Private sector COVID-19 task force wraps up; governor urges vaccinations

In a sign of the pandemic winding to a close, Gov. Steve Sisolak on Wednesday announced the disbanding of the state's COVID-19 Private Sector Task Force — a group of private citizens responsible for fundraising and supporting efforts to mitigate and recover from the virus.

The governor formed the task force in March 2020, as COVID-19 cases rapidly spread throughout the state and country. At the time, Nevada faced a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies amid countless unknowns.

"We were worried about legitimately having enough body bags ... We worried about crematoriums and air quality, how bad it could get here," Sisolak said during a press conference on Wednesday. “And who do I call for help? The task force. And they were there. So, we've made it this far, and we're going to make it the rest of the way through this pandemic."

The task force aimed to harness public-private partnerships to generate the funding necessary to support PPE acquisition, distribute masks and even connect students with broadband and laptops while they learned remotely.

Members of the task force emphasized that their connections to major casino companies and the global resort industry allowed the state to connect with PPE manufacturers in China and other countries and purchase equipment at fair prices.

In total, the group raised more than $12 million, according to a report submitted to the governor. Funding supported the purchase of PPE and set up a COVID trace application used on more than one million electronic devices statewide. The task force also created the Connecting Kids partnership, which by Jan. 5, 2021 had helped ensure that most of the nearly 500,000 public school students in Nevada had access to reliable internet and an electronic device to facilitate remote learning.

Jim Murren, the chair of the task force and former chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts, said that without the partnership and support of the resort and gaming communities and large employers throughout the state, it would have been nearly impossible to adequately protect medical professionals, first responders and Nevada residents. He added that the task force provides a guide for what to do in future crises.

"We can no longer be dependent on states out of this state for our very safety and our livelihood," he said. "We're an independent state. We need to do this here at home. Because make no mistake, there'll be another crisis."

Though Nevada is reopening and recovering from the economic devastation caused in the wake of the pandemic, Sisolak said that the state is not quite out of the woods and emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated.

As of Wednesday, almost 48.4 percent of Nevadans are fully or partially vaccinated. The seven day average for COVID-19 cases is 310, slightly higher than last week. Hospitalizations are up from where they were two weeks ago, but have seen small decreases the last couple of days.

“The uptick in cases, the uptick in hospitalizations, none of those folks have been vaccinated,” he said. “I mean if you want to protect yourself, there's a simple solution: go get vaccinated. And I encourage everyone to do that.”

Sisolak announces COVID-19 vaccine incentive program with $1 million grand prize

Gov. Steve Sisolak announced on Thursday a new state-run incentive program that will award some $5 million in prizes —  including a $1 million grand prize — to Nevada residents who get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The announcement of the program, called “Vax Nevada Days,” comes as the state lags behind President Joe Biden’s goal of having 70 percent of adults at least partially vaccinated by July 4 — as of June 16, the state has at least partially vaccinated 59.4 percent of the adult population, a mark that ranks 33rd among the 50 states. 

“We want to avoid ever going through what we went through COVID last year,” Sisolak said. “That's why today I want to provide Nevadans with an exciting update on one more way we're planning to encourage all Nevadans to get their vaccine, in addition to thanking those who've already gotten their shots.”

Sisolak unveiled the program at a kickoff press conference at Allegiant Stadium, where a vaccine clinic and stadium tours were simultaneously being held. Though winners will be announced each Thursday from July 8-Aug. 26, those who have already been vaccinated will be automatically entered in the drawings once their vaccinator has submitted that information to the state. 

Governor Steve Sisolak speaks during a press conference inside Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Every Nevadan who is at least 12 years old and receives at least a first dose will be automatically entered to win one of nearly 2,000 prizes.

Other incentives up for grabs for people 18 and older include 149 cash prizes ranging from $1,000 to $250,000 each. Specifically, 100 people will win $1,000 each, 32 will win $25,000, 11 will win $50,000, two will win $100,000, three will win $250,000 and one person will win the $1 million grand prize. Teens between the ages of 12 and 17 are eligible for 135 different college savings plan awards valued from $5,000 to $50,000.

People of all ages are eligible to win one of 500 Nevada state park annual passes or one of 1,250 state fishing licenses.

All $5 million worth of prizes will come from federal COVID-19 relief funds, and they will be distributed through Immunize Nevada. Sisolak said he expects winners to first be called as prizes are drawn, though the administration of the program will be fully carried out by Immunize Nevada.

Sisolak was also joined at the event by Scott Gunn, a senior vice president at the gaming company IGT Global Solutions Corporation. Gunn explained that other states are able to administer COVID-19 incentives through their state lotteries. Because Nevada does not have a state lottery, IGT will be helping pick winners through a certified random number generator, which is the process used by lotteries in other states. Gunn also noted that IGT will not have access to anyone’s personally identifiable information throughout the process.

Sisolak explained that the drawings are legal in the state because Nevadans are being entered into a raffle system rather than a lottery that someone would have to pay to enter.

“We got an opinion from my counsel, from the attorney general’s counsel, from the Gaming Control Board's counsel that this is something that we're allowed to do,” he said.

Over the past few weeks, a variety of other states have announced incentives meant to boost vaccination rates, after the number of doses being administered daily across the country significantly declined in late April and May. Some states have announced cash prizes, such as Ohio, which started the “Vax-a-Million” campaign to boost vaccination numbers by giving out five $1 million prizes to vaccinated adults. 

Governor Steve Sisolak answers questions during a press conference inside Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Other states have offered different, non-cash prizes, such as free tickets to a Six Flags theme park, which Illinois offered to some of its vaccinated residents.

Update: This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. on June 17, 2021 to include more information about the incentive program.

Michelle Rindels contributed to this report.

School-based vaccination sites open as health workers focus on boosting COVID-19 shots to teens

There wasn’t much debate about whether to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in the Lenihan household.

Brian Lenihan, his wife and their 20-year-old son rolled up their sleeves for the shots earlier this year. So when it came time for the family’s 14-year-old twins to receive their doses, it didn’t take much, if any, cajoling. The teens grew up receiving inoculations, including the seasonal flu and HPV vaccines. This jab in the arm, however, came with the promise of more freedom: get-togethers with friends, a summer trip to national parks, in-person school and a long-awaited sushi meal.

“Takeout sushi just isn’t the same,” Lenihan explained.

His twins — a son and daughter who will be attending Desert Oasis High School later this year — are due for their second COVID-19 vaccine doses Tuesday. They’re among the thousands of adolescents statewide who have initiated the process after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention greenlighted the Pfizer vaccine for use in 12- to 15-year-olds in mid-May.

As of Wednesday, more than 18,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15 in Nevada had been given at least one dose of the vaccine, representing about 10.7 percent of kids who fall into that age group, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services. While that number is significantly less than the 48.9 percent of eligible Nevadans who have initiated vaccination, it is increasing rapidly, jumping up two percentage points in six days.

Karissa Loper, health chief in the state’s Bureau of Child, Family and Community Wellness, described those day-over-day gains as “promising,” particularly given the fact that 12- to 15-year-olds have only been eligible for the vaccine for about three weeks.

