When Dr. Fermin Leguen became the Southern Nevada Health District’s acting chief health officer last fall, nobody could have predicted how recognizable his name would become to Southern Nevadans just months later.
Since the outbreak of coronavirus here, Leguen — pronounced “lay-GAIN” — has been the point man in the district’s efforts to combat it. He conducts news conferences, provides coronavirus updates and appears in TV presentations aimed at educating the public.
“Most of my professional life has been dedicated to public health,” said Leguen, who was born in Guantanamo, Cuba, came from modest means and, along with his brother, was the first in the family to go to college.
He considered aviation, engineering and even journalism before settling on medicine and earned a medical degree from the University of Havana and a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University.
“He knows what he’s talking about,” said Brian Labus, an assistant professor in UNLV’s School of Public Health and former health district epidemiologist who works with Leguen on public education efforts. “He understands the science and he understands how this disease works.”
Dr. Deborah Kuhls, a trauma and critical care surgeon at University Medical Center, who is president-elect of the Clark County Medical Society, said Leguen is, by virtue of his position, an ex-officio member of the society’s board of trustees.
“He’s very well-respected and comes with good public health credentials,” said Kuhls, who also is a professor of surgery at the UNLV School of Medicine. “He’s perceived to be doing a very good job.”
Leguen, who practiced primary care and preventive medicine in Florida, served as medical executive director for the health districts in Pasco and Hernando counties and spent 10 years as medical executive director and epidemiology director of the Miami-Dade County Health Department.
“When I was in medical school, I never thought about public health,” Leguen said. But while he was working in the provinces and finishing medical school, an aunt who worked in public health told him, “ ‘This is something you can do. I think you should think about it,’ ” he said.
“Eventually I got into the field, and I’ve loved it since day one,” said Leguen, 65. “You see where you could make a difference for a lot of people.”
Just over three years ago, he learned that the Southern Nevada Health District was searching for a chief medical officer. “They were offering a position that pretty much matched what I like to do,” he said, including both clinical work and going out into the community. “It was really attractive to me,” Leguen said.
He became the district’s chief medical officer in August 2016 and says that he and his wife, Rosario, an assistant teacher in the Clark County School District, like the valley’s diverse culture.
“For me, to be here and be able to contribute in some way to the world and this community is a joy,” he said. “What I try to do is work with the people around me and try to utilize … their skills.
“I don’t want to be the genius in the room. I just want to be able to facilitate everybody’s engagement so they can do their best,” Leguen said, “because there’s no way I can do this by myself.”
The coronavirus outbreak has made his job and the district’s job particularly challenging. But “our team is working very hard,” he said. “There is so much that is changing and things to learn every day.”
In December, the district received its first notification from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and international agencies of a “kind of a new pneumonia presentation in China, (and) nobody knew what this was about,” he said. “We realized (that) we needed to start working with our community partners.
“Because it is a new disease, there’s a very strong level of fear in the community,” Leguen said, which makes it vital to communicate information to the community, so they have a better understanding of coronavirus and what is required of them. “That helps (mitigate their) fears.
“In the beginning, we probably received hundreds of calls,” he added. “Those questions are just waning,” because the public is better informed now.
“Most Southern Nevadans are taking this very seriously. They’re being very responsive, (and) doing what they are being asked to do,” he said.
“Really, I couldn’t be more proud of the way the community has responded to this situation.”