Remember COVID-19? Yes, it’s still spreading in Nevada. Yes, we do have some good news about our stubbornly high infection rates. And yes, this state, like so many other communities across America, continues to struggle in figuring out how to stop the spread mostly on our own.
The ongoing fight over reopening bars just illustrates how much further we still need to go in actually getting to the root of this public health crisis.
Yes, Nevada’s COVID-19 stats are mostly improving. No, this is still no time to celebrate.
In the last month, Nevada’s COVID-19 outbreak has actually abated some. According to the state’s official Nevada Health Response database and The Nevada Independent’s running tallies, case growth has mostly been on a downward trend for the past month. And according to Covid Act Now, Nevada’s infection rate stands at 0.88 (or every 100 new infections leading to another 88), which indicates that our active caseload may finally be on a sustainably downward trajectory.
Nevada currently has 874 (combined confirmed and credibly suspected) COVID-19 patients in hospitals, which is about 300 below our July highs. But then again, one of the reasons for the lower hospitalization count is our still high death count, as Nevada logged a record high 33 COVID-19 induced deaths yesterday and another record high 37 deaths today. Nevada’s total COVID-19 death count now stands at 1,172.
Keep in mind that death is a lagging indicator, as those who have died this month likely contracted COVID-19 during our June-July peak infection period. Yet with Nevada’s seven-day average test positivity rate mostly continuing to hover in the 15%-20% range according to how the Indy calculates test positivity (and with the cumulative positivity rate now topping 11.3%), with Covid Act Now estimating that Nevada’s only contact tracing 17% of new infections within 48 hours (better than before, but still woefully short of where we need to be), and with hospitals themselves still lacking sufficient PPE and workplace safety standards, we remain well within the danger zone, even if the outlook now looks less catastrophic than it did a month ago.
“We are taking a new approach, and transitioned approach, to deal with COVID-19 in Nevada. This approach is intended to be targeted, to be tailored, and to be collaborative with local government.”
– Caleb Cage, Nevada Health Response
Earlier this month, Governor Steve Sisolak (D) announced a new COVID-19 mitigation plan that centers more on county-level data and individual business compliances rather than statewide reopening and closing schedules. Today, the state’s COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force finalized a new set of rules outlined in Directive 30 (which Sisolak signed last week).
As Nevada COVID-19 Response Director Caleb Cage noted, “We are taking a new approach, and transitioned approach, to deal with COVID-19 in Nevada. This approach is intended to be targeted, to be tailored, and to be collaborative with local government.” Going forward, Nevada Health Response will be holding weekly meetings with state regulators and county officials to go through their respective plans.
In theory, the state is ending the wide-scale mandatory closures and mostly returning to the baseline of business reopenings we experienced under “Phase Two” in June. More recent rules, such as the statewide mask/face covering mandate and tighter crowd restrictions, remain in place and are now part of the new statewide baseline standard.
However in practice, our reality on the ground remains as dicey as ever. In response to Nye County’s request, bars will remain closed in Pahrump as bars in the rest of the county can reopen tonight. In Elko County, county and state officials agreed to keep bar closures in place there through at least next week. Because multiple task force members expressed concerns over sporadic enforcement of health safety rules in Washoe County, all bars remain closed there for at least two more weeks. And because of the “red alert” levels of COVID-19 caseload and test positivity rates in Clark County, as well as conflicts in health safety enforcement between the county and the City of Las Vegas, all bars here must also remain closed for at least two more weeks.
“Where I see their plan coming up short is that it’s the ‘Phase Two’ guidance. I don’t see an enforcement plan.”
– Caleb Cage, Nevada Health Response, on Washoe County’s challenge in implementing its COVID-19 mitigation plan
Throughout the meeting, Cage and the other task force members seemed to walk a tightrope between praising all counties for their cooperation with the state and pointing out the much harsher reality within these counties’ communities. As they discussed Washoe County’s mitigation plan, Cage vented, “Where I see their plan coming up short is that it’s [a regurgitation of] the ‘Phase Two’ guidance. I don’t see an enforcement plan.” And while he praised Washoe County officials for their cooperation, he warned that within the cities of Reno and Sparks, “Within the city level, we’re not seeing the same level of enforcement.”
And of course, this also came up during their review of Clark County’s plan. As the City of Las Vegas faces more turmoil than ever over Council Member Michele Fiore’s Floyd Lamb Park corruption scandal and her ongoing racist controversies, as well as the ongoing fallout from Mayor Carolyn Goodman’s endorsement of “control group” pseudoscience, city leaders haven’t been working with Clark County on the mitigation plan.
In contrast, Cage and the rest of the task force praised Humboldt, Lander, and Nye Counties for submitting mitigation plans on time. They especially praised Nye County for providing such ample contact tracing data that they were able to pinpoint the heightened infection rate in Pahrump. Meanwhile in Humboldt County, they did ask county and state officials to work more closely with the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes on mitigation measures there. (The Nevada side of the Fort McDermitt tribal community lies within Humboldt County, but it’s its own sovereign entity under federal and state laws.)
“As a state, we just don’t invest a lot of money in health care.”
– Richard Whitley, Nevada Department of Health and Human Services
Beyond the municipal level challenges in enforcing state-mandated mitigation plans, the task force also discussed the continuing challenges at the state level. As they were discussing the regular delays in reporting testing data, Nevada Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Director Richard Whitley admitted, “As a state, we just don’t invest a lot of money in health care.” Even as he noted that some of the test reporting delays emanate from out-of-state private laboratories being contracted by major casinos, Whitley expressed his concern that the casinos would stop offering free COVID-19 testing to workers if the state tightens regulations, and that the state can’t afford to make up for any lost testing capacity.
Keep in mind that due to the three month+ long gridlock over the HEROES Act, the prospect of additional federal funding for testing, contact tracing, and general state and local assistance remains as bleak as ever. And since President Donald Trump’s recent executive actions only tried to force states to spend money on his alleged “unemployment benefit”, those memorandums don’t help either.
Early in the program, Cage declared, “The decisions that we make today will be extremely important. They will affect lives, and they will affect livelihoods. These are decisions we do not take lightly.” He then stated, “We are doing all we can at this task force in order to avoid any further spike in deaths.”
And yet, earlier this week ProPublica detailed how smartphone data collected since June 4 shows that the reopened Las Vegas casinos are probably fueling more COVID-19 infections here in Nevada and throughout America. As we and many others have been saying for some time, the Trump administration’s “liberating” agenda has only succeeded in “liberating” further spread of COVID-19 by incentivizing these and other premature business reopenings and failing to provide sufficient resources to protect public health. When we assess this bigger picture of America’s overall failure to contain COVID-19, the ongoing debate over how many of Nevada’s bars can reopen seems like an odd collection of fine print for the state to struggle over.