Cleveland health centers are working overtime to screen a large influx of Afghan refugees

Joannah Lynch (right), director of refugee services at Neighborhood Family Practice in Cleveland, speaks with an interpreter during a domestic exam clinic for Afghan refugees at the health center Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022.Lynch says the health care center is administering more exams than ever before due to an influx in refugees this year. [Neighborhood Family Practice]
Joannah Lynch (right), director of refugee services at Neighborhood Family Practice in Cleveland, speaks with an interpreter during a domestic exam clinic for Afghan refugees at the health center Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022. Lynch says the health care center is administering more exams than ever before due to an influx in refugees this year. [Neighborhood Family Practice]
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An unprecedented number of refugees and immigrants from Afghanistan have arrived in Cleveland due to the ongoing crisis there after the U.S. withdrew its troops last year. Now, local federally qualified health care centers that conduct refugee health screenings have had to ramp up efforts to deal with the influx of patients.

At least 600 refugees have resettled in the area thus far – much more than the 200 that were initially expected, according to Joe Cimperman, president of Global Cleveland. 

Neighborhood Family Practice, which handles screenings for Cleveland refugees, has had to hold clinics on the weekends for the first time ever, said Joannah Lynch, who oversees the organization's refugee health services.

“We did have a dip in numbers over the past few years, and then a huge explosion this year,” she said. “We’re used to screening about 500 to 600 refugees in a year. For fiscal year 2022, we’re expecting to screen at least 1,200, so at least double what we are used to.”

In addition to the 600 coming from Afghanistan, Neighborhood Family Practice is also seeing an increase in immigrants from other countries. That’s because the Biden administration raised the cap on refugees to 125,000 this year, Lynch added.

In 2016, the U.S. permitted 110,000 people, and that number decreased every year during the Trump presidency, she said.

“We realized that our typical model was going to be overwhelmed by the number of people who needed to be screened,” Lynch said.

To keep up with the influx of Afghan refugees, Lynch and her team had to schedule Saturday clinics in January. These individuals had previously been staying in U.S. military bases before being placed in their new cities.

Staffing has been challenging, Lynch said, so some employees are volunteering their time and local students have also stepped up to help.

“We’re also simultaneously responding to the pandemic, so staffing has been a challenge,” Lynch said. “The same people who are needed to test people for COVID and vaccinate people and take care of sick people during this pandemic are the very same people that we would need to administer these health exams, so it’s a lot of creative thinking and problem solving.”

The health care center also hired an additional interpreter this year to help communicate with the immigrants, she said.

The domestic health screenings include vaccinations, bloodwork, lab tests and health history questionnaires, she said. The exams are not required for newcomers, but most partake in the clinics as a way to access health care long-term in their new home, Lynch added. They must pass a thorough health screening before they are even permitted to enter the U.S., she said.

After the domestic screening, refugees are encouraged to establish primary care with Neighborhood Family Practice or are referred to other primary care providers, she said.

“People are kind of on their own in terms of finding ongoing health care after that, which can be really difficult on families,” Lynch said. “We have people establish with us for primary care, which is really unique and really successful with helping people have good health outcomes.”

Forty Afghan newcomers were screened over the course of two Saturdays this month, Lynch said. There will be additional screenings in February, and officials will assess whether more clinics are needed after that point, she added.

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