our office space configuration, the pandemic lingers in our minds and
in our practice. It has always been our goal to provide respectful, compassionate care. Since the
pandemic, we have doubled down on our efforts to be patient, understanding, and considerate.
We recognize that our patients bore a heavier burden than many of us, and our job is to be a safe,
welcoming place where we can help them focus on taking care of themselves.

We also took the opportunity to reflect on how we can better serve our community. We have
added much needed vision care. We give patients home blood pressure monitors so they can
reduce transportation costs. Similarly, we offer telehealth visits. We realized that our current
clinical space is insufficient to meet the growing demand for our services. As a result, we sought
and received federal funding (thank you, Senators Collins and King!) to expand. We are re-
thinking our services, who can access them, and how to work more closely with our community
and safety net partners.

The term “languishing” has been used to describe the overwhelmed feeling many of us continue
to experience. The weight of the pandemic sits heavy still, and we will feel its ripples for years to
come. The pandemic changed us as individuals and as an organization. But the one thing that has
not changed at Oasis is our commitment to our patients and their well-being.

Oasis Free Clinics is a non-profit, no-cost primary care medical practice and dental clinic,
providing exceptional, patient-centered care to uninsured members of our community. For more
information, please call 721-9277 or visit

Make a Donation