“We're seeing that number [of new vaccinations] be steady every day, meaning I think parents are feeling comfortable, are getting their questions answered, are listening to their trusted sources or getting to talk to their medical professional, and then with maybe with their teen making that choice to get that teen vaccinated,” Loper said.

That’s the case with Dawn Billings Blake and her 14-year-old son. As a teacher, Billings Blake got her vaccine fairly early in the rollout, but she worried that her son, who has Asperger’s, would balk at the idea. He previously hated shots, and she didn’t want to pressure him. She prefers arming him with information and letting him feel the self-sufficiency that comes with making his own decisions.

Her concerns ended up being for naught. He quickly agreed, which she thinks stemmed from watching his parents, grandparents and older brother receive the vaccine and experience little to no side effects. As a rising sophomore at East Career and Technical Academy, her son also yearned for a more normal school year.

“He took it like a champ,” she said.

Elisa Martinez, 15, also made the decision for herself. Her mother has received the vaccine, but her father is hesitant. They let her choose. Martinez said she put her trust in the scientists who developed the vaccine. Plus, it provided some mental relief after watching relatives, including her grandmother who was placed on a ventilator, battle COVID-19.

“You are protecting your elders. You are protecting your family. You are protecting yourself from COVID,” said Martinez, who will be a junior at Palo Verde High School in Las Vegas.

A billboard truck advertising COVID-19 vaccines for adolescents sits outside Desert Pines High School in Las Vegas on Tuesday, June 1, 2021. (Jackie Valley/The Nevada Independent)

Despite some students’ enthusiasm for the vaccine, Clark County is hardly the frontrunner. With 9.4 percent of its adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15 vaccinated with at least one shot, it ranks fourth among counties, according to state data. Washoe County, at the top, has vaccinated 16.3 percent of that age group, while Nye County, at the bottom, has only vaccinated 1.3 percent. Douglas and Carson City — which with Washoe County, are leading the pack in the overall immunization effort — come in at second and third, respectively.

Surprisingly, Elko County, which is ranked 15th out 17 counties for percentage of first doses administered to its residents at 24.8 percent vaccinated, is ranked fifth in vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds, having already vaccinated just under 9 percent of them. Loper attributes the relatively high adolescent immunization rate to the work of Bobbi Shanks, the chief nurse for the Elko County School District.

“She does a really great job of making sure any vaccine is accessible to her Elko teens and that she's giving the information to the parents early. She answers all their questions. That staff is amazing,” Loper said. “I think that lends a lot of local trust and comfort in that person, that nurse who's recommending that vaccine to you.”

In an email, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services said that while the school nurse's office no longer stocks childhood vaccines — and never stocked the COVID-19 vaccine — "they do collaborate within the Elko community to refer individuals to their excellent community partners."

In Washoe County, the primary question is always, “How do we reach this age group?” said Lisa Lottritz, division director for Community and Clinical Health Services at the Washoe County Health District.

To that end, the health district dispatched staff to Bishop Manogue Catholic High School in May for an on-site vaccination event. Lottritz said about 140 students received an initial dose of the vaccine at the time. The health district returned on Friday for a followup event, providing second doses as well as first doses to anyone who attended and wanted to start the vaccination process.

Similarly, the health district intends to host pop-up vaccination events in Washoe County School District parking lots during summer school later this month, Lottritz said. Health officials are also eyeing opportunities to provide vaccinations at parks, food banks, churches and Boys & Girls Clubs — all in the name of reaching people at places where they normally go.

“Not missing opportunities is a big thing for us,” she said.

The Southern Nevada Health District kicked off school-based vaccination events last week, too. Shortly before the doors opened on Tuesday, a small line had formed outside the Desert Pines High School gymnasium. It largely consisted of parent-teen duos, like Mike Meyer and his son, Nichols. The almost-14-year-old — who will begin his freshman year at the school in a couple months — said he didn’t want to wait any longer. Older family members have already gotten theirs.

“What’s the big deal?” Mike Meyer said, describing the decision as a no-brainer. “Just do it.”

But that certainly isn’t the case for all families. Health officials acknowledge they’re still combatting vaccine hesitancy among families.

Heidi Parker, executive director of the nonprofit Immunize Nevada, said the focus has been not only on communicating to parents that their kids still face a risk if they contract COVID-19, particularly if it develops into a rare but serious condition known as multi-system inflammatory syndrome, but that the vaccine will make it safer for them to return to the activities they enjoy, whether that’s being able to hang out with friends, go to school dances or play sports.

“We've been talking about the things that we all miss as adults, but they're in a similar situation and have missed a lot of things themselves,” Parker said.

Immunization officials have also been pointing to the vaccine’s success — and safety — among 16- to 17-year-olds, who have been eligible for the vaccine for months, in encouraging parents to get their 12- to 15-year-olds the shot. But they also understand some parents may be waiting for the Pfizer vaccine to get full approval, a process that usually takes months but could happen as soon as early as the second half of the year.

Irene Cepeda, a Clark County School Board of Trustees member, shared that her 15-year-old son had received his first dose several weeks ago and was due for his second last Wednesday. She encouraged others to follow suit to protect themselves and others as well as help the community move forward after a trying year.

“I think everyone’s just kind of really looking forward to being normal — walking around without a mask, not having to be physically distant,” she said.

More school-based vaccination events are planned this week in Clark County. Second doses will be provided at the same schools at the end of the month and beginning of July.

“We've seen some great success in Nevada with school-based flu immunization sites. It’s open to that surrounding community. It's a familiar access point. Families can walk there based on if it's in their neighborhood,” Parker said. “I think it does reduce some of those barriers [to accessing the vaccine] that we hear about.”

Though the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t expected to be required for K-12 students, those involved with the immunization effort are gearing up for anticipated back-to-school demand for the vaccine. 

“We'll just continue to reiterate to parents the importance of trying to get in now and get those appointments taken care of sooner than later,” Parker said.

And, where vaccinators were concerned about a recommendation against administering the COVID-19 vaccine in close proximity with other shots, a policy change from the federal government allowing concurrent vaccination has now provided them with a golden opportunity. Incoming seventh-graders required to get the meningococcal conjugate vaccine, which covers four types of meningococcal disease, as well as the Tdap vaccine, which protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, or whooping cough, will now be able to get the COVID-19 shot at the same time.

Vaccination officials say it’s plausible they could see even higher rates of COVID-19 vaccination among seventh-graders than they do for other age groups, if they’re able to capture them when they’re receiving their other back-to-school shots. Loper echoed what other health officials have said about the importance of not squandering any opportunities.

“That was a huge win for vaccinators in general,” Loper said. “Any time I have you at a place where you can get vaccinated and I can't give you every vaccine that you could possibly get that day, for whatever reason, that's a missed opportunity for us. This allows us to miss no opportunities to vaccinate an eligible adolescent.”


As for whether schools will require the COVID-19 vaccine for older students, that seems unlikely but hasn’t been decided. Fermin Leguen, Clark County’s chief health officer, said he’s not aware of any discussions at this point about making the vaccine mandatory for children.

