Raise your hand if you're having a great 2020.
Weirdly, we can't picture a lot of palms in the air.
There's no way around the fact that, 100 years after the Roaring '20s, we're coming around to the Whimpering '20. This year — beset by plagues figurative, literal, and overwhelmingly frequent — was nonetheless met with a this-too-shall-pass stoicism.
No crisis without an opportunity, though. For UNLV that has meant opening new avenues for serving students, launching first-of-their kind studies coming from every corner of the university, and cementing the university’s crucial role in our region’s development.
Here are just a few seeds UNLV faculty, staff, and students are planting to give us all a glimmer of hope when all of this is behind us. (But by all means, let's get this year behind us sooner rather than later.)
Cash Is King, but it's Getting Nervous on the Throne
Next to a showgirl's rhinestones and feathers, a mile-high stack of chips, and three cherries neatly in a row, is there anything more iconic to Las Vegas than Benjamins piled on Grants? The fat roll ready to deploy at any blackjack table, dice pit, or poker room in the city might be an image even the most risk-averse among us aspire to. It might also be on its way out.
When the Strip shut down in March, the first thing the city's gaming magnates had to do — once the shock wore off — was figure out how to entice players to return to the tables once the state gave gaming the green light.
That's no small task. From the free flowing cocktails to the lack of clocks, casinos have developed myriad ways to keep players rooted in place, but convincing people to huddle indoors around a crowded craps table is another matter entirely when the invisible miasma all around could be coming from other people, in the air, or clinging to surfaces. Cash was already notoriously filthy. The coronavirus situation did it no favors.
It opened the door to a solution long considered, but never approved: cashless gaming. That could mean everything from swiping a debit card at a table to buy chips up to using a digital wallet for coin-in on a slot machine.
The Research that Leads to Silver Linings
For students and professors alike, diving into their areas of expertise led to reasons for hope after a down year.
Regulators, long wary of the problem gaming implications of cashless gaming, were motivated to sign off on the system to help casinos re-open by enhancing health and safety protocols.
That regulatory sea change led to a new initiative, The Payments Collaborative, from UNLV’s International Gaming Institute into the impact cashless gaming will have on the industry. It is led by Bo Bernhard, interim associate vice president for economic development and IGI executive director, and Alan Feldman, the Distinguished Fellow in Responsible Gaming.
If the questions around problem gambling can be resolved, Feldman said, there are plenty of upsides for both players and operators in terms of theft prevention, operation costs, marketing opportunities, and regulation.
"This is really going to provide added safety to the people who would otherwise have $1,000 or $2,000 that they might bring with them. It prevents theft and loss," he said. "Cash is very expensive to manage. You have to count it and process it. You have to send it to a bank. You have to keep exchanging it for various denominations. It's dirty. The other thing about cash is that it is pretty anonymous. As issues surrounding know-your-customer become greater from a regulatory perspective, cash kind of works opposite that."
UNLV researchers are teaming with counterparts from the University of Sydney on the study, which is expected to take several years to complete. As cashless transactions gain momentum both inside and out of gaming — Allegiant Stadium is the first cashless stadium in American sports — it could have broad implications for the manner in which the lifeblood of Las Vegas flows in the future.
The Doctor Is In (Your Phone)
In the initial wave of shutdowns, no industry was more essential, and incapable of being shuttered, than health care. But the first weeks of the pandemic brought logistical challenges, too.
Personal protective equipment was in short order. Crowded offices presented a danger to patients and providers. Doctors needed to clear the lanes for patients with more pressing issues.
Thanks to a deregulatory reform, the door to widespread telemedicine was opened up early on in the spring. And it might not close once the dangers presented by coronavirus are well behind us.
At UNLV, as normal campus operations were severely altered in the spring, the university's Student Health Center, Faculty and Staff Treatment Clinic, and Counseling and Psychological Services were well-prepared thanks to a recent investment in the school's telemedicine capacity that had a planned summer rollout that got pressed into service earlier than expected.
The result was a 20 percent uptick in CAPS use through the summer, according to Jamie Davidson, associate vice president for student wellness, with 98 percent of those visits occurring through telemedicine.
