When it comes to COVID-19, the mood heading into 2021 was that, well, at least it wasn’t 2020.
Promise of a vaccine brought with it hope that the pandemic would soon be a relic, and we could all toss the masks in the trash and get back to normal.
As the year progressed, though, the results were mixed.
The vaccine rollout brought optimism along with improving caseloads and a return to more in-person activities, but lingering hesitancy to get the shot coupled with emerging variants of concern kept the virus front and center and left many wondering when – or if – we’d every truly put the pandemic behind us.
As 2021 comes to a close, there are still almost as many questions as answers. To make sense of the COVID-19 conundrum, reporters in Nevada and around the nation and world continue to turn to UNLV’s experts for insight.
UNLV faculty and students addressed questions on the vaccine rollout and subsequent mandates; they administered vaccines and tracked emerging variants; they tackled tough topics ranging from bioethics to disparities in case numbers and vaccine hesitancy; they debunked myths and helped us understand the deltas, omicrons, and how they have or may impact our health, our economy, and our livelihood. Below are a few headlines from 2021.
Vaccine Dream Becomes Reality
The race to get long-awaited COVID-19 vaccines created, authorized for use, and out the door was a Herculean task finally achieved in January when Moderna and Pfizer began rolling out doses to first responders and those most at-risk.
Much like it did when COVID-19 testing began, UNLV immediately jumped in to administer vaccines to members of the community. From January through the summer of 2021, UNLV administered nearly 130,000 vaccine doses through its site in the Student Union. UNLV’s vaccine site welcomed a very special visitor in March when Vice President Kamala Harris stopped by the Student Union during a tour of Nevada.
Throughout the year, as the vaccine became available to larger portions of the population, media turned to UNLV experts with questions on its efficacy for young people, how it works against emerging strains, and more.
- When the vaccine rollout began in earnest in January, UNLV public health professor Brian Labus was again in-demand. He offered insight on vaccine allocation and eligibility, as well as COVID-19 variants the importance of herd immunity: Las Vegas Review-Journal (twice), (three times), (four times), Casino.Org, KVVU-TV: FOX 5, KUNR, Mashable, Well and Good.
- UNLV Medicine physician Michael Gardner gave KVVU-TV: FOX 5 and KSNV-TV: News 3 (twice) a look inside UNLV’s vaccine distribution site.
- Public health professor Erika Marquez explained the importance of engaging with diverse communities on vaccine distribution: AP, Yahoo!, and KLAS-TV.
- UNLV medical and nursing students played a major role in administering the vaccine on campus. Nursing student Bianca Rodriguez-Villanueva described her experience to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and nursing student Kelsey Thompson caught up with KVVU-TV: Fox 5.
A Visit from the VP
- Vice President Kamala Harris visited UNLV’s vaccination site in the Student Union during her tour of Nevada in March. Political scientist Kenneth Miller, history professor Michael Green, and UNLV Medicine student Lauren Hollifield talked about it with the AP (via U.S. News & World Report) and KSNV-TV: News 3.
Variety of Vaccine Questions
- The rollout of the vaccine left many with questions about if and when they should get it, if they were eligible, and whether they should defer so others could get it first. Communications studies professor Natalie Pennington and vaccine expert Johan C. Bester analyzed the topic on KNPR.
- Public Health professor Brian Labus and Anjala Krishen, professor of marketing and international business, discussed the progress in vaccine rollouts, and ways to spread the word on KNPR.
- The one-dose J&J vaccine was in the news this spring, with reports of individuals, including a Las Vegas woman, suffering a severe reaction to the shot. Marc J. Kahn, dean of the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, explained the safety behind the J&J vaccine on KSNV-TV: News 3, KVVU-TV: FOX 5, and KLAS-TV: 8 News Now.
- As COVID continued into fall and a booster shots became available, Dean Kahn appeared on KSNV-TV: News 3 (twice). KNPR spoke with Bester about the ever-increasing importance of getting vaccinated, and med school professor David Glenn Weismiller told KSNV-TV: News 3 that people who contracted COVID-19 should still get vaccinated.
