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Nevada Today

Nevada Today is a nonpartisan, independently owned and operated site dedicated to providing up-to-date news and smart analysis on the issues that impact Nevada's communities and businesses.

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COVID-19 Update: Omicron-icles

COVID-19, COVID-19 vaccines, Omicron, Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, Irvine, John Wayne Airport, California, Orange County, airport

COVID-19 continues to spread, and we have another pandemic holiday season. A new variant has emerged, and we’re still learning about how dangerous it is and what else we must do to overcome it. Here’s what you need to know about booster shots, new variants, best practices for the fall/winter holiday season, and our overall COVID-19 outlook.

Today’s Nevada COVID-19 check-up: Nevada’s overall outlook has deteriorated a bit. Infections, hospitalizations, and deaths appear stable. Most rural areas and Washoe County continue to trend lower, but Clark County is surging higher again. And finally, over 55% of Nevadans are now fully vaccinated.
COVID-19, COVID-19 vaccines, Omicron, airport, Harry Reid International Airport, Las Vegas, Clark County
Photo by Andrew Davey

According to Covid Act Now, Nevada’s statewide COVID-19 infection rate has jumped to 1.06, meaning that every 100 COVID-19 infections will lead to 106 new infections. Douglas (0.69), Humboldt (0.73), Lincoln (0.74), Nye (0.81), Churchill (0.83), White Pine (0.86), Carson City (0.90), Lyon (0.94), and Elko (0.96) Counties all have infection rates under 1.00, while Pershing (1.01), Washoe (1.03), Lander (1.07), Clark (1.09), and Mineral (1.38!) Counties suffer more rapid spread. Statewide, we’re seeing 22.4 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 per day. Douglas County (9.9) now has lower caseloads, while White Pine (13.4), Washoe (20.2!), Nye (20.6!), Carson City (20.9!), Clark (22.7!), Elko (23.3!), Storey (27.7!), Lyon (28.3!), Pershing (31.9!), Lander (33.6!), Eureka (35.2!), Churchill (36.1!), Humboldt (37.3!), and Mineral (47.6!!) Counties are all reporting over 10 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 per day.

According to the official Nevada Health Response dashboard and The Nevada Independent’s COVID-19 data tracker, Nevada’s 14-day test positivity average based on “new positives as a percentage of new test encounters” ticked down slightly to 7.41%. According to the Mayo Clinic, our statewide seven-day test positivity average has slid a little to 9.1%. According to the Scripps Institute’s, the Delta variant (B.1617.2) remains dominant for now: Delta and its sub lineages account for at least 81% of new cases in the last 30 days, at least 92% of new cases in the last 60 days, and about 84% of Nevada’s confirmed COVID-19 cases since February. We’ll be on the lookout in the coming days to see when the Omicron variant (or B.1.1.529) begins to show up in our data.

This week, our COVID-19 hospitalizations have slipped a bit. According to Nevada Health Response, our hospitals are treating 604 confirmed COVID-19 patients and an additional 85 patients who probably have COVID-19, for a total of 689 confirmed and suspected COVID-19 hospitalized patients. Nevada public health officials are reporting a total of 8,126 confirmed COVID-19 deaths as of mid-day today, and we’re averaging about 14 COVID-19 deaths per day.

According to the CDC’s COVID-19 Data Tracker (as of yesterday), 4,809,690 total doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been delivered to Nevada, and 4,051,842 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered and recorded. 2,068,797 patients have received at least one vaccine dose, meaning an estimated 65.8% of Nevadans (and more specifically, 71.5% of all Nevadans aged five and up, and 80% of Nevada adults) have at least initiated the vaccination process, and 1,696,624 Nevada patients are now fully vaccinated, meaning an estimated 55.1% of Nevadans (and more specifically, 58.6% of all Nevadans aged five and up, and 66.4% of Nevada adults) are fully vaccinated. 358,597 Nevadans thus far have opted for COVID-19 vaccine booster shots, meaning that 21.1% of Nevadans (and more specifically, 45.6% of Nevadans aged 65 and up) have opted for additional vaccine protection.