Loper said that interest in requiring the COVID-19 vaccine is “different at different levels,” noting that doing so would involve a multi-step process. Any decision to mandate kids to receive the shot before returning to school would have to be put forward as a regulation by the Division of Public and Behavioral Health and go through a public input process before it would be voted on by the state Board of Health. Even having that conversation, she said, doesn’t make sense unless a large number of parents and schools are on board with the idea.

“You want everybody to be in support of it before you really create a mandate, or it won't be effective. It will cause more animosity than anything else,” Loper said. “Starting at the stakeholder information process, that's really where we're at, and I'm sure all the school districts and things are thinking about that. I know we're here, ready to engage, but the State Immunization Program isn't necessarily leading that conversation right now.”

Health officials say priority at the moment is simply inoculating as many people as possible, children included, and the quicker, the better. 

While the Biden administration has set a target of getting 70 percent of adult Americans vaccinated by the Fourth of July, neither the federal nor state government has set a similar goal for vaccinating kids. It’s also unclear how soon more children will become eligible, though Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, has expressed optimism about the age range widening to those as young as 4 years old by the end of the year.

“There is a sense of urgency to it and we do want to make sure that as many kids are protected as possible, especially as they do return to activities like summer camp and all of those things,” Parker said. “It is just making it as accessible as possible, all of the places and all of the days and times and making it easy for parents to get their kids in somewhere.”

The big question over the coming weeks and months is whether those efforts will translate to a dramatic increase in the state’s vaccination rate.

Nationally, Nevada ranks toward the bottom of states in terms of percentage of adolescents vaccinated with at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nevada has vaccinated nearly 18 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds as of Friday, ranking 37th in the nation. Vermont, by comparison, is in first place at 55 percent while Idaho is in last at 0.4 percent.

Nevada ranks 32nd nationally for percentage of residents 18 and older who have received at least one shot of the vaccine, at 57.7 percent.

Those adolescent and adult rankings, while seemingly less than impressive on their face, actually represent good news for Nevada, which ranked last in the country for percentage of residents vaccinated against the flu in the 2019 to 2020 season, at 44.4 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Rhode Island was first at 60.9 percent.

“Our vaccination rate right now is significantly higher than we ever get during flu season. For Nevada, that’s a cause for celebration,” Parker said. “Hopefully that same trend applies for our younger Nevadans as we start getting them more into clinics and hopefully we see similar increases as well.”

Correction: This article was updated on June 7, 2021 at 4:08 p.m. to correct incorrect information provided by the state Department of Health and Human Services. The Elko County School District no longer stocks childhood vaccines on site and never stocked the COVID-19 vaccine, a spokeswoman for the department said.

Coronavirus Contextualized, 49th edition: Cases, hospitalizations continue to decrease as state prepares to open 100 percent

Welcome to the 49th installment of “Coronavirus Contextualized.”

For more than a year, we have brought you the latest COVID-19 numbers in Nevada, including COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, and provided context to them on a near-weekly basis through this series. You can view the prior editions of “Coronavirus Contextualized” here.

As noted in the last few editions, we plan to continue providing you with the data you need to know about COVID-19 in Nevada for as long as necessary. However, “Coronavirus Contextualized” now publishes on a semi-regular basis, which means we may occasionally skip a Friday or two if there are no new trends to report.

Don’t fear though: You’ll still be able to continue to find the latest data daily on our COVID-19 data page and on Twitter. As always, you can reach out to megan@thenvindy.com with any questions.

Below, we explore how COVID-19 cases and hospitalization numbers have remained low as the vaccination effort continues and the state continues to open up — with every county expected to be fully open as of Tuesday.

Cases and test positivity

The number of new COVID-19 cases reported each day has been steadily declining over the last two weeks.

As of Thursday, an average of 209 cases were reported each day over the last seven days, down from 267 the week before and 381 the week before that. The last time the seven-day average was lower than it is now was June 12, 2020, right around when COVID-19 cases first started to climb after Nevada started to reopen following the spring shut down.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, there have been 323,481 COVID-19 cases reported statewide. A little less than 3 percent of those cases, 9,396 have been diagnosed in the last month, and 0.5 percent, or 1,463 cases, have been reported in the last week.

For comparison, the number of COVID-19 cases reported in the last week is about half of the cases Nevada was seeing on average reported each day during the worst of the pandemic this fall. On Dec. 10, the peak, the seven-day average hit 2,736.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, about 1 in 10 Nevadans has tested positive for the virus.

At the same time, the test positivity rate, which looks at the percentage of tests coming back positive out of the total tested, has been steadily decreasing for about a month.

It is not possible to independently calculate the test positivity rate based on test encounters because the state only reports the number of positive cases, not the number of positive test encounters. However, the state does provide this number, calculated as an average over a 14-day period with a seven-day lag. As of Wednesday, that number was 4.21 percent, down from 4.8 percent the week before and 5.34 percent the week before that. The test positivity rate is now, once again, below the World Health Organization’s recommended 5 percent threshold.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 1.6 million people — roughly 1 in 2 Nevadans have been tested for COVID-19, and there have been more than 3.3 million individual testing encounters.

Vaccinations

As of Thursday, nearly 45 percent of Nevadans have been either partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 42 percent of Nevadans eligible for the vaccine have yet to receive it.

Since vaccinations started in December, nearly 2.5 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Nevada, up from nearly 2.4 million last week. In total, nearly 1.4 million people have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and more than 1.1 million Nevadans have been fully vaccinated. Nevada has received more than 2.8 million doses of the vaccine for distribution.

The pace of vaccine distribution has continued to generally slow. As of Thursday, about 13,000 vaccines were being reported administered each day over the last seven days, down from about 16,000 last week and a high of nearly 30,000 on April 15.

Among the counties, Carson City has the highest percentage of residents partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at 48.5 percent, followed by Washoe County at 47.5 percent, Douglas County at 44.6 percent, and Clark County at 39.9 percent. Tiny Storey County has vaccinated the least, with only 14.2 percent of its residents partially or fully vaccinated.

As the federal government continues to forge ahead with its goal of vaccinating 70 percent of American adults with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by July 4, Nevada continues to lag. As of Thursday, Nevada has given 56.4 percent of the adult population, or about 1.3 million adults, at least one dose of the vaccine. 

Nationally, Nevada ranks 32nd among the 50 states for percentage of adults given first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, trailing almost all of its neighboring states except Idaho, which comes in at 44th with 49.6 percent vaccinated. California ranks 12th, at 69.1 percent; Oregon ranks 20th at 64.9 percent; Utah ranks 25th at 60.3 percent; and Arizona ranks 31st at 57.1 percent.

To reach 70 percent, Nevada will need to vaccinate about 325,000 more adults. With an average of 7,000 first doses a day being administered, if all of those shots were given to adults, the state would hit the 70 percent vaccination goal in 46 days — on July 12.

For more on the vaccination process in the state, read our vaccine Q&A here.

Deaths

The number of new COVID-19 deaths reported on average each day has continued to generally decline, with some day-to-day fluctuations.

As of Thursday, four deaths were being reported on average each day over the prior seven days, roughly unchanged from last week and slightly down from five deaths two weeks ago.

