FRONT ROYAL — At a medical office where close relationships are a tradition, Front Royal Family Practice is facing new and challenging changes every day.

The hallways smell like cleaning supplies, additional sanitizer dispensers have been installed along the walls and barriers keep patients at a safe distance from medical staff. And yet, on a recent morning at 140 W. 11th St., around every corner staff members were smiling at one another.

“Like everyone else, we’ve had to make huge changes,” said Dr. J. William Kerns, who founded the practice in 1978. But precautions go both ways, he said. “We can’t take care of people if we don’t take care of ourselves.”

Many changes at the family practice include the sort of new normal that people around the community have been seeing since the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping around the world caused the closure of schools around Virginia in mid-March.

Normally the office would see 150 to 200 patients a day, said Dr. Thomas Ball, head of operations for the office’s COVID-19 effort. Now, he said he sees about half that number as the office urges people to use telemedicine whenever possible.

Instead of walk-ins, he said the office has been “swamped with” phone calls and texts as well as web messages through its Patient Portal.

Telemedicine is working out well, though, Kerns said, and it’s “turned out better than I ever thought.”

The office employs seven full-time physicians, 15 physicians in training and a couple of teaching physicians plus three nurse practitioners and a physician’s assistant.

Ball also praised his office staff of managers, billing and IT personnel for their tremendous courage and willingness to work during the pandemic.

“It’s a village in here,” Kerns agreed.

A move to virtual appointments normally would have taken the better part of a year, Ball said, but they essentially ramped it up in a week.

The office website has also been used much more in the last few weeks than it was only a month ago, Ball said.

Learning how to protect against COVID-19 is a busy process that Kerns said the office started doing in late February.

Information feels like it changes at “warp speed,” he said. “It’s just a huge learning curve and it never quits.” 

Patients who arrive with symptoms of illness are guided through a door where staff in protective gear can assess if they need a referral to the region’s respiratory screening clinic at Rutherford Crossing north of Winchester or to Winchester Medical Center, which offers intensive care services for people with more severe symptoms of COVID-19.

Ball and Kerns said it’s unlikely that the virus has been in Warren County for long and that the office has not had significant exposure so far.

“We have not hit the peak certainly around here,” Ball said.

Despite precautions and concerns, though, Ball encourages patients to keep setting up annual appointments and continue other preventive care.

“We think that this will be the marathon, not the sprint,” he said.

Though anticipating the long haul, both doctors look forward to continuing the close relationships around the community that their family practice has fostered over the years.

Recently, an anonymous resident dropped off 40 cloth face masks for office staff, Kerns recalled, and a local business called planning to donate hand sanitizer.

“A huge part of family medicine is the relationships,” Kerns said.

“I sorely miss the handshakes and the hugs. [They’re] my friends as well as my patients.”

For more information, call the office at 540-631-3700.

Contact Josette Keelor at jkeelor@nvdaily.com