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Landlords told COVID-19 clinic to suspend all work immediately due to safety concerns

Landlords told the clinic — run by doctors from Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody and New Westminster — to halt work immediately because of safety concerns.

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A COVID-19 screening clinic run by Tri-City and New Westminster doctors is under pressure after the landlord allegedly called on doctors to halt work at the facility.

Kristen Ash, the executive director of the Fraser Northwest Divisions of Family Doctors Practice Society (FNWD), said the owners of the property have confronted workers and accused them of risking the spread of the virus to other tenants.  

"The wife will come every day and scream at the staff saying that they need to close, that they're infecting the whole building," Ash said.

FNWD represents 53 family practices, 433 family physicians and two hospitals across the Tri-Cities and New Westminster. It helped set up the clinic after personal protective equipment ran dry at doctors’ offices around the region, forcing many to shutter their doors to those exhibiting COVID-19-like symptoms.

Located across the street from Royal Columbian Hospital, the clinic was opened as a stop-gap to funnel those patients to a centralized, safe place where staff are equipped to deal with the virus. In combination with a new virtual triaging system, the COVID-19 testing centre has been a lifeline to over 6,000 people and has tested hundreds of frontline medical workers, first responders and people linked to outbreak clusters.

Now, the future of the clinic is uncertain as the tenants pressure staff to stop their work. FNWD said it has submitted complaints to Fraser Health and the city of New Westminster, saying the landlords' actions are discriminatory and contrary to the law. 

“This is a public health crisis. The landlord cannot tell the leaseholder that they cannot see people with COVID in this clinic,” Ash told The Tri-City News. “They’re upset. They’re being bullied to move.”

In an email to The Tri-City News, the landlords of the Columbia Medical Building rejected allegations that they tried to evict the walk-in-clinic from the building. After consulting other clinics in the building — including 30 physicians — they said their other leaseholders are concerned patients would be put at risk.

“At no time have we asked the walk-in-clinic to move out of the medical building; in fact, we appreciate and cherish having the walk-in-clinic in our building,” wrote the landlords in an email.

Before the pandemic, leaseholders Dr. Lydia Waterson and Belinda Gronen, operated the facility as a hybrid clinic, serving both walk-in patients and regulars. Having a licence to operate a medical clinic means the leaseholders already had to demonstrate the clinic was a safe place to see patients.

“The clinic is not doing anything different than what they did prior to the Covid-19 outbreak or prior to us supporting them with best practices including a physician who has worked around the world with the WHO,” wrote Ash in a later email, referring to the World Health Organization.

Dr. Ali Okhowat of Coquitlam prepares a pharyngeal swab kit at a COVID-19 clini
Dr. Ali Okhowat of Coquitlam prepares a pharyngeal swab kit at a COVID-19 clinic in New Westminster. Okhowat, who has played a key role in launching the clinic, says they have been swamped with patients since it opened March 16. Fraser North Division of Family Practice opened the testing site so doctors wouldn't have to do COVID-19 swabs in their own offices where they are short of personal protective equipment, such as gloves and masks. - Stefan Labbé

Clinics around the province are set up to screen everything from influenza to COVID-19. The only thing that has changed, said Ash, are the gowns, gloves and masks worn by staff, and several extra precautions around hand hygiene.

“It’s always been done in a family clinic,” said Ash.

In an interview with the president of Doctors of BC, Coquitlam’s Kathleen Ross said all of the 36 divisions of family practice across the province have rolled out some sort of centralized testing facility to ensure there’s enough personal protective equipment to go around. Some of those are in hospitals and others are in medical buildings similar to the Columbian Medical Building where the clinic operates.

Any danger posed by COVID-19 patients has been mitigated by strict safety measures, said Dr. Ross.

“The Fraser health medical health officer had a look at the clinic and found they were doing all the appropriate precautions,” said Dr. Ross. 

That includes keeping people in their vehicles until it’s their turn to come in; bringing them in through a separate entrance, mask on; and keeping the number of patients in the facility at any given time to a minimum. 

“We know that this virus is spread by droplets… it’s not airborne,” said Ross. “This shouldn’t be a risk.” 

The Tri-City News requested an interview with Fraser Health officials but, at the time of publication, had not yet received an official response.

Despite the landlords statement saying they “cherish having the walk-in-clinic in our building,” emails obtained by The Tri-City News paint a different picture.

The clinic has been under fire from the landlords since it opened March 16, according to correspondence between the landlords on one side and Ash, Dr. Waterson and Fraser Health on the other. In one March 17 email, a woman who identifies herself as the property manager of the building calls on all work in the clinic to be “suspended effective immediately.” In a second letter dated March 27, a building manager writes that other tenants of the Columbia Medical Building would also like to see the clinic evicted.

“Our parking lot at ground level is being offered by the landlord to house your clinic, as long as you conduct no further work inside the building,” writes Kamil Lotfali. “You will be able to set up a tent and meet cars in the parking lot.”

But even that concession, according to Dr. Ross, falls short. While drive-by testing centres have been successful in some cases, they don't match the kind of work done at the COVID-19 screening clinic in opposite Royal Columbian Hospital, said Dr. Ross.

“This is taking things one-step further, actually evaluating people who have respiratory symptoms,” she said. “To evaluate people in the parking lot would not be practical for the type of work they’re doing.”

“Our clinic is a shining example of what can happen.”

Read more of our COVID-19 coverage here.

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