Over the last seven days, 28 COVID-19 deaths have been reported across the state, including:

  • 24 in Clark County
  • 3 in Washoe County
  • 1 in Nye County

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 5,578 deaths from COVID-19. In the last month, 134 deaths from COVID-19 have been reported statewide, about 2 percent of the deaths reported statewide since the beginning of the pandemic.

Pershing County has had the highest number of deaths per capita in Nevada, with 30 deaths per 10,000 residents, followed by Nye County at 23 and Carson City at 22.

Hospitalizations

COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to decline, again setting a new record low of 243 on Wednesday, the last day for which data is available. The previous record low, 259, was set on March 28, before hospitalizations started to fluctuate for a few weeks.

Nevada hit peak hospitalizations during the fall surge at 2,025 on Dec. 13.

“Nevada continues to see hospitalizations and all critical metrics near the bottom of the scale,” the Nevada Hospital Association wrote in its weekly report. “Nevada has not witnessed any significant hospitalization increases since the counties lightened social distancing protocols on 1 May 2021.”

County by county

Four of the state’s 17 counties — Douglas, Elko, Eureka and Lincoln — are considered at elevated risk for the spread of COVID-19 according to state criteria as of Thursday. 

Counties are considered at risk for elevated spread of COVID-19 if they meet two of the following three metrics:

  • The average number of tests per day per 100,000, calculated over a 14-day period. If this number is less than 100, a county could be considered at risk.
  • The case rate per 100,000, calculated by taking the number of cases diagnosed and reported over a 30-day period. If this number is greater than 200, a county could be considered at risk.
  • The case rate per 100,000 and the test positivity rate, calculated over a 14-day period with a seven-day lag. If the case rate is greater than 50 and the test positivity rate is greater than 8.0 percent, a county could be considered at risk.

While Eureka and Lincoln are flagged for a too low test rate combined with a too high test positivity rate — metrics that are now less concerning as counties may be testing less as more residents get vaccinated — Douglas and Elko are flagged for all three metrics, including a too high case rate.

Elko has a case rate of 296 per 100,000 over the last 30 days, while  Douglas has a case rate of 217. A third county, Lander, has the highest case rate, 300, but isn’t flagged because it doesn't meet either of the other two other criteria.

No other counties have an elevated case rate and, in fact, nine counties, including both Clark and Washoe counties, aren’t flagged for any criteria at all.

If schools build summer learning programs, will the students come?

When students march out of Mater Academy East Las Vegas on Wednesday, they’ll be bidding goodbye to the school year but not necessarily academics.

Nearly half of the charter school’s students plan to attend a month-long summer learning program, where they can bolster their reading and math skills while soaking up more in-person time with their classmates and teachers. As the turbulent school year started to wind down, Mater Academy’s principal, Renee Fairless, embarked upon an aggressive marketing campaign to enroll as many students as possible in the summer program. Staff blasted out messages on an online parent portal and mentioned it during interactions in the carpool line each day.

Academic skills took a hit during the pandemic, Fairless said. But so did student motivation. 

“There’s a slide. That’s why I want my kids in school for summer school,” she said. “But what we’re seeing is once you can get them motivated and back involved, they’re rebounding quickly. They’re resilient.”

While summer school may be a dreaded term among many children, it has undergone something of a renaissance this year. Buoyed by fears of pandemic-caused learning deficits and an influx of federal money, school districts across the nation and Nevada are standing up programs, though often with new branding and a more dynamic vision. Think “summer learning,” “summer enrichment” or “summer acceleration.”

“It’s not considered boring. It’s super engaging and hands-on experiential learning,” said Aaron Philip Dworkin, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. “It’s not mandatory.”

The concept isn’t new. For years, educators have warned of the so-called summer slide when students’ once-sharp academic skills become dull during that roughly 10- week break from the classroom. Summer learning opportunities, whether formal or informal, can mitigate academic regression. Now, prolonged periods of distance learning over the past year have sparked similar concerns about a “COVID slide” and bolstered calls for more summer learning programs, especially for vulnerable children such as those living in poverty or learning English as a second language.



So how are school districts handling the need? It varies by location.

In the Clark County School District, individual schools are forming their own Summer Acceleration programs, tailored to the needs of their communities, said Deputy Superintendent Brenda Larsen-Mitchell. The free summer programs will run throughout the month of June, with transportation and meals provided to children. 

That’s in addition to the existing programs — Extended School Year, which is available for certain students who are in special education programs, and Secondary Summer School, which largely focuses on credit retrieval for older students.

Students attending the Summer Acceleration program at Kay Carl Elementary in Las Vegas will spend their mornings immersed in reading and math activities. In the afternoon, they’ll be working in “camps” to run mock businesses selling goodies such as lemonade and cupcakes. Across town at Thurman White Academy of the Performing Arts, students can choose from a smorgasbord of courses that incorporate everything from Disney and the NFL to snowboarding and Legos. Daily science lab experiments will be available, too. 

Larsen-Mitchell said Summer Acceleration will blend social-emotional learning with core academic subjects, with the goal of making it a fun and hands-on experience for students.

“It's just another 30 days for them really to engage with their peers, and to have face-to-face time with their educators,” she said.

It’s unclear how many students will wind up participating. One elementary school only has five students registered, Larsen-Mitchell said, while another has more than 400 students. On average, the district is seeing 150 students sign up at elementary schools, 220 students at middle schools and 300 students at high schools.

Joshua Curtis — who has six children, four of whom attend the Clark County School District — is among a group of parents who have said no to summer learning programs. Curtis said he has watched his children struggle, both emotionally and academically, and lose interest in school over the past year.  More than anything, he thinks his children need a break after a rough year. 

“I can’t justify putting them in more school right now,” he said. “As much as I’d like them to catch up academically, it has wreaked havoc on their mental health and I can’t continue to see that.”

Students aren’t the only participants being recruited, though.

The Clark County School District recently approved updated memorandums of agreement with unions representing licensed educators, support staff and administrators for the summer learning programs. Licensed educators, for instance, will earn their daily rate of pay and can choose to work from one to four weeks. As an incentive, those who choose to work the full Extended School Year program and at least two weeks of Summer Acceleration stand to receive an additional $750.

The deputy superintendent acknowledged she was a “little disappointed” by the summer student enrollment numbers so far but expects them to pick up once the programs begin. Likewise, about 60 schools have indicated they need more licensed professionals for Summer Acceleration, she said. While the district hopes to accommodate most staff at their home schools, some may be moved to other sites depending on need.

The Washoe County School District’s summer learning program begins on June 21 and will run through July 15. So far, 7,016 students in kindergarten through eighth grade have registered, district officials said. They did not have enrollment numbers available for high school students.

The district plans to work with community partners such as PBS Reno and Sierra Nevada Journeys to enhance the summer learning experience for elementary students.

Leveraging community partnerships is one of the practices recommended by the National Summer Learning Association. Dworkin said he cringes every time he hears about library systems, parks and recreation departments and school districts serving the same children but operating separately with no coordination. 

“I know everyone's racing, but summer is the time to really build these partnerships and break down these silos and if you do it well, it can carry on to the school year,” he said.

