On Aug. 24 of last year, UNLV elected Kieth Whitfield as the eleventh president. Campus was still predominantly web-based, and the COVID-19 vaccine was just announced. However, the largest wave of cases was still on the horizon, with nearly five times over the amount of cases when Whifield was elected in.
“I remember the day when I was voted in and I remember my first day on campus,” Whifield said. “What’s so interesting is the contrast between that first day on campus, and this first week on campus.”
Although much of UNLV was web-based last fall, Whitfield still felt a connection to students for their first day. While case numbers were much lower at the time of his entrance compared to the number of cases at the end of August, a large percentage of Nevadans are vaccinated, allowing students a partial on-campus experience.
“Having everyone here, there’s nothing better,” Whitfield said
What can be hard on-campus is finding the balance between a normal pre-pandemic semester and the safety of students with the delta variant spreading around the Las Vegas Valley.
“We put the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff first, and then you make hard decisions based on that,” Whitfield said. “It’s far more art than science.”
In a previous interview with UNLV epidemiologist and associate professor Brian Labus, the university will be closely monitoring and will be able to react to whatever is happening on a public health level with COVID-19.
Whitfield has kept up with the data of who is mostly getting infected, and those between the ages of 18 to 49 represent the most cases and are less likely to be vaccinated, according to the Southern Nevada Health District.
In Nevada, 82 percent of residents above the ages of 65 are fully vaccinated, while only about 55 percent of Nevadans between the ages of 18 to 49 are vaccinated, according to the Mayo Clinic. UNLV’s demographics is strongest between the ages 18 to 34.
Whitfield mentioned at the Student Town Hall that his sister was sick with COVID-19. She is now feeling better and has received her first-dose of the vaccine.
“I tried to have an older brother conversation with her to encourage her to [get the vaccine],” Whitfield said. “Now she’s like, ‘You don’t have to tell me anything because I don’t want that again. It’s just too much.’”
It is reported by the Associated Press that nearly 99 percent of COVID-19 related deaths are among those who are unvaccinated. In Southern Nevada, there are 104 breakthrough deaths and 349 breakthrough hospitalizations, according to the SNHD.
Whitfield does not believe this will be the last pandemic, but he believes there is a lesson that everyone should take from it.
“The things that we do affect us, and they affect other people,” Whitfield said. “When we’re not necessarily working together as a group, it’s not just one person in the group, it’s the whole group that actually suffers.”
Whitfield acknowledges that members of a community have to live with a bit of risk.
“We’re a society,” Whitfield said. “We’re interconnected with one another.”
Planning for the future, Whitfield is working on developing degree programs for careers that do not exist yet, under the assumption that Las Vegas is only going to continue to grow. In an effort to stay ahead, UNLV Health is already halfway built and will be opening late June 2022, according to the RJ.
A new engineering building has already secured half the needed funding and UNLV will be borrowing the rest from NSHE to begin construction, as announced in the Student Town Hall.
Whifield is proud of the research he’s gotten a chance to see over the past year. Research that includes research on room temperature superconductors, involvement in NASA’s Perseverance rover and many more.
“I want to see us believe in ourselves even more,” Whitfield said. “This is a great school and there are a lot of things that are possible.”