Oh my Omicron, continued…

COVID-19, COVID-19 vaccines, Omicron, airport, Long Beach, California, Los Angeles
Photo by Andrew Davey

Yesterday, I wrote some more about my family’s own COVID-19 pandemic experience in order to provide some personal context that hopefully helps more people view this beyond the standard facts and figures that sometimes come across as “cold” and “distant”. In light of the ongoing developments with the new Omicron variant, there’s plenty more for us to discuss here. 

As of this morning, Omicron has surfaced in at least 18 U.S. states, and in at least 38 countries around the world. We have more evidence indicating that Omicron may be the most transmissible variant yet, since Omicron’s spike proteins have mutated much more than what we saw in earlier variants. Because Omicron has mutated so much, COVID-19 reinfections may become much more prevalent. This right here is why we’ve been warning all along that reliance upon “natural immunity” and “herd immunity” by way of mass infections is essentially epidemiological Russian Roulette: Antibodies that resulted from previous infections with older variants may not always be sufficient to handle newer variants – such as Omicron – that have evolved in order to evade antibodies from previous infections.

Yet as we hinted at yesterday, the initial good news is that early evidence is pointing towards Omicron causing milder infections and reinfections, particularly among fully vaccinated patients who experienced breakthrough infections. And just this morning, Pfizer announced initial data showing that a booster shot of the current Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine offers significant protection against Omicron thanks to it triggering a 2,500% increase in antiviral antibodies in fully vaccinated and boosted patients – even as Pfizer executives also promise a new Omicron-targeting version of their COVID-19 vaccine by next March. This is why public health authorities have continued to encourage vaccinations (including booster shots) despite our lack of deeper knowledge of how the current COVID-19 vaccines work against Omicron. 

As we vented yesterday, and as outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel also pointed out recently, “This is so bitter because it is avoidable. With the effective and safe vaccines, we have the key to this in our hands.” Indeed, these and other preventative tools have been available for quite some time. Why is it so hard for us to accomplish what initially seemed to be so easy?

Next up: how Biden’s executive action on rapid testing reminds us of the larger crisis in America’s health care system
Joe Biden, White House, White House COVID-19 Response Team, COVID-19
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

On that last question, President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 Response Team tried to put their best feet forward during a press call yesterday. When asked why America doesn’t just send everyone free rapid test kits like the U.K. does and multiple other highly developed countries do, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients demurred: “We want to make sure people have access to free COVID-19 rapid tests. We believe the most proactive and effective response is better than that. […] Everyone in America has access to free testing.”

In reality, Biden’s new executive action on testing access merely requires insurance companies to reimburse covered patients who obtain rapid test kits. This is not to say that Biden’s executive action is useless, but this is a clear warning on the development of another potential “time tax” that may discourage some Americans from jumping through insurance company bureaucracy hurdles just to have to wait for a reimbursement. And of course, this does nothing to help the 27 million+ uninsured Americans

For the last two years, we’ve gone deep into the weeds on the unwell state of America’s health care system. This is just another example of what’s wrong, and it’s another painful reminder of what we must do to make it right. In the near term, it just makes more sense to just give people rapid tests – just like we’re already doing for the COVID-19 vaccines. In the long term, we must develop better ways to lower patient costs, and we must finally establish some kind of universal health care system – whether it’s a fully public health care system like the U.K.’s NHS; a single-payer system with many private providers like Canada’s Medicare and Norway’s Folketrygd; or a public-private hybrid system like Germany, The Netherlands, and Japan have.

By relying on water-downed half-measures, makeshift workarounds, and sometimes even full denial, we’ve only allowed our health care problems to metastasize into a full-blown crisis. This new insurance reimbursement policy is just another makeshift workaround that may help some, but possibly do little or nothing for many others. 

