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This file photo from April 2019 shows doctors Jill (left) and Mark DeVries. The couple opened a medical practice, Bethlehem Direct Care, on March 18, 2019.

When Mark and Jill DeVries opened their medical practice in Bethlehem in 2019, they didn’t expect to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the business during a pandemic.

The couple began practicing medicine in Alexander County in the 1990s. They opened their own practice, Bethlehem Direct Care, in March 2019.

Their practice operates as direct primary care, where patients pay a monthly fee to see a physician for checkups, tests, colds and other needs rather than a traditional doctor's office setup where the patient uses insurance.

Bethlehem Direct Care serves roughly 400 patients from the region. Since early March, Jill DeVries said patients have been concerned about COVID-19.

“Most patients we have seen have been more concerned with picking up germs or catching the virus, and then giving it to other family members,” Jill DeVries said. “This is an area that is big on multi-generational care, so many of our patients have worried about going to work or the grocery store and bringing the germs back to their elderly family members who they care for.”

The DeVries give their patients guidelines similar to those that the CDC has offered from the get-go. “One of our main goals is to calm their fears,” Jill DeVries said. “We tell them the basics: wash your hands a lot, don’t go out in public if it’s not essential — and if you do go out, avoid touching things and sanitize.”

She added that she gives patients a list of things to sanitize after an essential trip. “Steering wheels, surfaces in the home, door knobs, light switches, cellphones” she listed. “Another thing we stress is try to not touch your face.”

When Jill DeVries began thinking about the "don’t touch your face" precaution, she thought she had that under control. “I didn’t really think that I touched my face that much anyway, but then I read an article that put it a different way: Be aware of when you touch your face, and try not to do it.

“After I read that, I started noticing when I would touch my face, and it was a lot more often than I thought,” Jill DeVries admitted. “Thinking of it that way has helped me, so maybe it will help others, too.”

Since Bethlehem Direct Care is a smaller practice, the DeVries have been able to practice some in-house social distancing. “We still have some patients coming in for appointments, but we are spacing appointments 15 minutes apart so we have time to sanitize rooms, surfaces, doorknobs,” Jill DeVries said.

The DeVries are taking extra precautions when seeing patients who have symptoms of COVID-19, the flu or pneumonia. “We ask that patients who have symptoms to call us before they come,” Jill DeVries said. The couple has been communicating regularly with patients over the phone, texting and emailing.

Jill DeVries said the North Carolina Department of Health has advised that if a patient reports mild symptoms, they should stay home. “If your symptoms are mild, the best thing is to treat the symptoms and just stay home,” Jill DeVries said. “(Patients) can stop home isolation seven days after symptoms started so long as they are feeling better, and have not had fever for at least 72 hours without any fever-reducing medicine.”

“If symptoms worsen, we ask our patients to contact us for further guidance,” she said.

She said the CDC Symptom Checker online can help give patients more guidance, too.

“Only call 911 or go to the ER (emergency room) if (you) are having significant trouble breathing, like if (you) can't speak in full sentences or walk to the bathroom, have chest pain or pressure, or if (you) are feeling confused,” Jill DeVries said.

If a patient’s symptoms don’t line up with COVID-19, Jill DeVries said they can still be seen at the Bethlehem practice. “We can either go out to their car to do nasal swabs or use the outdoor exam room,” she said.

The outdoor exam room is located on a veranda attached to the practice’s building. If a patient has symptoms of COVID-19, the flu or pneumonia, Mark DeVries will administer nasal swabs and do a basic exam.

“Dr. Mark will wear PPE (personal protective equipment) while examining someone with symptoms; we call it ‘suiting up,’” Jill DeVries said. She added that they have not seen a critical shortage of PPE supplies.

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