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Nevada loosens ‘elevated risk’ definition for counties

October 8, 2020 GMT

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — A state coronavirus task force voted Thursday to relax criteria for testing and positivity rates that counties must achieve to avoid being flagged as “elevated risk.”

Officials acknowledged that progress in containing the coronavirus pandemic has reversed course in recent weeks, but they stressed the importance of balancing the need to gradually reopen business to avert economic disaster while preventing further spread of the virus.

“As we open things up, we do expect numbers to go up a little bit. We do expect there to be a little bit more spread than what we were saying when there were more restrictions. So it’s not entirely surprising that we’re seeing a small increase,” state biostatistician Kyra Morgan said.


Since Nevada replaced its phased reopening plan with a strategy that allows local officials to submit reopening plans for approval by the task force, the state has used three criteria to flag counties for additional scrutiny. Counties with high positivity rates, many active cases or not enough testing must present mitigation plans for approval.

The revised thresholds require counties to test more than 100 individuals per every 100,000 residents daily and maintain positivity rates less than 8% to avoid flagging. Previously, counties had to test 150 individuals per every 100,000 residents daily and maintain positivity rates less than 7%.

The new criteria comes a week after Gov. Steve Sisolak issued a directive to remove the 50-person cap on gatherings and replace it with caps based on venue size to allow concerts, conventions and churches to operate more freely.

That move prompted pushback from health officials working in the state’s largest counties, who in a letter wrote that the governor had excluded them from decision making and given little notice that he intended to loosen gathering restrictions.

After Washoe County, home to Reno, questioned the timing of the rule change, state officials reiterated that counties can choose to add restrictions on top of statewide minimum guidelines.

The task force flagged Washoe and Humboldt County for elevated risk on Thursday. Washoe County Health District Officer Kevin Dick said the recent uptick in new cases reported daily coincided with the reopening of schools and universities, noting the positivity rate had grown in the 10-19 and 20-29 age brackets.


Washoe County would not approve large gatherings now allowed under state guidelines, Dick said, because it doesn’t have the resources to review plans and wants to see how gatherings of up to 250 people affects virus trends.

“I understand the desire to get back to normal, but we’re clearly not there yet and our health infrastructure is strained,” he said in a statement.

In Nevada, 83,827 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and 1,649 have died. The state’s seven-day moving average for its daily positivity rate has climbed to from 6.6% to 8.1% since Sept. 18.

Changed criteria did not satisfy business owners and officials from Storey and Nye County. Brothel owners and county commissioners from both counties demanded the task force allow brothels to reopen while following statewide guidelines.

Deanna L. Forbush, an attorney representing Pahrump’s Chicken Ranch brothel, said preventing legal brothels from reopening was prejudicial and unconstitutional. She compared them to other “skin to skin” businesses that have reopened, mentioning massage parlors, spas, and dentists’ offices.

“Just like dental professionals, our customers, employees and contractors are required to wear masks and other PPE at all times,” she said.

She said the state wasn’t following through on its pledge to follow the science and claimed, if they were, brothels would open.

“Decision-makers cannot allow their own individual prejudices or moral judgments to discriminate against businesses by applying different standards to similar industries,” she said.

Storey County Commissioner Lance Gilman, who owns Mustang Ranch brothel, said there was no evidence brothel activity spread the virus more quickly than other businesses that have reopened. He said continued closures threatened the livelihoods of brothel workers and contractors and punished an important pillar of the Storey County community.

“We have received no feedback of any kind on why this business continues to remain closed. It is not a business that encourages congregation or large crowds,” he said.


Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.