On a 5-0 vote, Wyoming County Board of Education members reinstated a memorandum of understanding with the Tug River Health Association during a special meeting Monday evening.

The partnership between the two entities has been a source of controversy for the past three meetings.

“I want to apologize to the school board and Mrs. (Deirdre) Cline (county schools superintendent) and her staff,” board member Mike Davis said prior to the vote Monday. “I really missed the boat on this decision...

“I made a bad sports call and cost us the ball game.”

Davis said he believed the whole issue could have been avoided had Dr. Joanna Bailey, chief medical officer of Tug River's Catterson Health Center in Pineville, been at the Aug. 31 meeting to address the board.

The controversy began when Davis said, during the Aug. 31 meeting, that the Tug River Health Association's mobile health unit project had evolved into something other than what he had voted to approve earlier in the year and it had begun to impact private businesses in the county.

The board originally voted to allow Tug River's mobile medical unit to serve children in the Huff Consolidated, Herndon Consolidated, and Road Branch areas, where medical services are not readily available.

The mobile unit was to provide immunizations and wellness checks, Davis explained Aug. 31, and the market was supposed to be so small it would not impact private businesses.

Davis, however, received several phone calls concerning the project, telling him that the project had been expanded into Oceana and Mullens, where services are readily available, and that adults were also being treated on the mobile unit.

One of the callers, Davis said, had indicated they were just beginning a small practice and the mobile unit was impacting that business.

Davis invited the callers to attend the Aug. 31 board meeting to talk with the entire board, but they didn't appear.

However, three doctors from Family Healthcare Associates did attend to talk with the board.

Dr. Mike Muscari told the board that Family Healthcare's six offices, three of which are in Wyoming County, administer tens of thousands of immunizations each year and are ready and available to provide whatever services children in Wyoming County need. The offices are also required by law, he said, to treat every one despite their ability to pay.

Muscari said the group could compete with anybody, but they would ask for a level playing field.

“I'd love to have access to your facilities and your resources,” he told board members.

Set up at area schools, the Tug River mobile unit schedule was also announced through the schools' numerous social media outlets, automated call system, and the information app – all of which are routinely used to keep students and parents informed of school activities.

Cline emphasized the only objective of the project was to provide needed services to children, nothing more.

Then, on Sept. 8, Dr. Bailey addressed the board, telling them that she had grown up in Pineville, graduated from Wyoming County East High, then went to WVU Medical School. She had returned to Wyoming County to provide health care to families, like her own, that could not afford it.

Tug River is a safety net organization that provides high quality health care despite an individual's income level, ability to pay, or lack of insurance, she said.

The organization is a non-profit, has an unpaid board of directors, serves both Wyoming and McDowell counties, and has 59 employees, Bailey said. Of the organization's six centers, one is located in Pineville.

The organization has a school-based health center in each of McDowell County's two high schools. The centers treat a few students each day, she said.

Additionally, health center staff can – and have – identified students with untreated mental illnesses on the verge of suicide, getting them to immediate psychiatric services, she said.

The staff also identify and treat previously untreated illnesses and injuries in students, she said, students who would otherwise not receive treatment.

The mobile unit services provided in the Oceana and Mullens areas, which seem to have set off the controversy, were a one-time service, she told board members Sept. 8, to help immunize students before schools opened again.

As for the adults supposedly treated during the mobile clinics, Bailey said, some 18-year-olds were treated, but all of them were students. No one older than 18 was treated.

A total of 61 patients were seen during the six mobile clinic locations, she said.

The major focus of the clinics was immunizing students who could not get to a doctor's office, she said.

Transportation, for a variety of reasons, seems to be a major deterrent for many students receiving medical services, according to officials.

In some instances, parents have not been taking their children to doctors out of fear of the Covid-19 pandemic, officials said.

The county Health Department was also concerned that, in the midst of the pandemic, the staff would not be unable to administer needed immunizations prior to the start of school.

As of Sept. 8 (the first day of school), there were still 84 students on the eastern side of the county that required immunizations before they could return to class, according to John Henry, student services director.

On the western side last week, there had been about 20 students who needed immunizations.

By Monday (Sept. 14), the number had fallen to the single digits on both sides of the county, Henry told board members.

The mobile clinic uses school locations in order to use the schools' wireless service to access the state's immunization database, Bailey said. Accessing the database prevents students from receiving an immunization they may have already had, she explained.

During their meeting Monday, board members also briefly discussed what activities might be announced through the school system's automated call system, which can call all families in the system, or those limited to one school or area, depending on the situation.

Board member Richie Walker said the board needs to set parameters as to what can be promoted through the call system.

Davis said it could be limited to agencies that have a memorandum of understanding with the board.

“We're not frivolous with robo calls,” Cline told board members.

Families received several phone calls over the weekend concerning an extended deadline to re-enroll students in school for in-person instruction rather than staying in the virtual school, provided by the state Department of Education.

“Overkill was our friend,” Cline said of those phone calls because officials wanted to be certain all parents knew they could re-enroll their children.

After the first week of virtual school, Henry said Monday, about half the participating students had been re-enrolled in county schools. The number participating in virtual classes had fallen into the low 400s, he said.

Cline said they had used the call system to promote the mobile health unit schedule because it was a service for children, to help get them immunized prior to school.

Bailey said Monday Tug River only has one mobile unit and it is shared between the two counties.

The current schedule puts the unit in Wyoming County about once a week, she said.

Bailey said she'd love to see Tug River's services grow in Wyoming County and reach more children.

In a related matter, board member Allan Stiltner said he'd received a call from a student who is afraid of getting the virus and afraid the virus would cause his/her death.

Bailey said she hoped school counselors are prepared for student anxiety resulting from the virus.

She said her experience thus far had been that young students are nervous about wearing the masks for fear they couldn't breathe.

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