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Clark County Braces For More COVID-19 Cases

(AP Photo/John Locher)
(AP Photo/John Locher)

Michael Murphy, a consultant serving as interim Clark County coroner, gives a tour of a refrigerated trailer at the coroner's office Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, in Las Vegas. The trailer is currently unused but is in place in case of a surge in coronavirus deaths.

Nevada just recorded a record number of COVID-19 deaths: 299 in a week.

Since the start of the pandemic, close to 191,000 people in Clark County have tested positive for COVID-19. That includes more than 12,000 positive tests in the last week.  

Greg Blake Miller got his positive diagnosis in November. He had the same symptoms as others: high fever, dry cough and aches. It wasn't until his blood oxygen level dropped to the low 90s, which was nine days after his diagnosis, that he was told by a doctor to go to a hospital.

Miller, 51, had no underlying health concerns but he developed COVID pneumonia. A doctor told him that if he had put off coming to the hospital just a day longer he might have ended up on a ventilator, which is a step that some COVID patients never recover from.

"When the doctor told me that, I was a little taken aback," he said, "It's this wake-up call that so many of us think that while we can get it we're not in the demographic that's going to get hit so hard that it becomes a life and death matter." 

Miller said the words from the doctor wasn't just a wake-up call personally, but it was also a wake-up call to how he views the virus in general.

While he was in the hospital, his blood oxygen level dipped into the 80s. He was in a COVID ward where the only people he saw were the doctors and nurses who came in and out to care for him.

After six days, Miller was released, but only a few days later he went back to the hospital with gastrointestinal issues caused by the virus. 

Now, two months later, he's still feeling the effects of the coronavirus.

"The symptoms started to fade from there probably in the second week in December, leaving this non-acute but really noticeable after-effect," he said, "So now, I get out of breath really easily. My heart rate shoots up and down rapidly." 

Nationwide, the number of deaths from COVID-19 is nearing the number of Americans killed in World War II. 

Jeff Quinn is the manager of the Office of Public Health Preparedness at the Southern Nevada Health District.

He said gatherings of family and friends are partly to blame for Nevada's spike in cases.

"We've seen through the data and through what we experienced with COVID testing sites over the past year that when large gatherings get together, a few weeks after that we do have an increase in the positivity rates," Quinn said. 

Mason Van Houweling is the CEO of University Medical Center. He said his hospital definitely saw spikes after the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and now New Year's. 

"We don't look at our family members or our parents, or our brothers and sisters as threats, but again this virus is very silent and does impact everyone," he said.

Van Houweling said the hospitals are now about 92 percent occupied over all beds and about 34 percent of those beds are occupied with COVID patients. 

He said the intensive care units are about 78 percent occupied and 57 percent of those beds are being used by COVID patients.

So far, Van Houweling said Southern Nevada hospitals have not had to take the step of rationing care like hospitals in Southern California have had to do.

He said the hospitals are "working extremely hard to avoid that at all costs," and to make sure emergency rooms stay open. Van Houweling said hospitals have cut back on elective surgeries and brought in extra help. 

However, he admits getting that extra help is challenging because hospitals across the country are also vying for the same pool of workers. In addition, many health care workers are retiring, and others are at a breaking point.

"Health care workers have not had a break since February," he said, "We've been on mandatory extra shifts. We've had mandatory overtime. We've had to have all hands on deck."

Van Houweling said health care workers are exhausted but excited about the prospect of a vaccine. 

It is the vaccine that is really the only thing that could make a big difference in containing the virus, said Brian Labus, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at UNLV’s School of Public Health.

Labus agreed that gatherings are part of the reason for the continued spread of the disease, but he said another factor is just the nature of how infectious diseases spread in a population.

"We have a lot of different steps that we're taking to reduce transmission, but until we had the vaccine become available a month ago, we didn't have any way to stop it," he said, "This virus was going to spread through our community no matter what we did."

Labus said we were able to slow it down through mitigation efforts, but it is not something we could control just by our actions alone.

With that being said, Labus did push back on the idea that some people have that since we can't really control the virus we don't need some of the limits on capacity at restaurants, bars and other businesses.

"If we didn't have any controls on the restaurants, our numbers would probably look much worse than they are right now," he said, "It's been challenging enough dealing just with people gathering with others in their home. To add that on top of it, would make things worse."

Labus said the last five or six weeks the state has seen the highest numbers since the pandemic started, and he said it makes no sense to rollback restrictions when the state is still sitting at the worst virus numbers since February.

Despite the high numbers, the Clark County School Board is considering whether to launch its hybrid model of learning, which allows students to return to classrooms on limited days.

Labus said if it were just about disease transmission then keeping schools closed would make sense because there is a risk when people gather. 

"We can't just look at it like that," he said, "There is a downside to not having kids in the classroom. There is a downside to their education but also their social development and all the other things they need to be successful in life."

Rebecca Dirks Garcia is a mother of four and the president of the Nevada PTA. She said some of her children have done fine with distance learning while others have really struggled.

She said she is not the only parent who has seen that split in how distance learning is working.

"Just like everybody else, it is unique to each child," she said.

Like parents, the teachers that Dirks Garcia has talked to are split on whether it's a good idea to return to class. She said some are concerned about their own health and the health of their families, while others can't wait to get back into the classroom.

And parents are also split on whether to support the plan to move to hybrid learning.

"I think it's like everything we've had in this pandemic when you talk about a huge population of students there's not necessarily agreement from families," she said, "Some families desperately want their children to have some level of in-person education, and others still really are waiting until the vaccine rollout is more complete."

This week, Gov. Steve Sisolak announced changes to how the vaccine will be rolled out. Instead of tiers, the state will have 'lanes' to allow it to administer the vaccine to essential workers and higher-risk people in the general public concurrently. 

"When we expand things to the general public, we're now approaching things a little differently as well, which is getting a large percentage of people in our community vaccinated and getting us, hopefully, to that point down the road where we have such a high rate of vaccination that we are able to control this disease through herd immunity," Labus said, "

Quinn said there is not enough vaccine right now for everyone, but he said the new rollout plan is an important step.

"The fortunate thing for us is it allows us the flexibility when providing immunizations to not only get the frontline, essential workforce but also to start working on the higher-risk populations," he said, "Allowing us the flexibility on the frontline to start vaccinating Nevadans 70 years and older and addressing the population, as well as the frontline, essential workforce, is really a game-changer for us." 

Both Labus and Quinn expect a majority of people to be immunized against the coronavirus in the next six months.  

"If we, as a community, want to get back to resume operations like we did pre-COVID, the vaccine will be the best measure for that," Quinn said.

While the community waits for a complete rollout of the vaccine, Quinn reminds everyone that the mitigation efforts to stop the spread - wearing a mask, socially distancing, avoiding gatherings, and washing your hands frequently - do work.


Jeff Quinn, manager, Southern Nevada Health District Office of Public Health Preparedness;  Mason Van Houweling, CEO, University Medical Center; Brian Labus, Epidemiologist and Assistant Professor, UNLV’s School of Public Health; Rebecca Dirks Garcia, President, Nevada PTA; Greg Blake Miller, COVID-19 survivor


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Zachary Green is the Coordinating Producer and a Reporter for KNPR's State of Nevada Program. He reports on Clark County, minority affairs, health, real estate, business, and gardening. You'll occasionally hear Zachary Green reporting and fill-in hosting on the State of Nevada program.