Counselors had to adjust to learn how to effectively read patients during sessions, but Davidson sees a huge benefit in being able to meet the increased demand, particularly in a year that would be stressful to anyone other than Buddha himself.
It points the way to a future where the next generation of students are trained to account for increased telemedicine use, and where patients have access to a hugely popular service.
"Students love receiving care like this," Davidson said. "They didn't have to miss class or work time. It's convenient and they receive quality care. It allows not only flexibility for our students, but also our providers. It allows flexibility in their schedules, especially if we're trying to provide after hours care. Students were impacted by children not going to school, but my staff was too. Now they can do their jobs, see individuals, but still be there to help with families."
About a quarter of the appointments in the clinics affiliated with the UNLV School of Medicine have used telemedicine, according to Dr. Michael Gardner, vice dean for clinical affairs, and he expects that to remain at 10 percent even after the pandemic subsides, particularly with patients who live in rural areas.
Some maladies will always require a doctor to lay hands on a patient to determine the best course of treatment, but for visits that can be done remotely, the benefits to patient and provider are enormous, and it's unlikely that everyone will return to the old way of doing business, especially younger generations that are more comfortable with exclusively online experiences.
"The way healthcare is delivered is going to change after this. I actually think (telemedicine) is going to be higher among students," Davidson said. "Students are digital natives that are used to using these types of formats. I'm guessing that 50 percent or more could choose that."
— Additional reporting by Paul Harasim
New Wave of Funding Pushing Public Health Students to New Heights
School of Public Health Dean Shawn Gerstenberger sees who’s lined up all the way down on the other side of the field.
“We’re in the public health Super Bowl right now, and we’ve got to win it.”
No flinching. No compromising. No going back. But just like the NFL’s dance needs big-ticket corporate advertisers and sponsors to present its annual spectacular, those fighting the coronavirus pandemic rely on an influx of funding to get the job done.
That started with community support that put the School of Public Health team to work. A $25,000 grant from Charles Schwab Bank in March helped to pay for 15 to 20 students as contact tracers to work with the Southern Nevada Health District.
That bridged an important gap until a $3.4 million grant came through from the state that allows UNLV to increase its number of contact tracers to 200. On top of that, faculty and staff have submitted $45 million in research grant proposals, of which $5 million already has been awarded.
Students have emerged as key players in the school’s efforts. With internships and job opportunities limited due to the pandemic, students have gained opportunities for first-hand experience. With the training they received in the last few months, several of the original contact tracing volunteers, largely composed of graduate students, are now leading the team made up of a diverse group of individuals.
“Our students are going to do incredible things in the next five to 10 years,” Gerstenberger said. “I’m confident they will be the ones running public health agencies, organizations, and departments in the future. They are good people who are passionate about making a difference.”
Jacklynn De Leon, a public health doctoral student, is a member of the contact tracing leadership team. Originally planning to write her dissertation about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, she shifted this year to writing it about COVID-19 instead.
The experience has been a study in theory becoming practice. De Leon has been working with using phone applications to perform contact tracing, and the management team has been forced to adapt to new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and other health experts on the fly — something she said has been eye-opening.
Learning a lesson in flexibility in the midst of crisis and being armed with knowledge of emerging technologies have students primed to make an immediate impact when they do enter a job force where they’ll be instantly in demand.
“I’m eager to look at these available jobs right now,” she said. “They’re great jobs, too. There’s a lot of funding going into public health right now. I’m in school and working with this contact tracing team — it adds a plus to my resume. And for the next five years, there is definitely going to be more funding in public health, which is great.”
The school’s work has been a boon to raising awareness for careers in health care beyond becoming a doctor or nurse. The Intro to Public Health class has expanded from 20 sections to more than 50 as one of the biggest second-year seminars at UNLV. Gerstenberger expects an increased enrollment in public health majors, ensuring a more robust workforce ready to tackle the pandemics of tomorrow.
“When the pandemic hit, more people were driven to learn more about what we do,” Gerstenberger said. “They were saying ‘Hey, this is what public health is? — It’s kind of cool.’”