UNR medical students are on the front line of Nevada’s COVID-19 response

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The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the stakes for nurses trying to relieve suffering and save lives while trying to stay safe themselves. (April 9) AP Domestic

Lauran Evans often wonders if the person looking back at her through the rolled-down car window has the disease.

Some people are clearly sick — sweaty with a horrible cough — displaying the telltale signs of COVID-19. Others, she said, seem perfectly healthy.

“Maybe they’re positive, maybe they’re not,” the fourth-year medical student said.

Either way, she never knows for sure. Evans never sees the results of the tests she administers.

Several days a week, Evans and a number of her classmates don hooded, hazmat-like suits with special battery powered respirators to man the Washoe County Health District’s drive-through COVID-19 testing station.

‘I’m scared sometimes’

She’s one of roughly 70 UNR medical and physician assistant students stepping up to help fight coronavirus. With clinical rotations and classes canceled, the students are volunteering or earning a few class credits.

In addition to conducting COVID-19 tests herself, Evans also manages the cadre of other UNR students who’ve volunteered for testing.

She estimates she’s tested about 100 potential COVID-19 patients since she began about four weeks ago.

“It’s definitely nerve wracking” said Evans, who volunteered to test. “I’m scared sometimes, it’s a high-stress job.”

“But at the same time, it’s something that I’m really enjoying doing.”

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With a hand wrapped in three layers of gloves, Evans snakes a long swab up a patient’s nose and into the back of their throat. That swab is then sent to a lab for testing.

It’s an uncomfortable process for the person being tested, she said. Sometimes it can trigger a visceral response.

“I’ve had patients grab me and push me away — patients vomit on me, things like that,” she said. “Those are the moments that I am a little bit scared.”  

Testing ramps up

Testing has ramped up so much that the drive-through testing site was moved from the Washoe County Tuberculosis Clinic on Kirman Avenue to the Reno Livestock Events Center.

There, they screen over 200 people a day.

On the other side of town at REMSA’s education and training center on Edison Way, Jenna Rassuschine, another fourth-year medical student at UNR, is among the first people a potential a person will talk to when they fear they might have the disease.

Rassuschine works at the community triage COVID-19 hotline, screening people who are showing symptoms of the disease or may have been exposed.

The data she collects are forwarded to epidemiologists at the Washoe County Health District, who determine if that person should be tested or not.

Like Evans, Rassuchine is managing other UNR med students who are volunteering. But several days a week she’s working in the call center. Right now, she said she’s fielding an average of five calls an hour.

Some people are scared or anxious, she said, but most are thankful to have someone to answer questions.

Coronavirus has thrown a wrench in both Rassuchine and Evans’ final year as medical students. Graduation is cancelled, and it leaves a lot of questions for what the beginning of their residencies will look like.

But both said they are happy they’re able to help.

“I’m glad I’m able to help right now,” Rassuchine said. “I’m thankful that at least I have something to do.”

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Sam Gross is a breaking news reporter for the Reno Gazette Journal who covers wildfires, emergencies and more. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com. 

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