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Family owned medical practice may be forced to close amid pandemic

The Superior Walk-In & Family Health office in Marquette is shown. Business owners worry the coronavirus outbreak may force them to close temporarily. (Courtesy photo)

MARQUETTE — As lifelong medical professionals, the Olson family wants nothing more than to be there in this time of need for the Marquette community.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic may cause them to have to temporarily close their medical facilities.

“Everybody is staying at home,” said Dr. Kurt Olson, a physician with Superior Walk-In & Family Health, located in Marquette. “People are not doing anything, so our primary care business has dropped significantly.”

The business, he said, is located in a rural, “under-served” area, and it relies on services like annual wellness physicals for income. Many such services have been postponed because of the pandemic.

His wife, Rondi Olson, a registered nurse and the company’s business manager, said their business and financial income has dropped by 60 percent in the last few weeks, because people would rather recover from any illnesses at home rather than go to a medical facility during a pandemic.

But the other 40 percent — the people still coming in with broken bones, injuries, pneumonia or strep throat — need Superior Walk-In to stay open.

“We still have people that really, really need urgent care and primary care,” he said. “We may be the difference between them staying out of the hospital and being exposed to a high-level infection.”

The Olsons have a facility in Munising and two in Marquette. The communities need them, Rondi said, because they’ve been testing about six people a week for COVID-19. In fact, the first positive case in Marquette County was tested at their office.

“This person had some travel risk,” Kurt Olson said. “We didn’t expect to get a positive test, but it was.”

That positive test was March 17, and since then, they haven’t had any more positive cases at their facilities. Marquette County’s overall count is up to 18 cases as of today. The Olsons now have drive-up testing available at their facilities.

In order to keep serving the community, they’ve applied for a loan through the Payroll Protection Program, part of a coronavirus relief stimulus bill. They recently had to close their location in Marquette near the Northern Michigan University campus, because all of the college students vacated that area.

Rondi Olson said if they don’t get the loan, they might have to consider temporarily closing all their doors by May 1. They’ve also had to use personal funds to help meet payroll, she said.

Closing would be a very difficult decision for a family with so much history helping sick and injured people. Kurt Olson’s brother, Dr. Mark Olson, also serves as a physician with the company, but their father, Walter Olson, is the one who started it. Walter Olson, now 95 years old, ran the Munising office as a primary care physician for 50 years.

“He carried around one of those doctor bags and did home visits,” Rondi Olson said.

At the time, Kurt Olson and a late business partner, Dr. Brian Helmer, ran the Marquette office. In 2004, the year Walter retired, Helmer died from cancer. Kurt and Rondi Olson merged the two companies, and now their children, Lizzy and Karl, do billing and bookkeeping for the company. Their son, Ryan, also plans to join the business once he graduates from nurse practitioner school.

In all the years of practice, they’ve never seen anything like COVID-19. Kurt Olson said he had hoped — rather than believed — that their community would be able to handle a large outbreak.

“Marquette doesn’t have the capability of handling a pandemic,” he said. “There is a potential lack of health care professionals, a potential lack of ventilators and a potential lack of ICU beds. The fear is that the system will be overwhelmed.”

For now, they’re just trying to keep in touch with patients through telemedicine, but insurance companies won’t allow them to bill for virtual or over-the-phone wellness exams, even though over-the-phone health care measures can be limiting.

“Telemedicine works OK for some cases, but it doesn’t replace the in-person doctor visit,” Mark Olson said.

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