Despite the heavy emphasis on summer academic opportunities, Rebecca Feiden, executive director of the State Public Charter Authority, warned against considering those programs a “silver bullet” for fixing harms caused by the pandemic. She said it will take a host of strategies over the next few years to close some of the learning gaps that occurred.

“I don’t think there’s like  a magic answer,” she said. “If schools aren’t doing summer learning, then the question they need to be asking themselves is, ‘How are we going to get into the school year and continue to teach on grade level content but also fill the gaps that may have been created last year?’”

At Mater Academy, learning growth will be tracked throughout the school’s summer program, Fairless said. In other words, the school is focused on ensuring that enrichment is tied to measurable outcomes.

When she senses hesitation on behalf of students or parents, she reminds them of the truncated schedule, leaving July wide open for relaxation.

“It’s 22 highly structured, really intense days,” she said. “I’m not asking for your whole summer. You still have plenty of time.”

The decision was easy for 14-year-old Lauren Storla, who will be entering ninth grade when school resumes in August. By attending Mater Academy’s summer program, he plans to knock out a health course, freeing up space for an elective course next year.

Social considerations played a role, too.

“When I’m at my house, I don’t unusually have anything to do,” he said. “But when I’m here, I get the chance to interact with other people and learn more.”

Nevadans who died from COVID-19 collectively lost more than 42,000 years of potential life, state analysis finds

More than 5,500 Nevadans have lost their lives to COVID-19 over the last year.

While some have brushed off those deaths by suggesting those who died had only a few years left to live because of their age or underlying conditions, a new report from the Department of Health and Human Services, obtained by The Nevada Independent, counters those assumptions. 

The department’s analysis of COVID-19 attributable deaths in Nevada found that 42,232 years of life in the state were lost to the virus over the last year, with an average of 13 years of life lost per death. The average age of death from COVID-19 in Nevada, the report found, was 65 years — much younger than the life expectancy of 81 years for women and 76 years for men.

“We hear people say, ‘Well, they were all old, and they were going to die anyway.’ This really drives home, ‘Well, yes, in 13 years, approximately.’ You can accomplish a lot of your life in a 13-year period,” state biostatistician Kyra Morgan said in an interview. “I think this is putting a new lens on it to hopefully make people step back and realize that some of those numbers we’ve become so accustomed to seeing are actually still very alarming.”

The report calculated years of potential life lost by subtracting each person’s age at death from their life expectancy. People who died from COVID-19 after exceeding their life expectancy were not included in the analysis. The report looked at all COVID-19 deaths between March 15, 2020 and April 14, 2021.

Significantly, the analysis found substantial disparities between the years of life lost from COVID-19 by white Nevadans and Nevadans of color. Hispanic Nevadans collectively lost nearly 16,000 years of life, compared to a little more than 13,000 years of life lost by white Nevadans — even though the state’s Hispanic population is less than two-thirds the size of its white population.

Adjusted for population size, Hispanic Nevadans lost 1,662 years of life per 100,000, nearly double the 858 years of life white Nevadans lost.

“Even being someone who looks at the data a lot and is fully aware of the disparities that are hitting our Hispanic community, I was even taken aback by that,” Morgan said.

She pointed to several likely contributing factors behind those disparities: a lack of access early on to COVID-19 testing and, now, vaccinations; less access to health care overall and the prevalence of multi-generational households. She added the data may also suggest that Hispanics Nevadans are simply passing away from COVID-19 at a younger age than their white counterparts.

“I think that's extremely alarming because it really does mean that those folks who have died have died significantly younger in the Hispanic population,” Morgan said.

Black Nevadans fared even worse: While they collectively lost a little more than 4,800 years of life in raw numbers, adjusted for population they lost 1,711 years of life per 100,000. Those who identify as Asian and Pacific Islander lost 1,429 years per 100,000, while those who identify as Native American lost 1,090 years per 100,000.

The age group that lost the most years of life in terms of both raw numbers and adjusted for population size were 60- to 69-year-olds, who lost a little more than 13,000 years of life, collectively, or 3,873 years per 100,000. 

“People might interpret that as an elderly population, but those folks have a lot of life left,” Morgan said.

Those in their 40s and 50s also lost more years of life in both raw numbers and adjusted for population size than the 70 and up group, as adults in the 40- to 69-year-old range are both more vulnerable to the virus than younger adults but also have more potential years of life left to live than those in the 70 and up group.

Still, the report found a significant impact on years of life lost among kids and younger adults. To date, 119 people under the age of 40 in Nevada have died from COVID-19, but the report found they collectively lost 4,738 years of potential life.

Though it is well known that more men die from COVID-19 than women, the report underscored that fact. Men lost nearly 25,000 life years in Nevada to COVID-19 compared to a little more than 17,000 life years lost by women in the state.

“This is actually one condition where we see gender-specific disparities. A lot more men pass away from COVID than women, especially considering that they're infected at similar rates,” Morgan said. “Unless it's a condition that biologically and physiologically affects one gender or the other, it's uncommon for a widespread communicable disease to have a big gender disparity.”

Reflecting on the report, Morgan acknowledged that it’s possible that those who died from COVID-19 had underlying conditions that would have shortened their life expectancy — meaning they may not have lived to 76 or 81 anyway — though she noted that life expectancy projections take underlying conditions into account. If life expectancy were to exclude people with comorbidities, it would likely be several years longer.

She also noted that most of the population has at least one comorbidity — like being overweight, a smoker, or pregnant — that puts them at risk of serious illness from COVID-19. 

“There's a lot of people walking around that technically would have an underlying health condition,” Morgan said. “But when we look at them or engage with them, we might think they appear perfectly healthy.”

Explore the demographic breakdown of years of potential life lost to COVID-19 in Nevada below:

Following new CDC guidance, NSHE drops mask-mandate for fully vaccinated individuals on college campuses

The Nevada System of Higher Education announced Thursday that it was adopting new CDC rules on masks that would allow those who are fully vaccinated to stop wearing masks in most circumstances on the state’s college and university campuses. 

Those who are unvaccinated are still required to wear masks, though it remained unclear how or if campus officials would check any individual’s vaccination status. 

Details on precisely how the guidance will be enforced were scarce Thursday. The news was first made available through announcements from individual institutions, not the system, and it was not immediately clear how much guidance NSHE had given those institutions. 

In announcements of their own, university administrators stressed that unvaccinated individuals must — rather than should — continue to wear a mask indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces. But in a letter released to the UNR community Thursday, UNR President Brian Sandoval also suggested that the requirement would be left to an honor system and personal judgment. 

“Personal integrity and honesty should guide one’s judgment about the wearing of a mask based on one’s status of being vaccinated or being unvaccinated,” Sandoval wrote. “We also recognize there may be reasons an individual chooses to continue using a face covering even if fully vaccinated, and we encourage people to continue to wear a mask based on their comfort level and risk assessment.”

In a separate statement late Thursday afternoon, NSHE Chancellor Melody Rose also reiterated that the requirement was still in place for the unvaccinated and urged “compassion and patience toward all students and colleagues.” 

Rose said that all additional COVID-19 mitigation measures, including signage, office cleanings and hygiene guidance, will remain in place. 

The move comes at a crucial junction for the state’s higher education system as it looks to seize on improving pandemic conditions and prepare for a return to in-person instruction and events in the summer and into the fall. 

