Pediatrician Dr. Philip Williams works at his laptop, helping lead the charge by Mariposa Community Health Center to implement telemedicine/telehealth at local schools preparing to start on-site instruction.

When local students finally return to campus, they’ll be able to talk directly to a health professional at Mariposa Community Health Center when they’re not feeing well, thanks to a new telemedicine program in the works.

During a virtual meeting on Monday, MCHC pediatrician Dr. Philip Williams said that by the time the pandemic came around, the health center was already gearing up for the future with telemedicine/telehealth for its patients. The next step in this evolution, particularly during a viral outbreak, is deploying the technology to local schools as they prepare to reopen for on-site learning.

To that end, it was announced during Monday’s session that Nogales High School and Rio Rico High School will be “beta” sites for the program. The meeting was hosted by Alfredo Velasquez, Santa Cruz County schools superintendent, and MCHS, with 34 participants representing the County Health Services Department and local public and private schools.

But there is still uncertainty when schools will open for in-person instruction, since Santa Cruz County has not met a key metric recommended by state health officials to safely return to in-person instruction. That recommendation is that test positivity rates be below 7 percent for the preceding two weeks. But according to Fernando Parra, superintendent at the Nogales Unified School District, statistics indicate that the county stood at 14.4 percent during the two weeks leading up to Aug. 6. Some school districts’ officials said they would require two weeks from the time they are notified to reopen for on-site services to prepare for the students.

Dr. Eladio Pereira, chief medical officer at MCHC, said that delaying in-school teaching is actually “welcomed” at this point because it alleviates some pressure on the health center and school officials as they line up the necessary pieces.

Williams explained that schools will be asked to provide an area with a computer with video capabilities hard-wired to an ethernet cable. A workflow for setting up appointments and patient information is in the works. Digital peripherals such as stethoscopes will help expand remote diagnostic capabilities down the road, he said.

Some site visits have already occurred and are continuing to provide schools’ staff with an overview of the program and to check for space accommodations. Also, an official working agreement between the clinic and schools is being drafted.

Melisa Lunderville, assistant superintendent of student services for the Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District, said in an email that: “The ability for our staff and family to obtain competent and reliable medical care while reducing wait time and absence from school or work has obvious benefits.”

Crystal Alvarez, lead nurse for Nogales Unified School District, also sees the prospect of remote health care as an important resource.

“Telehealth will allow our students to get medical attention and therefore guide our nursing staff on patient care,” she said.

Williams and SCVUSD Superintendent David Verdugo said that both children and adults can be affected by anxiety and even depression fueled by isolation and other factors brought on by the pandemic. An added benefit of the telemedicine/telehealth program is that virtual visits with medical personnel may help identify any such issues and lead to referrals to behavioral health specialists.

The billing process for the school telehealth program is still being worked out, though officials note that there have been temporary provisions made for reimbursement for telehealth during the pandemic.

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