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Shows go on in Las Vegas, despite ‘alarming’ COVID-19 surge

January 5, 2022 GMT
Attendees make their way through the Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center prior to the CES tech show Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in Las Vegas. The show runs from January 5-7. (AP Photo/Joe Buglewicz)
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Attendees make their way through the Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center prior to the CES tech show Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in Las Vegas. The show runs from January 5-7. (AP Photo/Joe Buglewicz)
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Attendees make their way through the Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center prior to the CES tech show Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in Las Vegas. The show runs from January 5-7. (AP Photo/Joe Buglewicz)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Days after large crowds of revelers rung in the new year on the Las Vegas Strip, the region’s healthcare providers are again being pushed to their limits by ballooning demand for COVID-19 testing and a surge in new cases and hospitalizations.

University Medical Center in Las Vegas warned that an increase in patient volume is prolonging wait times in its emergency rooms and the local health district announced plans to move the Las Vegas area’s largest COVID-19 testing site to a 40,000-person capacity stadium.

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak on Tuesday acknowledged “the alarming number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.” But unlike fellow Democratic officials in cities like Los Angeles and states like Rhode Island, he hasn’t tightened statewide restrictions on schools, businesses or the large events that power Nevada’s tourism-driven economy.

Instead, Sisolak has continued to focus his message on promoting vaccines and has no plans to alter a policy allowing vaccinated individuals to go without masks at large events.

“The policy is still in place — the governor continues to urge Nevadans to get vaccinated if they haven’t done so and if they are eligible, to get the booster dose,” said Meghin Delaney, his spokesperson.

Meanwhile, CES, the country’s largest technology convention, began a scaled-back trade show in Las Vegas on Wednesday with mask requirements. The Las Vegas Raiders are scheduled to play the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday in front of tens of thousands of fans who can shed masks if they show proof of vaccination.

The rise of the omicron variant — which the state public health laboratory says accounts for more than half of new cases — has increased demand for both at-home and publicly-provided coronavirus tests.

“Omicron showed up at the same time people were gathering for the holidays,” Brian Labus, longtime epidemiologist with the Southern Nevada Health District now teaching at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said Wednesday. “We’re concerned about what that means for the next few weeks.”

Demand for tests has led to traffic jams near what had been the region’s largest testing site, a drive-thru staffed by Nevada National Guard at the UNLV campus. Officials said the site will close Wednesday and the larger site at Sam Boyd Stadium in southeast Las Vegas will open Sunday.

Demand has also strained UMC, the only public hospital in the state and home to the region’s top trauma center. Mason Van Houweling, hospital chief executive, implored people to avoid visiting emergency rooms for non-urgent medical needs, including if they experience mild symptoms of COVID-19. He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that many arriving at emergency rooms were seeking tests, not treatment and that wait times had increased.

The surge has led to confusion and staffing worries during a return to in-person classroom instruction Wednesday in the Clark County School District, the nation’s fifth-largest.

The district decided in September to require its 40,000 employees to be vaccinated, but administrators and union representatives have not announced details or a timeline for providing proof of vaccination, the Review-Journal reported.

A mask mandate remains in place, and the district on Tuesday informed parents of building cleaning protocols, school social distancing rules, symptoms of illness to look for in children and isolation recommendations.

Although data suggests the surge may eventually surpass previous records, a combination of vaccines and less severe variants has allowed hospitals nationwide to avoid using intensive care unit beds and ventilators that became scarce during earlier surges. This time, they’re facing unprecedented staffing shortages, demand for tests and a larger share of their non-COVID-19 patients testing positive.

Over the last two weeks, Nevada has reported an average of 2,029 new coronavirus cases per day — the highest 14-day moving average in more than a year. The average peaked at 2,762 new confirmed cases on Dec. 11, 2020.

Nevada’s test positivity rate — measured as a 14-day moving average — spiked from 7.5% on Dec. 1 to 18.5% on Tuesday. The figure previously peaked at 20.4% about a year ago. The World Health Organization goal is 5% or below to relax mitigation measures.

The number of individuals hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases rose to 1,184 on Tuesday — up 76% from two weeks prior. COVID-19 patients occupy about one in six of Nevada’s 6,600 hospital beds.

Washoe County Health Officer Kevin Dick said Wednesday that because of the “exponential” spread of the omicron variant and the sheer number of cases, “even though fewer of those are severe, there may still be more of those hitting our hospitals.”

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Metz, who reported from Carson City, is a corps member for the AP/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.