UNR Med Students Volunteer With COVID-19 Health Care Workforce

Apr 10, 2020

Coverage of novel coronavirus is supported by the Mick Hitchcock, Ph.D., Project for Visualizing Science, a science reporting project from the Reynolds School of Journalism.

The COVID-19 pandemic has moved the education of students at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine online. To help during the crisis, more than 70 of them are now volunteering throughout Northern Nevada.

The American Association of Medical Colleges announced in mid-March a recommendation for medical schools to suspend clinical rotations. The goal was to protect the safety of students and patients, and to reduce community spread.

Lauran Evans is a fourth-year medical student and she was in the midst of her vascular surgery rotation at a Reno hospital.

“I remember all of the patients coming in for vascular problems, but only wanting to talk about COVID-19,” Evans said. “And for a while, I was pretty scared being in the hospital.”

UNR Med fourth-year medical student Lauran Evans assists with drive-through COVID-19 testing at both the Washoe County Health District and University Health Internal Medicine appointment-only drive-through locations.
Credit Brin Reynolds / University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

Evans is training to be an ear, nose and throat doctor and after she graduates, she’s slated to start her residency at UCLA in June. She’s finishing med school online and is also a volunteer. 

“Our administration sent out this email saying, ‘Hey, we want volunteers to do all of these things from answering phones, to providing child care for physicians, all the way to suiting up in the hazmat suits and testing patients for COVID.’ Kind of being the thrill seeker I am, I said, ‘well, I want to swab people. I want to be out there,’ ” Evans explained.

Several days a week, Evans dons personal protective equipment, or PPE, and helps with taking nasal swabs at COVID-19 testing sites, including a drive-through location run by the Washoe County Health District. She’s willing to take the risks involved, like her dad.

“My father is a physician. He's an anesthesiologist. So he's also working on the front lines in Las Vegas,” Evans said. “He definitely worries about me, I worry about him, too. My mom is very supportive, but also very worried, and understandably so.”

Dr. Lisa Calvo is a hospitalist who provides medical care in Reno. She’s also the interim associate dean for medical education at UNR. 

Med students are stepping up to volunteer around the community. They are providing triage support for COVID-19 call centers, providing elderly check-ins, and helping with drive-through testing. Calvo said the crisis has required all health care workers to shift gears quickly. 

“Everybody is adjusting their roles, adjusting what our everyday lives look like, to all step up and collectively answer this unprecedented challenge and unprecedented responsibility for us as the health care workforce,” Calvo explained, “To really do what we can to continue to provide the best possible care for not just our COVID-19 patients, but also all of our other patients. The heart attacks, the strokes and the other injuries don't stop.” 

Even though the pandemic has, for the moment, disrupted the traditional way medical students are trained, Calvo said students also have so much to gain.

“They're really seeing how we're all so interconnected in the communities in which we live,” Calvo said, “and all the different aspects that go into affecting an individual's health, such as access to health care.”

Adam Heinz is with the Regional Emergency Services Authority, or REMSA, the ambulatory provider across Northern Nevada. The agency is working with the health district to operate a COVID-19 24/7 call center.

“The medical students participate in this, as part of a public health type experience,” Heinz said, “and they're getting direct patient contact over the phone. It's safe because they're not necessarily in front of a patient, but they're interviewing, they're using compassion and empathy skills.” 

People call in with questions about COVID-19 and can also be screened over the phone if they suspect they might have been infected.

Morgan Derby is a third-year med student at UNR and was finishing up her psychiatry rotation when it was suspended because of the pandemic. She’s one of the volunteers manning the phones at the REMSA COVID-19 hotline.

“I would say, what I’ve learned the most is that people just need someone to talk to at times of severe stress,” Derby said.

Despite the challenges medical providers are facing during the pandemic, Derby remains committed to her goal of becoming an ER doctor. 

“For me, I think it makes me more committed. I've always wanted to help people,” Derby explained, “and this is just something on the mass scale where what we know and what we learn, there's something that we can definitely give back to others and help them.”

Governor Steve Sisolak signed an emergency directive earlier this month to expand the medical workforce including the Battle Born Medical Corps. The state is cutting red tape, waiving some licensing requirements to allow retired medical professionals, out-of-state providers and medical students to help out. So far hundreds have joined the effort.

The number for the COVID-19 hotline mentioned in this story for Washoe County residents is (775) 328-2427.

Editor's note: UNR Med provided an update on April 14 that more than 70 students are now volunteering. This story was updated on April 15 at 6:18 p.m. PDT.