For faculty and staff at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Public Health, the moment of realization that COVID-19 would become a dire threat was when they started seeing cases among their own school community, and the numbers started to climb quickly. Says Dean Shawn Gerstenberger, “We knew that we needed to respond. Immediately, we began to assemble our own experts and reach out to community partners to figure out what our response would be. Collaboration with the state health department and Southern Nevada Health District in order to come up with a plan on how to address this issue with students was critical.” They continue, “Being located in Las Vegas, one of our unique assets at the UNLV School of Public Health is the fact that we live in one of the most diverse communities in the nation, and we have a diverse student body. Therefore, we were thinking about how we could use this to our advantage to inform people, protect them and provide credible information.” And they did.
The UNLV School of Public Health helped the university develop an incident management team and had their own epidemiologist and disease expert Dr. Brian Labus take the lead. According to Dean Gerstenberger, “We pulled people in from different parts of campus including housing, student health and wellness, classrooms, online education, communications, public affairs and more. We put chains of command processes in place and also coordinated with the Nevada System of Higher Education to ensure everything was consistent with other institutions across the state.”
They continue, “The goal was for us to best communicate a plan for how things would look at UNLV not just weeks from the start of the pandemic, but years. Based on what we know about infectious disease, we knew this would affect us for at least two years – which no one else initially believed when we predicted this. Once the incident management team was put together, our school helped them create and craft information for the university to address the many questions people had. The university ultimately created a COVID-19 website where faculty, staff, students and community members can go for the latest information, news, announcements and resources. We filmed Q&A videos and even held a special webinar featuring our faculty and experts at the health district to answer our community’s biggest questions about the virus while also encouraging public health practices on how to prevent COVID-19.”
UNLV School of Public Health also received $5.1 million in grant funding from the State of Nevada to partner with the Southern Nevada Health District and employ university students to assist in reaching out to individuals who may have been exposed to COVID-19. Says Dean Gerstenberger, “What started out as a volunteer team of only a handful of students led by Dr. Brian Labus eventually expanded to nearly 240 paid contact tracers who spoke 29 different languages. More than 1,100 students initially answered the call to become a contact tracer. Once selected, those hired underwent comprehensive training, which included learning the contact tracing system and spending time making calls under supervision at UNLV. These students were all trained and led by a group of 15 experienced UNLV graduate students. This team helped investigate more than 38,000 cases, accounting for 1 in 6 COVID-19 cases investigated in Southern Nevada.
Reaching out to the community’s most vulnerable and minority populations was also critical. In spring 2020, the Nevada Minority Health & Equity Coalition (NMHEC) within the School took on this challenge and created the One Community OneResponse initiative. NMHEC brought together community partners and helped to create specific COVID-19 toolkits and resources for people in seven target populations: African American/Black, Native American, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, LGBTQ+, and Deaf or Hard of Hearing. As part of this effort, an “Amplifying Equity” webinar series was also created. With more than 25 webinars since summer of 2020, NMHEC and the School of Public Health featured experts to talk about COVID-19 from the perspective of these different communities in order to better reach out to them and help them navigate the questions and concerns they had during the pandemic.
They note that communication overall was tough, especially the full process of figuring out how to effectively communicate some of the changing rules of things like quarantine process and how to make people understand these decisions. “The reality was that the more we found out about the virus, the more knowledge we now had. So, while things seemed contradictory, they weren’t,” says Dean Gerstenberger. “We as public health professionals had to learn as we go, just like everyone else in the community and around the world.”
The Dean says that “the biggest lesson these two years have taught us is how we are far behind on public health preparedness, which is unfortunately one of the first things that gets cut in terms of funding. Especially in the state of Nevada, we have had a chronic underinvestment in public health infrastructure. This is crucial for public health response and helping to fund more qualified workers, laboratory, communication and more. We have a little brighter light on our field now because more people know what public health is because of COVID-19. However, we still don’t have the proper investment because people don’t hear about us for the most part if we’re doing our job. We overall need to do a better job of communicating public health, both when things are good and bad.”
Gersetenberger adds that “COVID-19 demonstrated how a public health crisis — something we were unable to manage very quickly — impacts every part of a community. Public health is everywhere. In Las Vegas, it impacted tourism, gaming, economy, food, supply chain and more. This pandemic shut down a city of 3 million people and even closed down casinos – something we’ve never seen before. It really showed how important public health is.”