Health center pivots to provide services through pandemic

Dr. Elizabeth Miller
Dr. Elizabeth Miller (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

At the onset of the COVID–19 pandemic, the UC Santa Cruz Student Health Center had to quickly change everything it was doing while remaining open for students.

That meant the launch of a new telehealth program, determination, acquisition of protective personal equipment for the staff, and constant education on the new virus.

Dr. Elizabeth Miller, the center’s medical director, said she had never before experienced this much change at once in her career. Fortunately, she said she and most of the center’s staff had trained their whole lives for this type of situation.

“You’re never completely prepared,” she said. “But all of us here, we very quickly knew what had to be done to maintain clinic safety.”

Miller said the health center had been talking for some time about the need to start a telehealth service but the pandemic spurred action. She credited Dr. Sandy Lai, the center’s associate medical director, and Frank Dang, clinical information systems analyst, for getting the program going – they purchased Google Chromebooks, set up templates for the medical providers and got everyone up to speed on how to use Zoom.

“It’s been so well received that we’ll always offer Zoom appointments, because the students really like them,” Miller said.

The pandemic also led the health center to reorganize its space for the few students who did need in-person appointments. The center rerouted how patients walked through the clinic so they would avoid others, and converted a conference room into waiting room for those who were sick.

A big issue was determining what personal protective equipment to get and how much to get, Miller said. The center also had to train staff how to protect themselves and patients. Everyone started using the new protocols of wearing masks in the building, socially distancing, using hand sanitizer, and washing hands more frequently. To date, no clinical staff have tested positive for the COVID–19 virus.

The next major hurdle was to work with the UC Santa Cruz Molecular Diagnostic Lab to create a parking lot clinic where people could be tested for the COVID–19 virus. Eventually other testing sites were established around the campus. Since March 2020, the university has had just over 200 positive tests and the vast majority were from symptomatic patients. “I think it’s really good,” Miller said. “Our positivity rate is very low. It has always been lower than the county.”

Looking back over the last year, Miller said one of the biggest challenges was staying updated on COVID–19 regulations and advice.

“Information comes from everywhere and a lot of times is conflicting,” she said, adding that state, county or other changing regulations have caused revisions. “Sometimes, Monday we will start a new policy and by Thursday it’s changed again.”

The pandemic has shown the kindness and thoughtfulness of the campus community, she said, praising students who have taken seriously masking and socially distancing.

“Every student that I have talked with and in the beginning, I talked to every student who was positive, they’ve also taken it seriously and have been concerned with housemates, roommates, parents and grandparents,” Miller said. “Some have even apologized for coming to the clinic and potentially getting staff sick.”

Miller is proud that UC Santa Cruz as a community has risen to the challenge of times.

“Everyone has their role and has done a great job,” she said. “I’m really proud of my staff here and I’m so proud of the students and so honored to work in this university with its wonderful administrators and leaders.”