What Happened Here: A year after its first COVID case, Nevada reflects on its pandemic response

Ronald Pipkins was the last person to learn he had tested positive for COVID-19.

By the time his fellow Nevadans awoke one year ago today to the news that one of their own had tested presumptively positive for the novel coronavirus, Pipkins was in a medically induced coma fighting for his life. For a month and a half, much of it spent tangled in a jungle of blue, white and clear tubes pumping lifesaving oxygen and medications into his body, Pipkins struggled to fight a virus that he, his doctors and the rest of the world knew little to nothing about.

When Pipkins, a Marine veteran, showed up at the North Las Vegas VA Medical Center a few days earlier complaining of shortness of breath, no one mentioned COVID to him as the possible cause, and he didn’t suspect it. Pipkins had been feeling off for months. He was worried about his sarcoidosis, a lung disease. But the novel coronavirus? With only several dozen cases in the U.S. at the time, Pipkins felt like the virus was still far away in China. “It’s going to disappear,” President Donald Trump had promised just the week before. “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”

Except it didn’t. As Pipkins fought from early March through mid-April to survive, dozens, then hundreds and then thousands of Nevadans — 3,806 to be exact — tested positive for the virus. One hundred and fifty-nine of them died.

The miracle was that Pipkins was not among them.

“God spared my life,” the 56-year-old Las Vegas resident said, reflecting back on his fight with COVID.

But the world Pipkins woke up to was very different from the one he left when he entered the hospital in early March.

As Pipkins’ doctors grasped at straws trying to figure out how to save their patient’s life, state officials, public health experts and medical professionals scrambled to figure out how to stop the virus’s rampage across the state, at that point uncertain about how it was spreading and how deadly it was. At the time, 1 in 14 people who tested positive for the virus in hard-hit Italy was dying from the virus. The outlook was grim.

Facing no clear guidance from the federal government on how to tackle the virus and no national plan to address the pandemic, Gov. Steve Sisolak, and many of his counterparts across the nation, did the unthinkable, effectively shuttering their economies. The lights on the Las Vegas Strip dimmed. The school yards emptied. The streets quieted.

Looking back, there is essentially universal agreement among top decision-makers in Nevada that shutting down, extreme and wrenching as it was, was the right choice given what they knew about the virus at the time. If they knew then what they know today, they might have made a different choice, they say, but they didn’t know then what they do today.

What none of them anticipated back in March, though, was how deep or long-lasting the devastation from the virus would be. To date, Nevada has lost 5,005 lives directly to COVID-19, as well as countless more who have died from suicide, substance abuse issues and delayed medical care as a result of the pandemic. 

Others have survived but bear physical and mental scars from the last year. At the worst point last spring, 1 in 4 Nevadans was unemployed, more than half a million kids were learning by screen instead of in the classroom — if they were lucky and had the equipment and bandwidth to support it — and opioid-related overdose deaths ballooned 50 percent.

Now, more than a quarter of Nevadans are enrolled in the state’s insurance program for low-income individuals. Two in five Nevadans exhibit symptoms of anxiety, while 3 in 10 exhibit symptoms of depression. Mental health visits by kids to emergency rooms nationwide are up at least a quarter.

For most, the last year has been a never-ending pulse of sickness, struggle, loss, frustration and isolation. We’ve blamed federal, state and local governments, public health experts and other countries. We’ve blamed friends and family for taking the virus not seriously enough or too seriously. Sometimes we’ve blamed ourselves.

Now, a year since this virus first arrived in Nevada, we’ve had little time to pause and reflect. Though hindsight may be 20/20, we can't fully reap that benefit: The pandemic is not yet behind us. We’re still too close to the picture to be able to see its entirety.

That’s why, over the past few weeks, The Nevada Independent has interviewed more than 70 people, including state and local government officials, public health experts, doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, teachers, business leaders, academics and everyday Nevadans, and we plan to interview many more in the weeks to come.

Through those conversations, we have begun to piece together the events of the last year and grasp the myriad ways in which the pandemic has affected our state — what went right and what went wrong; what we didn’t know then and what we know now; and what the future might hold, for the virus, for our state and for us as humans.

In this six-part series, we tell that story.

Part I coming Sunday, March 7.