Understanding Vaccine Hesitancy
As an exhausted nation and world hailed the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine in early 2021, it soon became clear that not everyone was on board with rolling up their sleeve for a shot.
Whether for personal or religious reasons, or skepticism stemming from years of discriminatory health practices, people chose to either wait or skip when eligibility opened for them to get vaccinated. Why? UNLV experts offered insight on vaccine hesitancy and even shared some tips on how to engage in tough conversations about it.
- Melva Thompson-Robinson, public health professor and director of the Center for Health Disparities Research, advised Healthline readers on the best ways to address COVID-19-related health disparities in racial and ethnic groups. She also talked with Web MD and The Africa Centre.
- School of Public Health professors Erika Marquez, Brian Labus, Francisco S. Sy, and Jose L. Melendrez hosted a webinar for minority communities in hopes of overcoming vaccine skepticism: Las Vegas Sun and KLAS-TV: 8 News Now.
- Emma Frances Bloomfield, communication studies professor, explained to Fatherly, Popular Science and KSNV-TV: News 3 how to discuss getting vaccinated with vaccine-hesitant family members.
- Kerkorian School of Medicine bioethicist Johan Bester, communications professor Rebecca Rice, and med school dean Marc J. Kahn offered tips on how to approach vaccine skeptics in the Las Vegas Review-Journal and on KLAS-TV: 8 News Now.
- Vegas PBS interviewed Labus, Kahn, and marketing professor Anjala S. Krishen about vaccine hesitancy, and KSNV-TV: News 3 interviewed psychology professor Stephen D. Benning on the topic.
Tracking COVID's Progress
It’s the end of 2021, and it’s safe to say many of us hoped we’d be talking about post-COVID recovery by now. But as the year progressed, new variants brought with them new waves of the virus, to the point that a weary world viewed any optimism with caution and looked to science to make sense of it all.
At UNLV, researchers continued to dive into COVID’s many curiosities by tracking its path in the community and through rarely thought about sources like local wastewater. They also discussed topics like herd immunity and helped make sense of emerging variants.
No Time to Waste
UNLV scientist Edwin Oh is doing nation-leading research to understand the presence of COVID variants in our community through wastewater testing. This work is also targeting better flu vaccines, too, in collaboration with 20 other states.
- Tracking variants: KVVU-TV: FOX 5 (twice), KSNV-TV: News 3, KLAS-TV: 8 News Now, KTNV-TV: ABC 13 (twice), Insider, Las Vegas Review-Journal, El Tiempo, KNPR, KLAS: 8 News Now, NorthJersey.com.
- Surveilling for flu strains: KSNV-TV: News 3, KVVU-TV: Fox 5, and KTNV-TV: ABC 13.
Tracking Numbers, Emerging Variants and Herd Immunity
- As the vaccine rollout picked up steam in March, School of Medicine director of bioethics Johan C. Bester compared AstraZeneca with other vaccines on Insider. He also spoke to Newsweek about the projected rate of herd immunity.
- Marc J. Kahn, dean of the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, spoke to Voice of America (twice) about the prospect of COVID “superimmunity.”
- Public health professor Brian Labus spoke throughout the year about COVID’s ups and downs, the Delta variant, herd immunity, and more.
- COVID numbers: The Nevada Independent, The Guardian, Insider, Healthline, Men’s Health, STAT, Runner’s World, Aspen Public Radio.
- Delta and Omicron variants: Las Vegas Review-Journal (twice), KSNV-TV: News 3 (twice), KLAS-TV: 8 News Now, The Nevada Independent, and KTNV-TV: ABC 13
- Herd immunity and vaccination rates: CNN, Healthline, KVVU-TV: Fox 5, KLAS-TV: 8 News Now, Pahrump Valley Times
- Mandates, FDA approval, and vaccine hesitancy: The New York Times, NPR (twice), NBC News, The Guardian, Las Vegas Sun (guest column)
- Booster shots, rapid tests, precautions, and the impact to pro sports: Associated Press, Runner’s World, KNPR, Las Vegas Review-Journal, KTNV-TV: ABC 13, Yahoo!, and Fox News.