“We must act together and mobilize to do what we know works.” 
– CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, during yesterday’s White House COVID-19 press call
Joe Biden, White House, White House COVID-19 Response Team, COVID-19
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

Another frequent chorus of criticism hits America’s frail public health resources: The Biden administration has made some improvements since January, but our public health prognosis remains poor, and Biden’s call for a $65 billion 10-year Apollo Moon Mission style public health preparedness mission has thus far been reduced to a mere $10 billion over 10 years boost in public health program budgets in the yet-to-be-passed-by-the-Senate Build Back Better Act. Nonetheless during yesterday’s White House press call, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky promised more resources for state and local public health agencies for testing, contact tracing, and genomic sequencing to handle the current Omicron Outbreak: “The CDC is taking the necessary steps to prepare and equip.” And as Americans try to figure out how to survive this latest COVID-19 threat, Walensky insisted, “We must act together and mobilize to do what we know works.” 

Since the Biden administration and growing number of Democratic state and local politicians have all but abandoned other public health safety measures, the COVID-19 vaccines are largely all we have left, and even these vaccines have fallen prey to partisan political Russian Roulette games. At yesterday’s press call, Zients insisted, “Vaccines remain our best line of defense against COVID. The best thing you can do if you’re concerned about Omicron is to get boosted if you’re already vaccinated […] and get vaccinated if you’re not.”

Joe Biden, White House, White House COVID-19 Response Team, COVID-19
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

Even though America and a few other highly developed countries are fully loaded with vaccines, the rest of the world remains in a severe vaccine drought that’s mostly due to select pharmaceutical companies’ refusal to allow for cheaper, more equitable, and more efficient vaccine distribution. While Zients is correct that the U.S. government has donated over 300 million COVID-19 vaccine doses around the world, a new World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement on vaccine patent waivers could allow for even more readily available vaccine doses by way of cheaper and more locally produced generics. By relying on “volunteerism” and limited “donations” of select brand-name vaccines instead of directly solving this problem, we’re again just making things more difficult than they have to be.

In a combination of weirdly optimistic and disturbingly depressing news, NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci explained why Omicron may affect the U.S. differently from what we’re seeing so far in South Africa: “We have a much more vaccinated population than South Africa. They have a much higher proportion of their population with HIV, which inhibits patients’ immune response.” Fauci also promised that “in a few more weeks” we’ll have a fuller picture of how our current vaccines stand up to Omicron.

Finally, some odds and ends… And some more CDC data
COVID-19, COVID-19 vaccines, Omicron, airport, Harry Reid International Airport, Las Vegas, Clark County
Photo by Andrew Davey

Nevada’s larger mask rule for publicly accessible indoor spaces continues to be updated weekly based on two weeks’ worth of CDC COVID-19 transmission data. 15 of Nevada’s 17 counties show high transmission and Lincoln County has a substantial level of transmission, so the vast majority of the state will remain under the mask mandate. Meanwhile, Esmeralda County continues to post low transmission levels, so Esmeralda will remain out of the universal mask mandate through next week.

After a volatile summer, Nevada’s vaccination rate has mostly bounced higher this fall. According to CDC data, our seven-day moving average of daily vaccine doses administered has jumped again to 11,498, and this comes shortly after we hit a new (seven-day average) high of 11,731 on December 3. This marks a 125.98% increase from our July 10 record low at 5,088, and this marks a 5.06% increase from our previous November 12 high of 10,944 (and a 1.99% drop from our new autumn high of 11,731). It’s possible that we first got a rebound at least partially due to already vaccinated patients seeking booster shots, and it’s increasingly looking like the combination of boosters and eligibility expansion to younger children are helping to sustain this higher level of vaccine doses administered.

If you have further questions about COVID-19 and your health, check Immunize Nevada for more information on vaccine availability in your area, check Nevada Health Response for testing in your area, and check Nevada 211 for more health care resources. If you’re in need of additional aid, check the Nevada Current’s and Battle Born Progress’ resource guides. If you can afford proper treatment and you are fortunate enough to help others in need, please donate to larger operations like Direct Relief and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and to local groups like Three Square. And for goodness sake, please maintain best practices to help stop the spread.

The cover photo was taken by me.

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