The change also coincides with the upcoming suspension of county-level capacity restrictions and social distancing requirements, which are set to lift in full on June 1. NSHE has announced system-wide plans to return to full in-person operations on July 1.

More broadly, the system has signaled an intent to grapple with the question of vaccination requirements, announcing earlier this month that it would pursue a COVID-vaccine mandate for students returning in-person should the Food and Drug Administration lift the emergency use authorizations in place on those vaccines. 

However, with the FDA authorization still in place, there is no formal timeline yet for the implementation of such a mandate.  

This is a developing story. Check back for updates. 

Updated, 5/20/21 at 4:38 p.m. -- This story was updated to include details from UNR President Brian Sandoval's announcement of the masking guidance change.

Updated, 5/20/21 at 5:08 p.m. -- This story was updated to include details from a statement on the guidance change provided by NSHE Chancellor Melody Rose.

Coronavirus Contextualized, 48th edition: Cases, hospitalizations in Nevada remain steady as CDC announces vaccinated people can go without masks in most places

Welcome to the 48th installment of “Coronavirus Contextualized.”

For more than a year, we have brought you the latest COVID-19 numbers in Nevada, including COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, and provided context to them on a near-weekly basis through this series. You can view the prior editions of “Coronavirus Contextualized” here.

As noted in the last few editions, we plan to continue providing you with the data you need to know about COVID-19 in Nevada for as long as necessary. However, “Coronavirus Contextualized” now publishes on a semi-regular basis, which means we may occasionally skip a Friday or two if there are no new trends to report.

Don’t fear though: You’ll still be able to continue to find the latest data daily on our COVID-19 data page and on Twitter. As always, you can reach out to megan@thenvindy.com with any questions.

Below, we look at the relatively steady numbers of new cases and hospitalizations being reported each day as the vaccination effort expands to adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15 and as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Thursday that vaccinated people can now go without masks in most indoor and outdoor places.

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office confirmed in a press release that Nevada will be following the new federal guidance, as the governor’s latest emergency directive aligned state mask policy with the CDC’s rules.

“The updated guidance on masks issued today by the CDC is effective immediately in Nevada,” the release said.

Businesses, however, may still ask to confirm vaccination status of individuals and reserve the right to keep mask policies in place, and the Clark County Commission has placed an emergency item on the agenda for its Tuesday meeting to discuss the latest mask guidance in relation to the county’s local mitigation and enforcement plan.

Without further ado, the latest on COVID-19 in Nevada:

Cases and test positivity

The number of new COVID-19 cases being reported each day remains relatively level.

As of Thursday, an average of 381 cases were reported each day over the last seven days. The seven-day case average has hovered steadily between 300 and 400 for the last 26 days except for one day when it dipped below 300.

Those case numbers are slightly up from the recent low of 239 on March 23 but significantly down from the peak of the case surge this fall, when the seven-day average was 2,736, on Dec. 10.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in March, there have been 320,150 COVID-19 cases reported statewide. A little more than 3 percent of those cases, 11,361 have been diagnosed in the last month, and 0.8 percent, or 2,668 cases, have been reported in the last week.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 1 in 10 Nevadans has tested positive for the virus.

Meanwhile, Nevada’s test positivity rate, which looks at the percentage of tests coming back positive out of the total tested, has started to see some small but steady decreases.

It is not possible to independently calculate the test positivity rate based on test encounters because the state only reports the number of positive cases, not the number of positive test encounters. However, the state does provide this number, calculated as an average over a 14-day period with a seven-day lag. As of Wednesday, that number was 5.36 percent, down from 5.62 percent the week before.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 1.6 million people — roughly 1 in 2 Nevadans have been tested for COVID-19, and there have been more than 3.2 million individual testing encounters.

Vaccinations

As of Thursday, nearly 42 percent of Nevadans have been either partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 45 percent of Nevadans eligible for the vaccine have yet to receive it.

Since vaccinations started in December, more than 2.2 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Nevada, up from 2.1 million last week. In total, nearly 1.3 million people have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and more than 1 million Nevadans have been fully vaccinated. Nevada has received nearly 2.7 million doses of the vaccine for distribution.

The pace of vaccine distribution has, however, been slowing. As of Thursday, about 17,000 vaccines were being reported administered each day over the last seven days, down from a high of nearly 30,000 on April 15.

That pace may, however, pick up in the coming days as a result of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15 becoming eligible for the Pfizer vaccine this week. There are about 178,000 Nevadans in that age group, representing a little more than 5 percent of the population. 

That leaves only about 13 percent of the state’s population, children under the age of 12, who are not eligible for the vaccine.

Among the counties, Carson City has the highest percentage of residents partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at 45.2 percent, followed by Washoe County at 44.5 percent and Douglas County at 41.3 percent. Populous Clark County has vaccinated 37.3 percent of its residents. Tiny Storey County has vaccinated the least, with only 13.3 percent of its residents partially or fully vaccinated.

For more on the vaccination process in the state, read our vaccine Q&A here.

Deaths

The number of new COVID-19 deaths reported on average each day has decreased over the last two weeks.

As of Thursday, five deaths were being reported on average each day over the prior seven days, slightly down from eight two weeks ago and significantly down from a high of 45 on Jan. 14.

Over the last seven days, 33 new COVID-19 deaths have been reported across the state, including:

  • 28 in Clark County
  • 5 in Washoe County

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 5,523 deaths from COVID-19. In the last month, 185 deaths from COVID-19 have been reported statewide, about 3 percent of the deaths reported statewide since the beginning of the pandemic.

Pershing County has had the highest number of deaths per capita in Nevada, with 30 deaths per 10,000 residents, followed by Nye County at 23 and Carson City at 22.

Hospitalizations

COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to remain relatively steady.

There were 336 people hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Wednesday, the last day for which data is available. Hospitalizations have fluctuated between 300 and 400 consistently for the last 24 days.

The state hit a record low number of hospitalizations, 259, on March 28. Hospitalizations peaked during the fall surge at 2,025 on Dec. 13.

The Nevada Hospital Association, in its weekly report, noted that while COVID-19 hospitalizations are fluctuating, “no organized wave is forming.”

“Nevada has effectively ‘flattened the curve’ through the use of vaccines,” the association noted.

County by county

Five of the state’s 17 counties — Douglas, Lyon, Storey, Esmeralda and Elko — are considered at elevated risk for the spread of COVID-19 according to state criteria as of Thursday. 

Counties are considered at risk for elevated spread of COVID-19 if they meet two of the following three metrics:

  • The average number of tests per day per 100,000, calculated over a 14-day period. If this number is less than 100, a county could be considered at risk.
  • The case rate per 100,000, calculated by taking the number of cases diagnosed and reported over a 30-day period. If this number is greater than 200, a county could be considered at risk.
  • The case rate per 100,000 and the test positivity rate, calculated over a 14-day period with a seven-day lag. If the case rate is greater than 50 and the test positivity rate is greater than 8.0 percent, a county could be considered at risk.

Esmeralda is flagged for all three metrics. Douglas and Lyon are flagged for a too high case rate combined with a too high test positivity rate. Elko and Storey are flagged for having a too high test positivity rate combined with a too low testing rate.

