Small, local agencies make a big impact on pandemic

As the pandemic has the nation’s attention, so do the large health care and assistance providers. Hospital systems like Baptist Health South Florida and Jackson Health System grab headlines with their efforts to combat the coronavirus.

But in rural areas like the Florida Keys, the smaller agencies are working just as hard to serve the residents of Monroe County.

In fact, it was Community Health of South Florida (CHI) that was the first to offer COVID-19 testing to the public in Miami-Dade County as well as Monroe County.

“That was back in March,” said Marianne Finizio, the face of the clinic in the Keys. Her official title is Vice President of Community Relations. CHI has two facilities in the Keys and nine on the mainland and offers care ranging from mental health to obstetrics to dentistry. Naturally, they’ve been busy with the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Finizio, CHI has screened 1,300 residents of Monroe County for the virus and tested about 1,000. It offers free testing twice a week at its Marathon location (Tuesday and Thursday from 5 to 6 p.m.).

Beyond that, they offer follow-up care.

“One of our patients, a 73-year-old gentleman, tested positive for the virus at one of our facilities and ended up being admitted to an ICU for care. He’s out now, and is scheduled to come back for another test,” Finizio said. As patients are tested at CHI, they are entered into the system, and follow up care is offered such as diabetes screenings, high blood pressure tests, etc.

Although CHI doesn’t have vaccines to offer the public (yet), they are putting a plan in place, including hiring more clinicians.

 “We are writing those plans right now,” she said, “figuring out who will give the vaccinations and a location. We will be following the state mandate to vaccinate those 65 and older first.”

She said part of CHI’s success is due to the partnerships they’ve formed with the Department of Health, the College of the Florida Keys, municipalities and Florida Keys Area Health Education Center (AHEC).

Unbeknownst to many, the AHEC agency supplies school nurses to the Monroe County School District. According to CEO Michael Cunningham, they have five nurse practitioners delivering services in nine schools in the Keys. Since March 2020, AHEC also has been testing students for COVID.

“We’ve provided more than 1,000 tests, most of them to students,” Cunningham said. “We are running a higher positivity rate than the county, at about 18% to 19%.”

When a student tests positive, AHEC kicks into high gear, addressing the infection with the entire family and putting patients in touch with other resources in the county.

AHEC was recently awarded a grant from the City of Key West to perform rapid COVID-19 testing to residents of that city, or employees of Key West-registered business.

“That’s why we were offered the contract,” Cunningham said, “because we’ve been testing students since last March. We’re very familiar with it.”

Like CHI, AHEC is challenged to provide the rest of its mission despite the load of pandemic work. In addition to being the frontline workers at schools, AHEC also runs tobacco cessation programs and is ramping up to provide dental care to school-age children as well.  

Rural Health Network of Monroe County also is working to continue its pre-pandemic mission of providing primary medical care and dental care to insured, uninsured and underinsured residents of Monroe County, but is also now offering free COVID swab tests to anyone who makes an appointment. And as of Wednesday, Jan. 27, the agency is also offering a fee-based COVID rapid test. Both tests are available to anyone, but they must make an appointment by calling 305-517-6613, said Elizabeth Baker, RHN’s director of marketing and community outreach.

“We are also on the list to become a COVID vaccine provider site; we’re just waiting for the vaccines to show up from the state,” she said, urging people to stay tuned to the agency’s website ( and Facebook page or to call 305-517-6613 for testing appointments.

On Feb. 1, Rural Health will begin offering appointments for its new pediatric dentistry program. And later this year, the nonprofit healthcare organization will hit the road in its 40-foot mobile van to provide primary medical care and general dentistry throughout the Florida Keys. 

But before kids need a dentist, or even have teeth, they — and their moms — need plenty of other care. Florida Keys Healthy Start Coalition can help pregnant women, new mothers and the tiniest residents of the Florida Keys with prenatal care, breastfeeding classes, parenting classes, plus diapers, formula and car seats.

“If you’re pregnant, or have a little one at home, just call us,” said Arianna Nesbitt, CEO of Florida Keys Healthy Start Coalition, the only nonprofit organization in the Keys that exists to help moms and babies. “Let’s talk about what’s going on in your life; what you need and what you don’t even know you need. So many people don’t even know the ways we can help. We provide some sort of assistance for three out of four babies born in Monroe County.”

Nesbitt said COVID has increased the need for services and has driven more people to seek help since March. The need for diapers alone has quadrupled since March, she said, adding that they’re delivered every Friday to those who need them.

“We’re hearing from a lot of people who have never needed help before,” she said. “They’re not in the system. They don’t know where to start.”

Start with a phone call — 305-293-8542 — or a visit to

Stressed-out moms have difficult pregnancies, Nesbitt said. “Just call us. You don’t have to be in crisis to get help. We’re here to help prevent that crisis.”

The pandemic has put additional pressure on new parents, Nesbitt said.

“Maybe grandma can’t travel now to help with the new baby; maybe dad lost his job; some families have had to give up their vehicles, and others can’t afford wipes and diapers, but they need those to enroll their child in daycare,” Nesbitt said. “There’s so many things that have happened and have put people in a position they never expected.”

An estimated 2,500 Keys families each year receive help from the coalition. Nesbitt emphasized that applications do not require income or IRS information or immigration details.

— Mandy Miles contributed to this report.

Sara Matthis thinks community journalism is important, but not serious; likes weird and wonderful children (she has two); and occasionally tortures herself with sprint-distance triathlons, but only if she has a good chance of beating her sister.