WATERTOWN — With the North Country Family Health Center’s 50th anniversary coming up on Tuesday, along with celebrations via Zoom due to the pandemic, the organization will celebrate by kicking off planning for an expansion and renovation of its main campus.

The project will add 1,700 square feet to the main campus building, expanding its Family Practice Primary Care Department. Two exam rooms will become negative pressure rooms to be used for patients with COVID-19 symptoms and for aerosolized procedures such as nebulizer treatments.

Part of the addition, 360 square feet at the northwest end of the building, will accommodate a growing clinical support workforce and could be converted into other patient service areas in the future, depending on demand. The project will also modify 900 existing square feet to connect the current structure to the new structure, including some minor renovations of clinical space including a new expanded lab area.

“The expansion is wonderful for patients and also for our staff because demand is so high — which is wonderful that we have the providers, and we are able to see patients — but right now we’re working in pretty tight quarters,” said April Fallon, marketing and community relations director. “So this will allow for great work space and better exam room space for the patients.”

With the Health Resources and Services Administration’s award to the North Country Family Health Center in the amount of $639,843, the center will put it toward supporting the expansion and renovation work at the main campus, 238 Arsenal St. The project budget, including construction costs, fees and equipment, totals nearly $1.2 million. The remaining $555,899 will come from the health center’s secured non-federal funds.

Since the pandemic began, the health center began offering COVID-19 rapid PCR testing to anyone in the community in an outside, drive-up format. The expansion project will allow the center to have additional dedicated lab space for COVID-19 testing machines given the very limited lab space in the current floorplan. The creation of a dedicated and covered outdoor COVID-19 testing area for two cars will protect the health center’s staff from weather.

Expansion planned as health center turns 50

A rendering of the car port for the North Country Family Health Center, 238 Arsenal St., Watertown. Provided image

“Keeping people out of the elements is great for our staff and also great for people who are coming in and not really feeling the best to begin with,” Mrs. Fallon said. “Our staff will enter from a door right out of the new wing, and be able just to go out. People call a number, it’s listed there within the carport and the nurse comes right up to the car to do the testing. So people may not think that a carport is so exciting, but it’s extremely important with a testing situation and much more convenient for patients.”

The center is undergoing significant growth in its workforce to meet the needs of the organization and service area. The Quality & Population Health Department — which focuses on the social determinants of health that impact access to care, contribute to poor health outcomes, and exacerbate health disparities — does not have adequate space to work. A basement renovation will create six shared office cubicles and three private offices for the department.

Since COVID-19, NCFHC has deployed a greater use of telemedicine and dictation for its providers. The change in service offering and use of dictation has resulted in the need for more private space for providers to work. The project will allow for smaller provider office spaces as opposed to one large open provider office.

“Telehealth is a wonderful opportunity; COVID forced many health care providers to do that, everybody’s kind of gone through their learning curve, they’re pretty good at it,” Mrs. Fallon said. “We’re using it through our school systems and part of our renovation will allow our providers to have more private space to do telehealth in.”

NCFHC has focused heavily in the last year on meeting the primary care needs of its service area and as a result recruited two new physicians in 2020 and 2021, a pediatrician and a duly boarded pediatrician and internal medicine physician. The Family Practice Department space does not have enough exam rooms to adequately meet the needs of its growing team.

The department’s expansion will add 1,700 square feet to the north end of the main campus building with five new exam rooms, a new patient bathroom, a new provider office, a new shared office for clinical support staff, a new staff bathroom, and an outside carport for testing.

The project will also include 900 square feet of renovations in the current clinical area to convert a storage room into a sixth exam room; modify a current exam room into a clean supply and STAT lab; modify the current shared provider office into three separate offices; and split a large office into two offices for clinical staff.

Lastly, the project will include renovations of 1,450 square feet of space in the basement of the main campus to create additional office space for the Quality & Population Health Department. The project includes the purchase of new clinical equipment and exam room furniture.

A request for proposals for contract bids will be sent out by the end of the year. A contract decision is expected in January, and construction should begin in the spring of 2022. The project would wrap up by the end of next summer. HOLT Architects P.C. is the architect for the project.

The NCFHC serves about 15,000 individuals within Jefferson and Lewis counties. The Children’s Clinic started out with one clinic in 1971. In 2012, the Children’s Clinic became a federally qualified health care center, and from then on, has been able to provide services to entire families, Mrs. Fallon said.

Now, the NCFHC is comprised of four health centers — two in Watertown, one in LeRay and one in Lowville. It also has school-based sites within the Watertown city and South Jefferson school districts. Mrs. Fallon said the center also has six or seven other dental-only sites that run from Alexandria Bay all the way to South Lewis school.

“Having a 50th anniversary is pretty darn amazing,” Mrs. Fallon said. “We’re very proud that we have a community health center here in Watertown, and that we’ve been able to survive for the 50 years — not only survive, but really thrive and expand in the services that we’re able to provide to the community.”

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