President Marta Meana sent a message to campus on Feb. 28, filled with words and phrases like "COVID-19," "fluid," and "health and well-being."
If there's a series of phrases that will come to elicit a nascent sense of Pavlovian dread in the post-pandemic years to come, those are the ones.
But they weren't inaccurate. The situation really was fluid, and it moved quickly. Information changed day by day, even hour by hour. By the time UNLV students left for spring break the week of March 16, they had no idea that they wouldn't return to campus, or to the educational experience as they'd known it.
But out of the pandemic, UNLV faculty and students have shown not just resilience and adaptability, but the ability to thrive — to rise to the level of crisis, with verve, creativity, and a willingness to make an impact in the fight against the novel coronavirus.
Campus clears out and resources shift
On March 5, the Southern Nevada Health District announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in Nevada. The danger of community spread was still considered low, but UNLV deployed a webpage to keep staff, faculty, and students informed of developments. The protocols were already in place; staff in Student Affairs regularly trained to respond to flu outbreaks, applying the best practices learned in parts of the country where that’s routine.
Over the next two weeks, though, milestones of a changed campus would come at a blistering pace. Study abroad programs were canceled in China and Italy, then everywhere. Spring sports would be played to no crowds, then suspended entirely.
On March 12, with just eight cases in Clark County, Meana announced that most instruction would transition to remote learning by March 23, what would have been the first day back from spring break. Students in residential housing were given the option to remain there or move out and a prorated portion of their room and board returned.
"There's some — not panic — but not calm either," said Marcus Haynes, the vice president of the Residence Hall Association, on March 13. "Everything is kind of topsy turvy. Students are wondering, ‘Should I leave, should I not? What should I do?’"
The pre-med major from Chicago had planned on staying in the residence halls, but on March 17, Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered all non-essential entities to shutter. And UNLV asked students who were able to, to move out of the residence halls by March 21.
Eventually, the population living in the residence halls dropped to 180 — international students, those from distant states like hard-hit Washington and New York, and those who have no other home to go to. They were reassigned one to each suite, so no one had to share a bathroom, and the Dining Commons limited service to take-out only. Students who left, including some who couldn’t travel back to campus to retrieve their belongings, were provided assistance with moving and storage.
The Student Recreation & Wellness Center, Student Union, and Lied Library were closed by March 18. The Student Health Center, Student Counseling and Psychological Services, the Faculty and Staff Treatment Center, Student Wellness Laboratory, and Student Wellness Pharmacy suspended in-person appointments and moved to telehealth operations by March 23.
But the signature experience of students and faculty during the coronavirus interregnum is remote teaching.
Remote learning begins
On March 23, more than 5,000 classes — or 87.5 percent of UNLV's courses — started remote instruction. It was a new frontier for many professors and students alike, and UNLV’s online education and information technology offices mobilized to help both through the sudden, and sometimes rocky, shift.
Chris Stream, director of the School of Public Policy and a driver of online and hybrid education programs in the College of Urban Affairs, saw a chance to inculcate fellow faculty members and students with an appreciation for the unexpected opportunities of remote instruction.
"Teaching online is a little bit art and it's a little bit science," he said. "There is, of course, the dissemination of information, but my faculty and I have really found online education to almost be a creative outlet in some ways. A good online class has to evolve — so we experiment and test things in a live format and then mold that to fit an online experience.
“I believe that through this pain will come an incredible opportunity to rethink why we do things the way we do, and hopefully, universities will become less resistant to change, and instead begin leading change in our communities in a more strategic way. We have the opportunity to really go out and lead the next generation, instead of staying stagnant."
Students in the healthcare fields, too, were forced to take most of their classes online. For school of Medicine, Nursing, and Dental Medicine students early on in their studies, the transition was logical. They would normally have more classroom-focused lectures and activities anyway.
But for those further along, valuable clerkships and clinical time had to be postponed at a time that highlighted the desperate need for trained healthcare professionals in every corner of the globe.
"There's a whole mix of emotions," said Dr. Neil Haycocks, the School of Medicine's interim vice dean of academic affairs and education. "But the students went into medicine to help, to roll up their sleeves and do this stuff. There's a lot of pent up eagerness to get in and put their boots on the ground and get working. There is some anxiety and trepidation, but overall they want to get in there. We're just trying to make that happen in a way that is appropriate."
Fourth-year dental students — originally slated to continue work in the school's clinics to finish procedures patients had scheduled and to help provide emergency dental services to the community — were soon required to stay out of the clinical settings. Dentists are especially at risk of becoming infected, and the school couldn’t justify putting students into such a risky situation before they completed their studies.
