A couple years into my first real job in public health, we had an outbreak of norovirus at the health department where I worked. At that point in my young career, I had worked on some large, very public, outbreaks and pretty much thought I knew everything. I met with the health officer to tell him what was happening and presented a list of actions that needed to be taken to get it under control.
With one response, he completely shook my confidence: “Sounds good. Go ahead.”
I left his office flustered. Go ahead? Go ahead and do what? I was an outbreak investigator, not a responder. I told casinos, restaurants, and schools what needed to be done; I didn’t stay on-site and do it myself. And now I had to manage both the investigation and the response? That simple response completely changed the way I looked at public health.
It’s been nearly 20 years since that outbreak, but I still carry with me the lessons that I learned from that humbling experience of fumbling through the response. I never ask someone to do something that is great in theory but is impossible to actually implement. I never ask someone to do something that looks good to people on the outside but does little to change the trajectory of the outbreak. And most importantly, I never ask someone to do something that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself if the roles were reversed.
Now that the spring semester is upon us, that last lesson becomes particularly salient. Next week, for the first time in nearly two years, I will set foot in a classroom. After all, if I am not willing to teach on campus, how could I possibly say that anyone else should?
The emergence of Omicron has everyone asking the question “Will it be safe on campus this semester?” Well, that’s a question that can’t be answered, as we don’t live in the black and white world of safe and unsafe. We live somewhere between those extremes in the uncomfortable grey. There is risk in everything we do, and my goal has been to reduce that risk as much as possible on campus.
I am quite proud of the way UNLV has responded to the pandemic so far. We have done a lot of things right. We implemented a campus mask mandate before the state mandate and have strongly enforced it for nearly the entire pandemic. We have nearly the entire campus vaccinated and have even offered our services to get the community around us vaccinated. We have reduced the density of people on campus by moving some courses to remote instruction while still keeping some in-person instruction. We have a team of people dedicated to investigating every single case that is reported, and I know of no other university in the country that publicly shares case data in real time – the second we complete an investigation, you know.
Most importantly, I have been fortunate to be part of UNLV’s COVID-19 Incident Management Team for the last two years. To see dozens of people from various professions and departments come together, put egos aside, and work with the singular goal of operating campus as safely as possible has been nothing short of inspiring. I can honestly say that working with this team has been one of the highlights of my career.
All that hard work has paid off. We have had only a few small clusters of disease on campus, and none of those were associated with classroom instruction. Our campus case counts have consistently remained well below what we expect based on the rates in Southern Nevada. And unlike many universities throughout the country, UNLV has not driven the COVID pandemic in our community. What we are experiencing on campus is largely just a reflection of what is happening around us.
That’s not to say that I don’t have concerns about being on campus; I definitely do. Even with our best efforts, there is still going to be the risk of COVID anytime we are around other people, as that is the nature of the pandemic. And that risk is going to be different for everyone, as we each face a different set of unique circumstances that make us who we are.
We also have to face the fact that our health is not just in our hands. We can do things that give us the best chance at avoiding COVID, or at least avoiding the worst it has to offer, by boosting our vaccinations and upgrading our masks. But even if we do, we simply cannot avoid unknowingly coming into contact with the virus. Viruses spread at the population level, which is why we have population-level controls.
Unlike my day-to-day life, I generally have control over what happens in my classroom. I can strictly enforce the mask mandate – something I just can’t do when I see people flouting the rules at a grocery store. I can prohibit eating and drinking during my class, as those activities require students to take their masks off. I can do my best to socially distance my students and design my class activities so that they don’t require close interaction between students. None of these will completely prevent COVID, but when taken together, they can help reduce the risk of COVID in my classroom.
I think it is also crucial that I am empathetic with my students when they are sick or have to take care of a sick family member. I don’t want them to feel as if they have to choose between the health of their fellow students, the health of their family, and their grades by dragging themselves to my class when it isn’t a good idea to do so.
To that end, I have included this as a standard part of my infectious disease course syllabus for years: “It would be hypocritical for me to teach about patient isolation, the importance of social distancing and encouraging employers to adopt progressive employee sick leave policies yet expect students to come to class no matter what. If you are contagious, stay home rather than make everyone else (including me) ill. This is part of the reason you are allowed to drop the lowest in-class exercise scores; staying home because of an illness and missing an exercise should not lower your grade.”
When I get to class next week, I should be worrying about the usual things: Will the projector in my classroom work? Will a student call me out on a typo in the syllabus before I even finish handing them out? Will any of my students get my pop culture references that I refuse to admit are horribly out of date (Bueller? Bueller?)
Unfortunately, COVID has changed that list: Will there be an exposure in my classroom? What do I say to a student who just lost a family member to COVID? How do I help a student who is clearly struggling with mental health issues because of two years of nonstop COVID anxiety? None of these things are pleasant to ponder, but they are the new reality of being a faculty member.
But the students are why I came to UNLV in the first place. I love standing in front of a classroom full of students eager to study the things I am most passionate about. I love connecting with my students on a personal level, getting to know them, and helping them along their journey. And most of all, I love seeing them succeed, not just as students, but as people. And if I can better do that by being there in person, while not putting myself or them at significantly increased risk of being infected, it is something I am willing to do.
I’ll see you in class or on campus during the semester.
This column was written by Brian Labus, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics in the School of Public Health. He is a member of UNLV’s COVID-19 Incident Management Team and Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Medical Advisory Team. He has been interviewed more than 950 times by local, national, and international media about COVID-19.