Carson City continues to have the highest case rate in the state at 306 cases per 100,000 residents in the last 30 days, followed by Lyon at 279, Clark at 258 and Washoe at 218. Four other counties have a case rate above 200.

In new phase of the immunization effort, community groups take a grassroots approach to getting out the vaccine

Alice Tu wasn’t opposed to the vaccine, but she had her reservations.

For the last year, Tu has tried to be as careful as possible. As a realtor, she is in frequent contact with the public. When she comes home, she cleans everything and changes her clothes.

But when it came to getting vaccinated, the 41-year-old wasn’t so sure. Every time she’s gotten a flu shot, she’s felt sick within the first week. She and her husband worried about whether any side effects from the vaccine would make it difficult for them to care for their six-year-old. So, they decided to wait.

But, when she saw a post in a Taiwanese Facebook group on Monday morning announcing a no-wait, walk-in vaccine clinic at Shanghai Plaza in Las Vegas, she decided the time had come. She and her husband resolved to make an afternoon of it and grab lunch at the shopping center, which, in addition to the pop-up vaccine clinic, is home to an ever-expanding array of popular Asian eateries.

After five minutes of filling out paperwork in the clinic’s outdoor lobby, Tu was whisked into a check-in office, where she was handed a sticker, pin and grocery store coupon and asked if she could return for her second shot three weeks later. A minute later, she was directed into a second room, where an Albertsons pharmacist told her that she would be receiving the Pfizer vaccine, that a sore arm is a common side effect of the first shot and that she should take Tylenol, Motrin or Aleve for any pain.

A minute and 30 seconds later, she was vaccinated. Arrival to shot took a grand total of seven-and-a-half minutes.

“For the good of humankind,” she wrote on a piece of paper in English explaining why she got vaccinated, before adding the phrase in Chinese below. A staffer added it to the wall of similar messages at the clinic.

Tu’s reasons for getting vaccinated are a little more detailed, though: Her elderly parents, who live in California, are vaccinated, and she wants to spend more time with them. She’ll feel more comfortable while working as a realtor. She also has many friends who are opposed to the vaccine and feels like she needs to do her part.

“If one less person does it, what’s going to happen?” Tu said. “I’m going to do whatever I can.”

A few minutes later, her husband joined her. They had planned to stagger their shots in case they experienced any side effects, but he decided last minute to get the shot, too.

“I was like, I got the next two days off, so, it’s like, I might as well,” Tony Ma, 40, said. “I already know about the risks and all of that stuff and my friends all got vaccinated, too.”

This is how the battle against COVID-19 is won: It is won in the might-as-wells. It is won when people run out of arguments against the vaccine and excuses for why they are putting off getting it. It is won when getting vaccinated is easy, quick, convenient and free. It is won when the vaccine is simply there and so are you, and it becomes a question of why wouldn’t you?

Of course, not everyone feels that way. A February survey from UNR found that 73 percent of Nevadans were likely to receive the COVID-19 vaccine — which means that another 27 percent were less sure about getting it. To date, a little less than half of Nevadans who are eligible for the vaccine have been vaccinated against it.

Meanwhile, the latest vaccine survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that of the roughly third of adults nationwide who have not yet been vaccinated, 15 percent are in the wait-and-see group, 6 percent will get vaccinated if required and 13 percent say they definitely won’t get vaccinated.

It’s that wait-and-see group that Nevada is currently targeting in the latest phase of its vaccination effort, which has seen a shift away from mass vaccination sites in favor of smaller, more personal community-based vaccination sites and pop-up clinics. The wait-and-sees might not have driven across town to get a vaccine at Cashman Center, but they might be willing to head down to a nearby church, shopping center or school to get the shot. They might not be sure enough about the vaccine to make an appointment online, but they might pop into a local pharmacy.

It’s all part of an effort to reach people where they are — and one that those who work in the health care space say they would do well to learn from moving forward.


The last day of April felt more like June as the thermometer crept above 100 degrees, yet Wences Perez, dressed in dark jeans and a pinstripe suit jacket, was undeterred as he handed out flyers outside of a Walmart in East Las Vegas.

“Get your COVID vaccine yet?” he asked, one by one in English and Spanish as people streamed into and out of the store late on a Friday afternoon.

Mi Familia Vota, the Latino civic engagement organization, is a common sight outside of grocery stores here. In fact, Cecia Alvarado, the organization's Nevada state director, says people will sometimes call, concerned, when they haven’t seen the organization’s volunteers in a while. 

Their usual work consists of citizenship drives, voter registration efforts and get-out-the-vote pushes. 

But this spring, they’re getting out the vaccine.

Perez, a volunteer with the organization who also works at the Clark County public defender’s office, had mixed luck on that particular Friday afternoon during an event hosted in partnership with the "Está en Tus Manos" campaign. A lot of people hurriedly told him, yes, they had been vaccinated as they brushed by him. One woman stopped not only to say she had gotten vaccinated but to dig her vaccine card out of her bag and proudly display it to the volunteers, describing it as a “badge of honor.”

Others were less receptive: In the span of 45-minutes, Perez got one “hell no” and a “it’s none of your business.”

But Perez wasn’t there to change minds, necessarily. He was there to inform the not-yets, like the father who stopped to listen to Perez’s pitch and said he wanted to get vaccinated before traveling. When the man came back and said the line for the vaccine was too long inside the Walmart, Perez directed him to a nearby church where he could get vaccinated instead.

Perez was also there to inform the vaccinated, with the hope that they would spread the word about upcoming vaccination opportunities to their friends and family. 

“It is a process,” Perez said. “It’s not just about being out here today, it’s about tomorrow, it’s about next week and what we can do to continue to provide resources to our most vulnerable.”

The most vulnerable, in this case, are Nevada’s communities of color, which have not only been hit hardest by COVID-19 but also continue to see some of the lowest rates of vaccination across the state. While Latinos make up 30 percent of the state’s population, they only represent about 23 percent of vaccinated individuals; only 6 percent of vaccinated individuals are Black, compared to 9 percent of the overall population.

Those numbers have improved since February, when Gov. Steve Sisolak first announced the establishment of a task force to ensure that vaccine doses were being equitably administered across the state. But they still show the work left to do in ensuring that in addition to simply being available, vaccines are accessible, convenient and comfortable for communities long mistrustful of the government, the medical community or both.

“A lot of people don't have the time to go stand at Cashman for two hours,” Perez said. “It's important that we bring it to their community, to where they live, to where they shop, to where they do have a few minutes to say, ‘Let me go get that shot.’ It’s important that we make this accessible.”

Over the last year, community organizations, religious groups and others not accustomed to working in the health care space have taken on a public health role. Mi Familia Vota, for instance, is kicking off a 16-week-long door knocking campaign where volunteers will go door to door with iPads helping people make appointments. They’ll also be calling people at home to encourage them to get vaccinated — just as they would ahead of an election to get them to turn out to vote — with the goal of getting as many people vaccinated as possible by the end of the summer.

For some people, Alvarado said, that personal interaction makes the difference.

