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Three from Upstate earn top honors from Onondaga County Medical Society for work on Covid-19 and community service

Three from Upstate Medical University, a physician-scientist who served as lead investigator of Covid-19 vaccine clinical trials, and a physician who has made a commitment to bringing healthcare to the homeless, and a student who has dedicated her academic career to community service, have been honored by the Onondaga County Medical Society with its most significant awards.

David Lehmann, MD, PharmD, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor, received the Distinguished Service Award.

Lehmann and Mia Ruiz-Salvador created Housecalls for the Homeless in 2018. This street medicine program provides medical, psychiatric, and addiction care services for men and women experiencing homelessness in Syracuse and Onondaga County. Street medicine aims to create relationships with individuals on the streets and sleeping at shelters to help them live healthier lives. The ability for vulnerable populations to access medical care through street medicine a healthier lifestyle for homeless individuals by diagnosing and treating acute and chronic diseases, women’s health, mental health, and disease prevention.

Housecalls for the Homeless program provides basic medical and preventive care to those residing at area shelters, and through In My Father’s Kitchen, a mobile program providing food and basic necessities for individuals living outdoors. Knowing that the health crisis could quickly spread in shelters and onto the streets, Lehmann prioritized symptom screenings and provided guidance maintaining sterile environments in the shelters, which created a new demand for patient care.

Lehmann’s service work is extensive. In 2016, he traveled to Haiti as a member of an International Medical Relief (IMR) team following the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew that left nearly 176,000 people living in shelters. There, he provided medical care at outreach clinics in the rural areas surrounding Les Cayes, the epicenter of Haiti’s earthquake devastation. He also traveled with IMR in 2017 to Puerto Rico, and in 2019 to the Bahamas to provide medical support in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and Dorian, respectively.

Stephen J. Thomas, MD, received the Onondaga County Medical Society’s Adeline Fagan MD Physician Service to the Community Award. 

At Upstate, Thomas is the interim chair of microbiology and immunology and director of the Institute for Global and Translational Science.

Thomas is one the nation’s leading and most authoritative voices regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Thomas has been offering his perspective of the pandemic in both local and national media, updating the public on vaccines, masking, treatments and clinical trials since the pandemic was declared a global outbreak in March 2020.

A crowning achievement for Thomas that reflects his leadership in the international scientific and medical communities was his selection in November 2020 as the coordinating principal investigator for the world-wide Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine trial. Thanks to Thomas and the Global Health team, Central New Yorkers had an opportunity to participate in making history as Central New York became one of the study’s global phase 3 vaccine trial locations. Over the past five years, Dr. Thomas and his team have significantly expanded the number of clinical trials Upstate offers aimed at addressing significant and relevant health problems from COVID to sepsis to opioid addiction.

Elana Sitnik, a second-year medical student, received the Jerry Hoffman Advocacy Award.

Sitnik was honored in part for her work on Upstate’s mobile vaccine clinic for which Sitnik served as mobile vaccine clinic coordinator. The mobile vaccine clinics offered COVID-19 vaccines to the Syracuse community members, who might otherwise have trouble accessing the shot. The team of medical students, mentored Upstate physician Sunny Aslam, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, approached homeless people, visited shelters and went door-to-door in some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable neighborhoods.

From May until mid-August, the mobile vaccine clinic staff spent every Tuesday canvassing the community for willing recipients. During that time, they administered the vaccine to 164 people. The majority received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The team also visited shut-ins and elderly community members in suburban and rural parts of the county and answered questions about the vaccine as part of an outreach initiative at the downtown farmer’s market.

The Onondaga County Medical Society presented the awards at its annual meeting Nov. 16.

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