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The UC Davis-affiliated student-run clinics have re-opened to patients.

COVID-19 had forced their closure for about five months, but a student-driven effort aimed at resuming the much-needed patient-care services resulted in new safety protocols under a pilot program that consolidates the clinics at a central location.

Students began caring for patients last weekend at Shifa Clinic near downtown Sacramento.

“It’s so great to be back,” said Desiree Rafizadeh, a senior at UC Davis who is among the regular volunteers at Shifa, which serves a diverse, uninsured population including South Asians and Muslims. “For a lot of our patients, this is their only chance of getting health care, so being here and having the clinic open and being able to see these patients is really rewarding, especially during this difficult time.”

Shifa and the 11 other student-run clinics were shuttered for safety reasons between late winter and early spring, as the coronavirus pandemic was spreading rapidly in and around Sacramento.

The goal of the pilot is to open a single clinic location slowly and safely to treat patients who need to be seen in person. If all goes well, more clinics could re-open using the same safety protocols, said Amy Jouan, director of student and administrative services in the Office of Medical Education at the UC Davis School of Medicine.

The clinics have long been a lifeline for immigrants, refugees and anyone who doesn’t have health insurance.

“When the shutdown happened, a lot of our patients were at a huge disadvantage, and the fact that COVID-19 was hitting marginalized communities even more put them at a further disadvantage,” UC Davis medical student Mustafa Shakir recalled. “Now these people can’t get care anywhere, and the only source of their care just got shut down.”

The clinics eventually turned to telehealth appointments for patients who had access to the video technology.

But a group of student leaders grew concerned that many patients were being left out.

Students take the lead in re-opening effort

“What we wanted to do is provide care to people who don’t have the access to those technologies that make telemedicine successful, which is a large population of the patients that we see,” said Joshua Campista, a second-year student at the UC Davis School of Medicine.

Campista, Shakir and two other colleagues – Neha Mannikar and Omar Escobedo, all four of whom are affiliated with Clinica Tepati, which serves mostly Latinos – immersed themselves in learning about coronavirus and brainstormed ideas on what it would take to re-open.

They decided it would be safest if all patients and student volunteers converged at a single clinic.

Shifa was the logical choice to reopen during a pandemic because the converted apartment on V Street is owned by the student-run clinic organization, which allows for greater flexibility when dealing with logistical matters.

The group of student leaders took the initiative to develop a protocol based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization and UC Davis Health.

They compiled a proposal and presented it to the inter-clinic committee, which is the organizational body of the student-run clinics. The committee agreed with the protocol, which included mandatory face coverings and temperature screenings of all volunteers, patients and professional medical staff.

Next, they shared the plan with the clinic’s medical directors, then the School of Medicine leadership, which gave approval.

Finally, another medical student leader, Armand Garewal, a liaison between Shifa and the committee, helped with last-minute preparations to ensure a smooth opening.

Five months of work comes to fruition

On Saturday morning, shortly before sunrise, Shakir inserted the key into the front door of Shifa and re-opened the clinic. He walked into the waiting room, where chairs were covered with a thin layer of dust, to begin preparations for the first of six patients.

“Today is the product of five months of work. It’s kind of been crazy,” Shakir said, admitting he had “butterflies” because he hadn’t treated a patient since around March.

Physicians interested in volunteering as preceptors for student run clinics should contact Mustafa Shakir.

Campista, speaking through a blue UC Davis Health mask, expressed the importance of the clinic re-opening.

“One thing that flies under the radar is that these are real clinics. These are real patients. These are real community members. These are student-run clinics and are sometimes billed as a learning environment, and more of an academic environment,” he said.

“But I see them, and my colleagues see them, as an actual medical center where we are helping members of the community working on the ground, helping people stay healthy throughout their lives.”