“UNLV Dental Medicine Clinics operate and have always operated using personal protective equipment considered as standard operating protocol,” said Dr. Lily T. Garcia, dean of the School of Dental Medicine. “When our clinics limited patient care to screening urgent issues and providing emergency care, the decision was made to rely on licensed residents and faculty; predoctoral dental students are not licensed. This decision also helped mitigate the challenge in managing the precious few N95/KN95 masks available at that time.”
The medical school’s Phase 2 students, who normally would be starting to dive into clinical experiences, had to change their focus. Rather than staggering the clerkships and coursework they are tackling all of the year's classroom work now. That will prepare them to devote their time to clerkships once those opportunities again became available.
Nursing students, too, faced postponing that clinical work that couldn't be done remotely.
“I’m 50 hours short this semester," said nursing master’s student Ally Keefe of her clinical studies. She’s also working at a Reno hospital treating COVID-19 patients. "[UNLV] created some online modules and, of course, I appreciate the professors who work on trying to get us something. But nothing’s like being in the clinic. Nothing compares to that.”
Phase 3 medical students — those closest to finishing their studies — who already had completed their clerkships were able to get into the fight directly, thanks to efforts happening at UNLV Medicine.
A crucial link to the community
Testing for coronavirus has been a bottleneck in the fight nationwide. Dr. Michael Gardner helped alleviate some of that pressure in Las Vegas.
He is CEO of UNLV Medicine — the clinical arm of the School of Medicine — and led efforts to establish a curbside testing site at the clinic's West Charleston Boulevard location.
Gardner, who was a key figure in Houston's response to Hurricane Harvey in 2017, led the charge on crafting a strategic plan for UNLV Medicine's test site. It included elements like a live call center instead of an automated system to help put patients at ease.
The facility opened to the public March 24, offering free testing to the community. It required potential patients to call first and describe their symptoms. Call screeners determined if those seeking testing met CDC guidelines like fever or shortness of breath. If so, they were scheduled for a testing appointment where they could drive up to the facility, get swabbed, and be on their way.
The operation received about 1,400 test kits at first, allowing them to test about 140 patients per day. By the third week of April, another shipment had upped the daily capacity to 200 and the Nevada National Guard joined medical professionals on site to help administer tests.
“Medical assistants and administrative people are working side by side with resident and faculty physicians, every one with the idea of helping the community," Gardner said. "We knew we couldn’t meet the entire testing need but we wanted to do our part. It’s what a state medical school in Las Vegas should be doing.”
In the call center, School of Medicine Phase 3 students helped play a crucial role in screening patients, with 18 students working shifts as long as 12 hours at UNLV Medicine to screen the more than 15,000 people seeking testing by early April.
Maran Shaker, a member of the school's inaugural class, was among those who were volunteering at the clinic from day one.
"The first week was especially tough with an enormous volume of callers,” Shaker said. “Some hadn’t even spoken to anyone in days and just wanted to connect with another person. Other callers were too afraid to buy groceries and reported that they were only eating what they could find at home.”
The experience, he said, will better prepare him for his future career in emergency medicine. “A military concept that I embrace is that when things go wrong, we don’t rise to the occasion but we fall back on our training,” the U.S. Army veteran said. “This pandemic will help better prepare a generation of health care providers and enhance our ability to respond to such large-scale medical needs.”
UNLV provides key assist to health district
School of Public Health assistant professor Brian Labus served as the Southern Nevada Health District's senior epidemiologist prior to joining UNLV. Through that connection he helped to forge a partnership between the university and the agency.
Starting on March 31, a team of five students, helmed by doctoral candidates Casey Barber and Jacklynn DeLeon, took on the task of contact tracing so the health district could aim its resources to other priorities.
When patients in Southern Nevada tested positive for COVID-19, the students gathered information on where the patients may have been, called their contacts who may have been exposed, stayed in touch with patients for health updates, advised on isolation and quarantine protocols, and enrolled them in the district's self-reporting app.
"This is when public health [practitioners] need to step up and do their part," said Shawn Gerstenberger, dean of the School of Public Health. "And these students helping the district are absolutely doing that.”
The program offered the students a unique learning experience and counted toward internship credit, offering an academic bright spot in the midst of the sudden shift to remote instruction.
“What an experience when you go to interview for jobs, when you graduate to say that you've done this, that you've got hands-on experience,” Gerstenberger said. “Hopefully we never have another (pandemic), but if we do, hopefully these future professionals will make us better prepared."
Labus himself played an integral role in Nevada's response to the crisis. After Gov. Steve Sisolak declared a state of emergency on March 12, he convened a task force on March 14 to help advise him on the scientific aspects of the virus.
