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May 10, 2021

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Family doctors take on vital role of vaccination influencers in Nevada

UNLV School of Medicine Groundbreaking Ceremony

Christopher DeVargas

Marc Kahn, dean of the UNLV School of Medicine, is shown at a groundbreaking ceremony for the school’s new building at the Shadow Lane campus, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2020.

Anthony Fauci, the immunologist who serves as the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical adviser to the president, is frequently spotted on television or talking to groups advocating for residents to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

But he can’t be everywhere.

For trusted medical information at the local and regional levels, everyday physicians are becoming spokespeople for vaccination against COVID-19. And Marc Kahn, dean of the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV, doesn’t mince his words.

“It’s really critically important that we get people vaccinated,” he said. “That’s the only way that we’re going to get back to a sense of normalcy here and in the rest of the country.”

Dr. Bayo Curry-Winchell, a family medicine physician in Reno, has taken on a statewide influencer role by partnering with Immunize Nevada to make shareable videos encouraging inoculation.

She’s also arranged webinars and in-person informational sessions, collaborated with local faith leaders to bring solid information back to their congregations that may trust pastors more than doctors, appeared on local television, and set up lanes at drive-thru shot clinics in Washoe County just for people to ask questions if they’re unsure.

On one recent Saturday, everybody who pulled through the “maybe” line ended up accepting the vaccine. Curry-Winchell was gratified to convince one patient who was, like her, a Black woman. In a predominantly white community like Reno — where about 2% of the population, and only a few doctors, are Black, representation matters in a medical setting, Curry-Winchell said.

Curry-Winchell is practiced in speaking about health care disparities and medical racism, and has heard Black people root their anxieties about the government-backed vaccine in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. People wonder if they’re being experimented on. They wonder if the shot will give them COVID-19 — it will not.

“When you take the time to address those concerns as well as provide confidence, reassurance and information that people can understand about the vaccine, that helps them, whether they decide to do it or not, make the best decision for themselves,” Curry-Winchell said.

One of the people she had to convince was her 98-year-old father. But when he stayed healthy when his assistant caught COVID-19 when he was between doses, he offered a testimonial for Curry-Winchell’s social media.

She doesn’t use the word “normal” much. People have tuned it out by now.

“I call it a gift,” she said. “It’s a gift to yourself, it’s a gift to your family and a gift to your community.”

In Carson City, primary care physician Merritt Dunlap has reached out to churches, senior centers and casinos to find takers. He’s also sent mass emails to his patient list.

The casinos are smaller in Carson City and a key part of some elders’ social lives, so he called casino hosts to get the word out when seniors had priority.

“They knew all these people and said ‘yeah sure, we’ll get you people,’” said Dunlap, who has been practicing medicine in Carson City for 22 years.

He extended that to hosting drive-thru vaccine clinics on the top deck of the parking garage at Carson City’s Fandango Casino. Between January and early April, Dunlap and his staff gave out about 2,500 shots this way.

He said it’s responsible to ask questions before taking a new medicine. But to the people who refuse, he says to weigh the known risk of the virus, its complications, transmissibility — especially of variants — and social restrictions to the accepted low risks of vaccination.

Dunlap said he’s taken care of COVID-19 long-haulers, and while they have survived, they are miserable.

“For a lot of them, they say, ‘I’m not going to get vaccinated. I don’t want to take that vaccine.’ I ask them if they understand that by choosing that, what they’re actually choosing is to go ahead and get the infection instead. I usually get met with some blank stares,” he said. “I try to point out, look, coronavirus isn’t ever going to go away. It will always be here, and if you are unvaccinated you will at some point get this infection.”

Kahn said there isn’t a much better influencer to attach themselves to UNLV’s vaccine site than Vice President Kamala Harris, who stopped by the clinic at the main campus in March. But he’s done media outreach, connected with pastors and congregations, and been part of the medical school’s public service announcements.

“We need to message often, we need to message to communities that are reluctant to get vaccinated, and until we get people immunized we’re not going to go back to a sense of normalcy,” he said.

An oncologist by training, Kahn stresses the greater good of mass vaccination.

“It’s like returning your shopping cart,” he said. “It doesn’t do much for you, but it does something for the next person.”