Dr. Bret Frey, president of Northern Nevada Emergency Physicians, receiving his second shot of the two-dose Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Renown’s South Meadows drive-through vaccine site in Reno, Nev., on Friday, Jan. 8. After one year since the pandemic began, the University of Nevada, Reno begins COVID-19 vaccination process on campus.

Lucia Starbuck/KUNR Public Radio
Dr. Bret Frey, president of Northern Nevada Emergency Physicians, receiving his second shot of the two-dose Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Renown’s South Meadows drive-through vaccine site in Reno, Nev., on Friday, Jan. 8. After one year since the pandemic began, the University of Nevada, Reno begins COVID-19 vaccination process on campus.

After almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic—which has killed 2.06 million people worldwide—several states began rolling out a vaccine.  

Nevada is one of many states beginning to vaccinate its citizens, with around 116,000 total doses administered as of Thursday, Jan. 21, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Currently, those working in hospitals, frontline health workers and staff and residents at long-term care facilities are being vaccinated, with individuals aged 70+ and public safety and security personnel next in line.

In an email addressed to all students, faculty and staff on Tuesday, Jan. 5, University of Nevada, Reno President Brian Sandoval said the university is finalizing the implementation of its campus-wide plan as to how employees are to be categorized for the tiers. 

The first prioritization featured frontline workers such as university medical personnel who actively engage in patient care. The first doses of vaccinations for this group began to be administered in late December and will continue to take place until at least Jan. 11, 2021.

The second prioritization includes “Education and Childcare Staff” and “Nevada System of Higher Education Frontline Faculty/Staff.” NSHE Frontline Faculty/Staff is defined by President Sandoval as anyone employed by NSHE and physically working on campus with face-to-face contact with other individuals during the Spring 2021 Semester.  “Education and Childcare Staff” only includes personnel working in person at a childcare site on campus and students actively teaching in a K-12 environment as part of their studies.

The third prioritization includes the remainder of NSHE staff and “students living in campus-sponsored residential settings.” The remainder of NSHE staff are individuals who taught remotely in the spring or not working on campus in person until the Summer 2021 Semester.

Lastly, the last prioritization will include the healthy, general student body and all other healthy adults.

The Student Health Center’s Medical Director, Dr. Cheryl Hug-English said the university received the Moderna vaccine and that “adequate security measures are in place” to protect it. 

The Nevada Faculty Alliance expressed concern about the decision on splitting vaccine prioritization between faculty teaching “on campus” and faculty teaching remotely. On the day President Sandoval announced the university’s plan for vaccination, the NFA sent him a letter outlining their concerns.

“We encourage the University and NSHE leadership to bear in mind the obligations of shared governance, and work through existing structures of the Faculty Senate, Staff Council, and other representative bodies,” part of the letter read.

NFA Vice President Dr. Kent Ervin said he understands tough decisions had to have been made but feels the divide is unfair for those working remotely or placed on Families First Coronavirus Response Act leave because of preexisting medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable and those whose work duties include off-campus educational or research activities that require face-to-face interactions.

“The potential discrimination arises from a lower priority for the vaccine based on a pre-existing medical condition that has forced the staff member to work from home or be placed on FFCRA leave, and which could be remedied by immunity from the vaccine,” Ervin said in an email to the Nevada Sagebrush. 

Ervin said the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) generally prohibits discrimination based on medical conditions but does not know how vulnerability to COVID-19 would be treated legally under ADA. He believes this is the group that could benefit most both healthwise and in their ability to resume essential face-to-face work.

“NFA has received reports of the criteria for vaccine prioritization being applied differently in different units across campus, with some units showing flexibility and others being very rigid. There needs to be a transparent process for appeals,” Ervin said. “We appreciate President Sandoval’s statement that he will wait until frontline UNR faculty and staff are vaccinated before he gets the vaccine.”

University Communication Officer Natalie Fry said this decision was not made by the university and was asked by the state to conduct the prioritizations like this.

“We are following State of Nevada definitions and recommendations developed from guidance from the CDC and the Nevada State Immunization Coalition,” Fry said. “Gov. Sisolak has stated that vaccine distribution throughout Nevada is based on scientific data, key ethical principles and federal recommendations.”

Fry said the university’s goal is to have as many students, faculty and staff who indicate they wish to have the vaccine receive vaccinations by the end of the semester.

“…[T]he vaccines are a highly effective tool in a kit of many medical and public health tools that we should all use in concert in fighting the spread of COVID-19,” President Sandoval said in an email to the Nevada Sagebrush. “Taken together, one step at a time, we are now on a road where perhaps by the end of the coming semester we will be at a different place. We all need to continue to look out for one another. We have much to look forward to this coming spring semester.”

Fry said the university is hopeful that a large group of our students will receive a vaccine by the completion of what used to be Tier 3. She also said, a smaller number, including teaching assistants, could receive vaccinations through this month. It is unknown when the general healthy population will begin vaccination. 

Currently, the university said they have no plans to continue the Hyflex model for the Fall 2021 semester. Fry also said an in-person spring 2021 graduation is still being discussed.

“We have made no decision on in-person spring graduation and plan on waiting before making a final decision,” Fry said. “We will know more about this decision later in our spring semester. We will base this decision on a number of factors, including how well community test positivity rates and the number of ICU hospital beds used are responding to having more members of our community receiving the vaccine.”

President of the Graduate Student Association Will Carrasco said GSA was not directly consulted in this decision nor advocated for graduate assistants to be vaccinated. Carrasco believes past conversations with President Sandoval influenced his decision to vaccinate 1,105 graduate assistants and those with graduate research projects that require face-to-face interactions sooner. 

“We have had the opportunity to meet with President Sandoval regarding many different issues and every time we have stressed the importance of graduate assistants and graduate student research projects,” Carrasco said in an email to the Nevada Sagebrush. “The biggest issues that both these groups have brought to us, have revolved around protection during this time when they are required to be in many face-to-face interactions.” 

Taylor Johnson can be reached at tkjohnson@sagebrush.unr.edu or on Twitter @taylorkendyll.