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Meet Flo, an old Winnebago delivering COVID-19 tests, flu shots and food to students in need

In Alamogordo, New Mexico, Florence Nightingale is known for being a bit cantankerous.

She’s an older, bigger lady and when she stops working, she often needs some gentle coaxing before she’ll start again. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed her to the brink, and working so much overtime depleted her tank. She spent the holiday break getting some much-needed pampering.

Flo, as her friends call her, is a 40-foot Winnebago turned into a mobile nurse's station. She's Alamogordo Public Schools' most lauded health care provider, purchased with CARES funding. 

Her most frequent passenger? School nurse Lisa Patch, who is also the health services director for the rural school district just 80 miles from the Mexican border.

Patch, who has been working in health care for 23 years, had the wild idea to turn the old motorhome into a force to fight coronavirus and help keep kids healthy. So far, it's working.

Lias Patch is pictured at an Alamogordo Public Schools health services event in Alamogordo on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021.

When the coronavirus pandemic closed US schools in March, administrators scrambled to get students supplies for at-home education: computers, desks, Wi-Fi access. Patch, who works in a district comprised almost entirely of Title I schools, serves a population that’s 42% Hispanic and has numerous students being raised primarily by elderly relatives, started problem-solving for how to deliver health care to nearly 5,600 students.

School nurses, Patch argues, are some of the most essential workers in education, because they’re “the original form of affordable health care.” They are the access point for students and families when it comes to preventative care, setting up doctor appointments and connecting families with health resources. They monitor kids' behavior and know the warning signs of abuse. School nurses do far more, Patch said, than handout bandages and ice packs.

So if students couldn’t get to nurses, the nurses would figure out a way to get to students. Enter Flo.

Her staff loved the idea.

Lydia Mireles receives a hearing test at an Alamogordo Public Schools health services event in Alamogordo on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021.

“Everybody was so positive when we heard,” said Debbie Graham, a nurse at Buena Vista Elementary. “But when Flo puttered into the parking lot I did wonder, ‘What the heck did Lisa just do?’”

Flo isn’t perfect, or glamorous. But she gets the job done. The district put an additional $2,500 into her to repair plumbing, get working generators and replace the carburetor. She can be finicky though, and has stumped multiple mechanics around town. Patch jokes that they have to time their routes perfectly to avoid red lights because stopping and starting is next to impossible.

Lias Patch and her team are pictured at an Alamogordo Public Schools health services event in Alamogordo on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021.

They resurfaced her countertops over the holiday break, and splurged to update her exterior paint. But necessities come before cosmetic upgrades: One of Patch's first major purchases was a special freezer to store COVID vaccines.

Investing in Flo was 'a matter of life and death'

In less than three months, Flo’s already made an impact. Patch and her nurses administered flu shots to district staff — one teacher continued her virtual instruction while receiving the shot, explaining to students that immunizations were good, safe and normal — and have partnered with local health authorities to help with contact tracing. (That was especially helpful when one of the community's two public health nurses broke her leg and was sidelined for weeks.) They’ve traveled around town distributing food boxes to hungry kids and families, desks to people who need help with a makeshift home classroom, and administered hundreds of COVID tests.

A COVID testing site is set up at an Alamogordo Public Schools health services event in Alamogordo on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021.

“It’s big deal for parents to feel like we’re on their side,” said April Feagan, a health assistant at Sunset Hills Elementary. Taking Flo directly into neighborhoods works because “a lot of them don’t want to let us know they struggle … if we put the help out there first, they don’t have to raise their hand and say, ‘Hey, we do need extra help.’”

An added bonus: Kids asking about Flo's name are also learning about Florence Nightingale, the godmother of modern nursing. “No, she’s not named after Flo from the Progressive commercials."

Someday soon, Patch & Co. hope to not deliver not only COVID vaccines to neighborhoods, but any necessary vaccines for students, from measles to tetanus to polio. That could be a boon for a district that’s mostly low income, where many students and families struggle with transportation issues.

Over the last few years, as various teacher strikes across the U.S. have roiled the education community, many teacher unions have pushed for more school nurses (in some larger districts, one nurse is responsible for multiple schools). Patch says they’re fortunate in Alamogordo to have a nurse, health assistant and counselor present in every school, and believes the community at large benefits from it. Laurie Combe, the president of the National Association of School Nurses, agrees — especially when it comes to vaccines.

“The research shows where school nurses are present, exemptions are much lower and immunizations are up,” Combe said. The means when the COVID vaccine is available to Alamogordo’s general public, they’ll already have relationships with experts who they can turn to with questions, which will be especially important as the anti-vaxxer community works to spread misinformation.

Masks and books are handed out at an Alamogordo Public Schools health services event in Alamogordo on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021.

To Jerrett Perry, the district superintendent, investing in Flo was “a matter of life and death” — the community, not to mention the country, was in crisis and this was one major way to help families in need. That she’s blossomed into a “mystical, amazing concept that really brightens people’s day and increased people’s optimism” is just a bonus, he said.

In the New Year, Patch plans to take Flo back out to neighborhoods and start vision and hearing assessments for every elementary and middle school student. They’ll pass out popsicles with counselors’ contact information printed on the sticks. In late December, Patch got the OK to order a portable dental chair to start dental screenings. Now she’s just got to find a dentist to hop aboard Flo.

Alamogordo Public School officials hope that someday soon, Flo's exterior can be redesigned in a kid-friendly way. The rendering above is what Lisa Patch calls their "dream" scenario.

“Nurses and other heal professionals in schools, for so many years they’ve done so much with so little,” said Colleen Tagle, Alamogordo’s deputy superintendent of operations, who signed off on purchasing Flo. “They get it done because of the will and passion of those nurses. If they were unleashed with some real fundings, all over the U.S., I can only imagine what they could do.”

Long term, Patch imagines Flo serving as a mobile command center anytime there’s a crisis in town. Once the pandemic has passed, she’d like to drive Flo to open houses and registrations to administer vaccines before school starts. Patch views Flo as a community resource, not just a school one. Maybe someday in the future, they’ll have a fleet of Flos, sent out across the state to help students everywhere.