Last February the doctors at Packard Health began seeing some strange illnesses.
The coughs, troubled breathing, sweats, and fevers didn't test as any kind of influenza that they knew. Nevertheless, they were in a "state of shock and awe," says executive director Ray Rion, when in March the first confirmed Covid-19 cases were reported in Michigan.
Packard immediately began offering appointments online, and 80 percent of their patients switched. They continued seeing patients who needed to be examined in person at 3174 Packard, the original location, but closed the Ypsilanti office at 200 Arnet St. and the satellite Ann Arbor clinic at 1915 Pauline.
In the early days of the pandemic as many staff members as possible, mainly support personnel, began working from home. But three got Covid-19, and medical assistant Jamice Sturdivant died.
"We are not able to determine where she contracted the virus," Rion emails. "She was with Packard for four years, and patients loved her."
Since then, everyone has stayed healthy. When the emergency ended, they began seeing more patients in person, reopening in Ypsilanti in June and on Pauline in July.
Packard Health also opened a Covid-19 test site in Ypsilanti, which has the county's largest concentration of Covid-19 cases. Originally located in the Perry Early Learning Center, it relocated this fall to Ypsilanti's Second Baptist Church at 301 S. Hamilton.
A state grant is helping pay for the testing site, which like all Packard services is open to anyone regardless of ability to pay. (They are now requesting, if possible, that people make appointments to alleviate the long lines.)
As the number of cases spiked over the summer, the wait to get the results back from the testing lab stretched to about two weeks, but it's now down to two to four days. Sometime this fall the wait time will get even shorter: a grant that they received from the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan will allow them to add on-site rapid testing capability.
Packard Health was founded by physician Jerry Walden in 1973. Rion has been there since 2003 and has served as director since 2012. Though most of his work now is administrative, he still spends 30 percent of his time on direct patient care. "Packard Health is why I went into medicine," he says. "It's what I enjoy doing."
The Packard building is in poor shape, and before the virus hit there were plans to move to a newer building about a mile away at 2650 Carpenter. That has been delayed, and the Packard building is still being used as clinic.
But the office, which was upstairs, has moved to more spacious quarters in a building at 5200 Venture Dr., off State near the airport. The building-and ten adjacent acres-were donated by longtime supporters Norma and Dick Sarns.
Dick, an engineer by training, developed a heart-lung machine in the 1960s for open-heart surgery-a need he learned about from doctors who he met because his wife Norma, who taught children who were patients in University Hospital. Terumo still makes Sarns heart lung machines on Jackson Rd. Dick and their son Steve then developed the NuStep line of recumbent cross-trainers at a campus on Venture Dr.
Packard's administration is enjoying the new building, where "we all fit comfortably," says Rion. It will eventually be home to a new clinic as well. The Sarnses are particularly interested in community wellness and prevention, and other ideas for the space include chronic disease support, classes on health issues, therapies, fitness classes, a walking trail, and a community meeting space.
Implementing those ideas, though, will have to wait until there's a respite from treating patients. And Rion doesn't see Covid-19 going away anytime soon.
"The virus is predictable," he says, "but what isn't predictable is the human response" to advice on limiting its spread.