‘Overwhelmed and Terrified’: Las Vegas’ Reopening Backfires Terribly

Pilar Melendez
·9 min read

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to pummel the United States, Las Vegas seems to be operating business as usual. Casinos have been open since June 4—undeterred by the 123 visitors who have tested positive for the highly contagious virus and the 51-year-old Caesars employee who died in late June.

But it’s not business as usual for doctors and nurses in Las Vegas’ besieged health-care system, who say they are “overwhelmed and terrified” about the massive influx of new cases in a state officially deemed a “red zone” by the White House.

“I would say in the last month we’ve been completely overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and our hospital is running out of space,” one Las Vegas emergency room doctor, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of professional retaliation, told The Daily Beast on Friday. “Not only are we overwhelmed and terrified, but based on the numbers for the rest of the country, it’s only going to get worse for us.”

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One of the states that loosened coronavirus restrictions in May, Nevada has set records for new cases throughout July. The rate of new cases per 100,000 residents is higher than the national average, putting Nevada in the top ten states for cases per capita—alongside Arizona, Texas, and Florida, now the epicenter of the pandemic.

In Las Vegas, where local officials protested against the stay-at-home order, the hospital system is starting to feel the effects of the cascading outbreak. The Las Vegas area set a new record of 1,315 new cases on Thursday, according to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services.

And Sin City is a microcosm for the whole state—which also shattered COVID-19 numbers on Thursday with 1,447 new cases and six new deaths. ICUs are at about 84 percent capacity.

“It’s even more troubling that COVID-19 in Nevada is disproportionately impacting communities of color,” Bethany Khan, the communications director for the Culinary Union in Las Vegas, told The Daily Beast on Friday. “Workers fear that they will contract the virus and bring it home to their families or possibly die from it.”

At least 626 people have died from the coronavirus and 31,915 have been infected in Nevada—continuing a trend across much of the South and West after states lifted lockdown measures. Worse still, the rate of positive COVID-19 test results has reached a staggering 24.3 percent, rising continuously over the last month.

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To curtail the surge, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak has rolled back premature reopening plans, introduced a mask mandate, and closed down bars in seven counties, including Vegas.

Steve Marcus/Reuters
Steve Marcus/Reuters

But he left it up to local leaders to enact more restrictive measures—and Las Vegas seems to be operating as usual. In the weeks after Nevada’s casinos reopened on June 4, after being shuttered for three months, at least 123 visitors have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Brian Labus, a professor of public health and outbreak investigation at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told The Daily Beast that while cases in the state are surging, state officials have “stepped up” and taken “the main steps” to ensure the spread is curtailed.

“The problem comes down to the fact that people didn’t take the social distancing seriously when we reopened,” Labus said. “I think the mask mandate will have a big dent on cases.”

Labus also stressed that Sin City “exists for tourism” and therefore has a unique issue of balancing “its economy with the safety issues.”

“You have to remember the kind of people who are coming to Las Vegas right now. It’s the people who are the least concerned about this outbreak right now—least likely to follow the social distancing,” he said, noting that tourists are not counted in Nevada’s numbers.

“When you are on vacation, you want to forget about all your problems—and that includes the coronavirus. But there is still a pandemic, and not following health guidelines puts everyone at risk.”

Khan said the pressure on reopening the strip has meant “hotel and casino workers are working in fear every day.” Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman has been notably silent after calling the state shutdown in March “total insanity” and suggesting Las Vegas could be a “control group” to test the impact COVID-19 would have on a community that didn’t close its doors.

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“We would love to be that placebo side so you have something to measure against,” she said during a wild April interview on CNN that prompted residents to begin efforts to remove her. Goodman’s office did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.

Late last month, Adolfo Fernandez, a 51-year-old employee at Caesars Entertainment on the strip, died after testing positive for COVID-19. The utility porter died just two days after getting his virus diagnosis—and before the casino implemented a company-wide mask policy.

