Reflections from the Dean: The Role a Medical School Plays in a Pandemic

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Nevada State Public health lab tech testing samples


The Washoe County Health District reported its first presumptive positive case of COVID-19 on March 5, 2020. What's transpired since has presented extraordinary challenges to northern Nevada, our state and all who live and work here.

The pandemic has also presented extraordinary challenges to the University of Nevada Reno, School of Medicine (UNR Med). We have a special, perhaps unique, role to play in helping our state combat the COVID-19 crisis, because we touch on every aspect of clinical medicine and public health—testing, teaching, research, clinical care and health care policy.  

Here are a few examples, with a particular focus on how our robust research programs and outstanding investigators are contributing their scientific expertise to fight the pandemic.  

Testing | The Nevada State Public Health Laboratory (NSPHL) is part of UNR Med and serves the state as a first line of defense against public health threats. Led by Director Mark Pandori, Ph.D., the NSPHL has been an important source of guidance to Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak. The laboratory's aggressive approach to developing and certifying its testing capacity has made Nevada a leader in testing for COVID-19 at a higher per capita rate than many other states.  

Teaching | Nearly 100 of our medical and physician assistant studies students have volunteered nearly 4,000 hours of screening, telephone triage, counseling and testing services to REMSA, the Washoe County Health Department, the Sparks Fire Department, the Washoe County School District and Elko County.   Our resident physicians-all 142 of them-are on the front lines, taking care of COVID and non-COVID patients. They represent an important component of the health care workforce for many of our community partners - including Renown, Saint Mary's, the VA, Reno Behavioral Hospital, Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, West Hills Hospital, Willow Springs Center and the health care community in Elko, Nevada, as well as our own University Health practices.   

Clinical Care | Project ECHO Nevada, our telehealth program, is offering weekly COVID-19 sessions to more than 360 rural and urban health care professionals  from 13 Nevada counties, at 60 different sites, helping to bridge the gap in access to specialty care throughout the state.

Health Care Policy | Through a new partnership with the state called the Nevada COVID-19 Aging Network (NVCAN), the Sanford Center for Aging has become a major organizing force statewide, providing social and medical support to older adults who are isolated and at high risk. The expertise of the Sanford Center and its director, Dr. Peter Reed, is now being sought by national agencies because of the success of NVCAN.   

Research | UNR Med and several important partners are collaborating on a wide range of basic science and clinical research studies related to COVID-19, in addition to an already impressive portfolio of externally-funded research. Here is just a sampling:  

  • UNR Med and NSPHL scientists are sequencing coronavirus DNA in partnership with the University's Genomics Center.
  • The NSPHL and UNR Med's Department of Microbiology and Immunology are also collaborating on genomic sequencing of positive COVID-19 cases to assess phylogeny and potential transmission networks.
  • The NSPHL and scientists from the department of microbiology and immunology have teamed to facilitate faster COVID-19 testing by manufacturing and distributing collection kits for Nevada's health districts and hospitals.
  • In addition to the collaborations noted above, investigators in the department of microbiology and immunology are involved in several projects, including: (1) studies of enhanced expression of S-CoV-2 proteins to support new diagnostic approaches and new approaches to treatment with monoclonal antibodies, and (2) developing a protocol for environmental sampling S-CoV-2 for public health safety.
  • Chris von Bartheld, M.D., department of physiology and cell biology, collaborated on an animal study of proteins that may be involved in the loss of smell in many COVID-19 patients, and may also explain why older patients seem to be more susceptible to the infection.
  • The NSPHL is validating a coronavirus antibody test and launching studies on high-risk patients to assess immune status before making the test available for widespread use.
  • Associate Dean of Clinical Research Mark Riddle, M.D., Dr.P.H., and UNR Med's Clinical Research Center team is working toward becoming a phase 3 vaccine testing site, developing a protocol for industry-sponsored clinical trials to identify treatments for severe COVID at the VA Health Center, and seeking VA funding to explore the chronic gastrointestinal consequences of COVID-19 infections in veterans.
  • Dr. Riddle has also teamed up with Sara Anne Healy, M.D., MPH, a pediatric infectious disease physician at Renown Children's Hospital and UNR Med,  to launch a study of the treatment of COVID-19 with convalescent plasma from patients who have recovered from the infection.  

Almost all of these studies involve community outreach and engagement in some way, and also provide opportunities to volunteer for various studies and sample collection. People are already volunteering enthusiastically for some of these studies, and our investigators often hear, "It's the least I can do to help UNR Med understand the virus." (Sometimes volunteers find themselves proud owners of Wolf Pack swag following that comment!)

The University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine is your School of Medicine. We have played-and continue to play-a crucial role in helping our state and our community weather this extraordinary storm. It is our mission and why we exist for you: to improve the health and well-being of all Nevadans.

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The University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, Nevada's first public medical school, is a community-based, research-intensive medical school with a statewide vision for a healthy Nevada. Established in 1969, UNR Med is improving the health and well-being of all Nevadans and their communities through excellence in student education, postgraduate training and clinical care, research with local, national and global impact and a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Released: Monday June 8, 2020 @ 4:00 PM