Moving Toward Mandates
As COVID-19 vaccines became widely available toward the middle part of the year, more and more schools, businesses, sports leagues, and even the federal government contemplated vaccine mandates to slow the spread and keep students, spectators, and employees safe.
In the fall, two separate emergency measures required Nevada System of Higher Education students and staff to be vaccinated or receive an approved religious or medical waiver to attend classes or maintain employment into 2022. In December, the student mandate expired when a motion before an legislative committee failed. Beyond higher ed, K-12 school districts and teacher unions also weighed the possibilities of requiring vaccinations.
- A State Board of Health vote mandated in August that Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) students provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19 in order to enroll for the Spring 2022 semester: Las Vegas Sun, ThisIsReno (twice), Reno Gazette-Journal, KTNV-TV: ABC 13 (twice), KVVU-TV: Fox 5, KLAS-TV: 8 News Now.
- The Nevada System of Higher Education mandated COVID vaccinations for employees: Las Vegas Review-Journal (twice), The Nevada Independent, Reno Gazette-Journal (twice), KSNV-TV: News 3 (twice), and KLAS-TV: 8 News Now.
- Time Magazine interviewed education professor Bradley Marianno about national teacher unions’ hesitance to advocate for a COVID-19 vaccine mandate due to potential conflicts with local bargaining power. He also spoke with Education Week about what school districts can do if teachers refuse to get vaccinated after mandates go into effect.
- As the new school year started in September, Brian Labus, public health professor, talked about COVID protection in schools with Well+Good, KNPR, Las Vegas Review-Journal, and KSNV-TV: News 3.
- Health law professor David Orentlicher answered questions about the legal technicalities behind asking for proof of vaccination on Pissed Consumer.
COVID's Collateral Damage
The toll of COVID-19 on our communities is staggering. It also stretches beyond heartbreaking daily counts of case numbers, hospitalization, and loss of life. Throughout the year, UNLV experts weighed in on COVID’s wide-ranging impact on topics like homelessness, work/life balance, mental health, childhood, and the ramifications of the healthcare industry.
- Social work professor Nicholas Barr talked about COVID-19’s impact on the homelessness community on WhoWhatWhy.
- Psychologist Gloria Wong-Padoongpatt reported an increase in microassaults on Asian Americans during COVID-19 on Healthline.
- Natalie Pennington, communications professor, led a study which found that the switch to remote work early in the pandemic proved especially stressful on working moms: Sify, The Economic Times, Phys.org, CTV News, VeryWell Mind, and KAKE Television
- Psychologist Stephen D. Benning, public health professor Brian Labus, bioethicist Johan C. Bester, and communications professor Emma Frances Bloomfield reflected on the various ways that the pandemic has altered our lives for a one-year anniversary feature in commentated on COVID-19 and its alterations on livelihood on The Nevada Independent.
- Marc J. Kahn, dean of the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, wrote in the Las Vegas Sun about reevaluating the U.S. healthcare delivery system in the wake of COVID.
- The Nevada Independent featured an article written by Brookings Public Policy student researcher Olivia Cheche on the gap in vaccination rates between Black Nevadans and those of white, Asian, and Latino residents.
- A year of remote learning and constant turmoil took a toll on kids and teens:
- Lisa Durette, director of the child & adolescent psychiatry fellowship program, shared insight this fall into the mental duress children may be under as the new school year begins with KNPR.
- Psychology professor Christopher Kearney spoke with the Deseret News about the possible ramifications the pandemic might have on childhoods.
- Alison Netski, chair of the Kerkorian School of Medicine’s department of psychiatry and behavioral health, told KSNV-TV: News 3 that the pandemic will likely continue to worsen the mental health of children and teens.