The Culinary Union has since filed a lawsuit against several major casinos—including The Signature at the MGM Grand—to protect workers returning to work. The lawsuit states that the casino hotels have not adopted precautions to address the virus, have not conducted adequate tracing, and haven’t informed employees of positive tests among co-workers.

Khan, who said 20 union members and their spouses or kids had died from COVID-19 in the last three months, stressed that the lawsuit was aimed at ensuring that hotel and casino workers don’t have to live “with the same fear every day they go to work.”

The White House, according to a report obtained by the Center of Public Integrity, believes Nevada is already facing catastrophic virus consequences. In a July 14 document from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, public health officials said Nevada had reached “red zone” status—meaning there were more than 100 new cases for every 100,000 residents in the prior week. Nevada had about 173 new cases per capita in the previous week, compared to the national average of 119.

“Las Vegas continues to have [a] concerning rise in cases,” the report said, noting that its county is one of the top three in the state with the highest COVID-19 cases. (Clark County, Washoe, County and Elko County represent 97.9 percent of the new cases in Nevada.)

In order to combat the surge, the White House document suggested Nevada—and 17 other states—limit large gatherings, close down indoor establishments, and issue a mask mandate.

A New York Times study also showed Nevada’s surge to be among the highest in the world. The study of the number of daily infections between June 28 and July 5 showed Arizona and Florida are the two most infected places in the world. Nevada placed ninth, before Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, and the country of Panama. Nevada also ranked before Brazil, a country seen as one of the world's most severe hot spots with more than 2 million cases recorded since March.

“The big surge in cases in Nevada [is] among Las Vegas residents—but even if Las Vegas puts a bunch of measures in place, it wouldn’t matter unless it was implemented statewide. You can’t just focus on one jurisdiction, because people move around,” Labus said.

Las Vegas hospitals are feeling the surge of new cases and are overwhelmed, understaffed, and short on supplies—unable to keep up with what researchers believe is the “tipping point” before a state loses control of the pandemic.

For the ER doctor, who said he had worked over 100 hours this week alone, the fear is knowing that the worst of the virus is yet to come for Las Vegas. He also said that some of the hospital’s beds are being taken up by patients from out-of-state, like Arizona.

“This is uncharted waters and it seems like everyone in Las Vegas has been too lax about the pandemic,” the doctor said, stressing that local officials have not taken the necessary precautions to ensure they “stop the virus in its tracks months ago.”

“People here in Las Vegas don’t see this pandemic as an issue—well, once the hospitals are filled and there is nowhere to go, they will realize they should have been more careful.”

A spokesperson for University Medical Center in Las Vegas confirmed to The Daily Beast the hospital’s ICU occupancy had exceeded 90 percent but stressed they “have the ability to significantly expand this capacity.”

“Following a detailed planning process, we have teams in place to activate alternative surge space throughout UMC as needed. We are currently using extra space within a large PACU [post-anesthesia care unit] to care for a small number of patients with non-COVID-related medical concerns,” the spokesperson said, adding that the hospital had not received any virus patients from Arizona. The hospital does take out-of-state trauma patients who need additional care.

According to the Nevada Hospital Association, the state recorded its highest day for hospitalizations this week, with 1,051 on Tuesday. By Thursday, about 77 percent of staffed beds across the state were occupied, and 785 confirmed virus patients were admitted. About 40 percent of the state’s ventilators are in use.

Sixto Zermeno, a bellman at The Signature at MGM Grand, said in a video announcing the union’s lawsuit, that he hadn’t been able to see his daughter for three weeks while he recovered from COVID-19.

“[G]etting this disease has been extremely difficult for me and my family,” he said. “I have not been able to see my nine-year-old daughter in person since I tested positive—I haven’t been able to hug my daughter or see her for 3-weeks now.

“The Signature at MGM Grand had three months to prepare and they didn’t. None of our upper management had a clue what to do and that’s unfortunate. They put a lot of us and our families at risk.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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