’15 Doctorate of Public Health
School of Public Health Alumnus of the Year
When COVID-19 exploded into a global pandemic, Brian Labus knew the effects would be devastating. He also knew it was time to put his vast skills to use to help prevent the situation from being even worse — and he did just that.
An infectious disease epidemiologist with two decades of public-health experience, including in outbreak investigation, Labus quickly was appointed to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s five-member statewide task force. The UNLV assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics was charged with advising state officials on the scientific aspects of the pandemic, as well as serving as the de-facto spokesperson who handled local and national media inquiries.
Labus also was the principal investigator for the state’s contract tracing program, leading a team of more than 200 UNLV public health students who were hired to assist in identifying and reaching out to those who may have been exposed to individuals who tested positive for COVID-19. The contact tracing team investigated about one out of every six COVID-19 cases that occurred in Clark County.
“Leading a team of 200 student contact tracers was a new experience for me, and it made me step back and think about what kind of leader I wanted to be,” said Labus, who spent 15 years with the Clark County Health District’s epidemiology office before joining the School of Public Health faculty in 2015. “It all came down to a quote that I have seen attributed to a number of good leaders: Hire good people and stay out of their way. Beyond that, I would add, ‘And completely support them whenever they need it.’”
Labus’ work has been featured in numerous academic and professional publications, and he’s received several academic and research honors, including the 2018 Outstanding Teaching Award for the School of Public Health’s department of environmental and occupational health and 2008 Public Health Program of the Year award from the Nevada Public Health Association.
Not bad for someone who landed in his field somewhat by accident.
When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in public health?
As a biology major at Purdue University, the plan was to attend medical school. It was during a microbial ecology lab when I began working with infectious diseases, and I really enjoyed it. My last semester as an undergraduate, I stumbled across a course in epidemiology and thought it would fit with my interests and career goals. It only took a week or two to realize that infectious disease epidemiology was what I wanted to do with my life.
In what ways will the COVID-19 pandemic change society’s perceptions of the public health field moving forward?
When public health is working how it should, epidemiologists are in the background — nobody thinks about things that were prevented because they didn’t happen. Outbreaks thrust us into the limelight but the general public forgets about us pretty quickly when the emergency is over. If COVID is anything like past pandemics and major national outbreaks I have worked on, the government will pump a ton of money into public health for a few years but people will soon forget about us and move on to the next crisis — just like they did after anthrax, SARS, West Nile virus, the 2009 H1N1 influenza, and Ebola.
The interesting changes will be in the social aspects of society. If we change how we interact, we can change disease patterns.
Drawing from your experience, what three attributes should every public health professional strive to have a boundless supply of?
You can’t work in public health without a boundless supply of optimism. You constantly run into roadblocks and see your best plans fall to pieces, and you have to be able to step back, regroup, and not lose the drive that makes you do what you do.
Also, because we spend so much time making recommendations that affect millions of lives, you better have a lot of self-confidence. While it’s imperative to listen to others and trust the science, you need to believe that what you’re doing is best for the community. If you can’t convince yourself that it is, you can’t convince anyone else.
The final thing is something public health professionals probably won’t hear very often: You need to make the job fun. I have spent the last year doing something that I absolutely love — it’s been my Super Bowl. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t ever want a pandemic to occur, but if it does, I am excited that I get to be a part of stopping it. Years from now, I will look back at all the things that I have done and smile because I got to make a difference doing something I love. If you can find that in a career (public health or otherwise), you will never leave it.
If you could go back in time, what’s one piece of practical advice you would give to your 20-year-old self?
It’s the same advice I have given to many of my team members: It’s OK to take a break and take some time off for yourself. The success or failure of any public health response doesn’t depend on you working to the point of exhaustion.
Oh, and go to a lot more concerts.