Labus was joined by Dr. Trudy Larson, UNR’s dean of community health sciences; Dr. Ihsan Azzam, Nevada's chief medical officer; Dr. Paul Sierzenski, chief medical officer of the Renown Health System; and Dr. Shadaba Asad, University Medical Center's infectious disease director Shadaba Asad. Together, they provided the public health advice Sisolak needed at a time when closures and social distancing efforts weren't always widely adopted across the country.
Sisolak ordered non-essential businesses to close on March 17. Throughout the crisis, Labus offered his advice to the state as a member of the task force and to the community in general by authoring numerous articles and giving media interviews.
"The challenge is that public health really sits at the intersection of science and politics," Labus said. "There are some things that may be wonderful scientifically, but are terrible ideas to implement in your community. The challenge for us is to give the best information we can to allow the best decision to occur."
Sciences, Engineering tackle PPE
A persistent problem in the fight against coronavirus not just in Southern Nevada, but nationwide, has been the shortage of both adequate testing material and of personal protective equipment for front-line healthcare workers.
The colleges of Sciences and Engineering stepped up to help area medical workers on both counts.
Alumnus Michael Picker, who currently works for the Southern Nevada Public Health Laboratory turned to his former teacher, life sciences professor Helen Wing for help in delivering a test kit component that was in short order.
Under CDC guidelines, Wing took the lead on manufacturing viral transport medium, which preserves test samples in transport from test sites to laboratories. With UNLV producing the component, the lab, part of the Southern Nevada Health District, is freed up to direct its energies to other parts of the coronavirus fight.
UNLV produced hundreds of vials of the transport medium for the health district.
“On a practical level, this is a chance for our team to use our scientific training and skills in the COVID-19 response, and to put UNLV’s research infrastructure and facilities to use to help our beloved Las Vegas community in this time of need,” Wing said.
The college also emptied the cupboards for protective equipment that could be sent to various corners of the region. Professors across several disciplines shipped surgical masks, N95 masks, face shields, booties, gloves, cleaning supplies, and even idle computer processing time to local hospitals, the UNLV Student Health Center, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, and a group doing coronavirus simulations.
Where Sciences gave what they had on hand, the College of Engineering set to making all new equipment.
A task force comprising Associate Dean Mohamed Trabia, mechanical engineering chair Brendan O’toole, and mechanical engineering distinguished professor Kwang Kim came together at the behest of a local medical community to assess how they could help.
The solution was to source a workable material and, along with doctoral student Justin Neubauer and postdoctoral researcher Taeseon Hwang to design a prototype mask that used nonpourous plastic, foam blocks and an elastic band to create a workable face shield for medical personnel.
“We talked about a few design options and (assessed) what raw materials we would need,” Kim said. “All of us felt that what was taking place in New York could also happen in our community, and if we had the opportunity to help, we absolutely should.”
The prototype was completed April 3. By April 13, the team had distributed 174 face shields to healthcare workers at Sunrise Medical Center, Dignity Health Clinics, and the UNLV School of Medicine.
Shepherd Eye Center, one of the college's medical partners, needed something special for optometrists. Peter Faught, an experimental testing/prototype engineer in the college’s civil and environmental engineering and construction department, took over and designed an acrylic shield with two circles cut out so it can attach directly to the slit lamp microscope that optometrists use to examine the structures of the eye.
Faught and his team, including mechanical engineering model designer and machinist Terry Kell produced 50 shields for the eye center.
Keeping the spirit of university burning
The academic challenges, as great as they are, weren't the only opportunities for UNLV to get creative in the face of pandemic. The university is a community, like so many others that needed to adapt to new realities in order to maintain both its core functions and the sense of belonging that are integral to its existence.
The Office of Career Services restructured its Southern Nevada Career Fair to become a virtual affair, still attracting employers like the Clark County School District, E&J Gallo, and Target to the April 1-3 event.
The Barrick Museum hosted a daily drawing challenge, asking followers to contribute to a global exhibition called A Drawing a Day Keeps the Pandemic Away and providing prompts on its social media channels and curating a digital catalog of submissions.
Fitness classes in yoga, pilates, and high-intensity interval training were offered online by the Student Recreation & Wellness Center, as well as follow-along meal prep, lessons in bicycle repair, virtual bingo, and curated Spotify playlists.
The Academic Success Center posted coaching workshops. The Faculty Center offered virtual guided meditation. Service Learning & Leadership used Instagram to show people how to make crafts from simple household items that could benefit local nonprofit organizations.
Long after the virus is contained, and a vaccine discovered and distributed, the coronavirus interlude will be studied and dissected. UNLV's scholars of the future will surely be among those looking at how society tackled the pandemic from scientific, medical, economic, and social angles.
They'll have plenty of material to work from, and they won't have to go any further than right here at home to find it.