“We have had people who call us and said they are afraid to get the vaccine because of their immigration status and we’ve gone with them,” Alvarado said. “There was one couple where they were really hesitating about it ... One of our organizers offered to go with them, and he did. It really had an impact not just on them, because they were so happy that they were able to get the vaccine, they were elderly, but they passed on the word to their entire family that it was okay.”

Dream Big Nevada, an immigrant support organization, has similarly been running a peer-to-peer text message and phone banking campaign to get people vaccinated, which have ramped up in recent weeks. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the organization has been answering questions about the vaccine over Facebook Live, helping people make vaccine appointments and helped to launch their own vaccine pop-up site at the office they share with the Immigrant Home Foundation.

“What began as just giving people information, and then making their vaccine appointments, became us hosting our own vaccine site because we saw the cracks that existed and we saw the stuff that needed to be better and we were able to do that,” said Dulce Valencia, the organization’s deputy director.

In Northern Nevada, Washoe County School Board President Angie Taylor has been working with Black faith leaders to boost vaccination rates by hosting education events and clinics either at or close to Black churches.

“We as people of color, and specifically African Americans, are so disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” Taylor said. “Sometimes people wonder, 'Why do you have to do extra effort?' Because it takes extra effort. If we do traditional things, we’re going to get traditional results, and we’re impacted in a non-traditional way. You have to do things that are targeted so that people who have hesitation or have reservations say, 'Okay this is speaking to me.'”

Though Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Nevada have been vaccinated at a slightly higher rate, 11 percent, than the 10 percent of the population they make up, the Asian Community Development Council is focusing on increasing vaccine accessibility within the communities they serve as well. They set up the Shanghai Plaza vaccination site in an effort to better reach families who dine at the shopping center.

“Other places, they get really scared, nobody answers your questions, it’s not that they don’t want to, it’s because they’re afraid to ask,” said Vida Lin, the council’s president.

Vaccine outreach is happening in age-specific ways, too, with young people underrepresented among those vaccinated. Markus Dorsey-Hirt, chief nursing officer for REMSA, the emergency services agency in Washoe County, has been working with UNR to vaccinate fraternity and sorority members. (The Nevada System of Higher Education on Thursday announced that students returning to campus in the fall would be required to be vaccinated.)

“With young people, there is more of a hesitancy because a lot of young people don't think they need to or they’re strong enough and if they get COVID, they get COVID and they’ll recover,” Dorsey-Hirt said. “But that's not always the case.”

Community groups are continually evaluating what barriers still exist for the communities they’re trying to vaccinate: Are the locations where they’re offering the vaccine are the right ones? Do people still have questions they want answered? Is there a different messaging tactic they should be taking? Will it just take time?

That’s, in part, what Alvarado is hoping to get out of their community outreach efforts in the next few weeks.

“We’re mostly eager to understand better why some of our community members are hesitating to get the vaccine and getting to the root of that so we can help those entities that are in charge of this effort to understand what our community is thinking,” Alvarado said.


There are a few common threads, however, that have already emerged.

A significant challenge that community organizations identified early on was where the vaccine was being offered. In the early days of the vaccination effort, when supply was limited, mass vaccination sites were often the best chance people had at getting vaccinated simply because of the sheer number of people they were able to administer shots to each day.

But for many people, particularly those who are undocumented or live in mixed-status families, the thought of going to a government-run mass vaccination site staffed by fatigue-clad members of the Nevada National Guard was an unpleasant, if not downright scary, one. For others, the thought of going to a big vaccine site and seeing hundreds of people after spending a year mostly isolated was overwhelming, or they couldn’t secure transportation to get there. Others still didn’t have the technological capacity or literacy skills to be able to sign up for an appointment in advance.

“The large centers like Cashman and UNLV were just too intimidating,” said Guy Girardin, president of the Puentes, a nonprofit that connects Latinos with health and social services. “In a lot of these communities that we serve people haven’t had the opportunity to have an education. They were in family situations that required that they left school very early and went to work to support the family. You can’t expect those people to be able to fill out a form, and do those kinds of things, without providing an education.”

Valencia said that she waited in line for three hours at one of the mass vaccination sites in Las Vegas and no one spoke Spanish to her while she was there. She contrasted that against the vaccination site where she worked, where she has personally held people’s hands while they got vaccinated.

“That’s not something that happens at the bigger sites,” Valencia said.

That’s not to say that the larger vaccination sites didn’t serve a critical purpose. On a record day in April, Cashman Center and the Las Vegas Convention Center administered nearly 14,000 vaccines collectively. But, with Cashman Center closing this week, the focus is now shifting to alternative ways of providing the vaccine, whether at new, larger drive-up sites, community-based sites or doctor’s offices and pharmacies.

“Those mass vaccination sites absolutely got us lots of shots in arms quickly, which is what we needed,” said Heidi Parker, executive director of Immunize Nevada. “But we also knew during that time frame that we did need to be able to bring vaccines to the people, to where they are and meet them where they are.”

Karissa Loper, who oversees the vaccination effort at the state level, said it’s a transition the state had long expected would occur and was outlined in the state’s vaccination playbook. But it also signifies a shift in the approach the state takes in the vaccination effort from a coordinating to a supporting role, one that mirrors the approach the state is taking when it comes to COVID-19 health and safety measures.

“Pop-up and mobile vaccination clinics are primed for reaching people in their own neighborhoods,” Loper said. “A lot of that coordination is being done by people on the ground so that individuals are hearing from the people that they trust in their own communities.”

There are challenges, though, associated with decentralizing vaccination efforts. Parker said that workforce challenges are key among them.

“They’ve been vaccinating long hours, long days. We’re trying to continue to support them to make sure that we have enough vaccinators that can be deployed now across the community at multiple sites,” Parker said. “We’ve been saying this from the beginning, but this is an all hands on deck approach, and we’re still there.”

But it has been gratifying to those involved in the vaccination effort to see how successful some of the community-based vaccination efforts have been. Parker said that demand at a recent pop-up clinic hosted by Puentes was so great that though they had planned for 300 doses at the site, they had to bring in 200 additional doses midday to keep up.

Puentes has been partnering with Mater Academy, Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center and Immunize Nevada to host more targeted, community-based vaccination events in conjunction with their monthly resource fairs, and they hope to expand their work in the coming weeks by setting up clinics in shopping centers, churches or schools with hours that better meet the needs of the community they serve.

“One of the problems that I think a lot of people are having in the community is that they’re just not able to take time off work to get vaccinated, and there really hasn’t been many opportunities that are late afternoon, early evening,” Girardin said.

Even the Consulate of Mexico in Las Vegas has gotten involved in the vaccination effort, hosting its own clinics on site. Consul Julián Escutia Rodríguez said that Las Vegas was the first consulate in the U.S. to actually host a vaccination event on site.

“I think that people like to come here. They feel at ease. They feel more trust,” Escutia Rodríguez said. “We are not conducting a massive effort. It’s more symbolic. But I will continue opening the consulate for these events because it’s important.”

As part of the decentralization of the vaccination effort, more doses are also heading to doctor’s offices and pharmacies. As of Wednesday, 275 providers had enrolled with the Nevada State Immunization Program to receive doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, and CVS announced this week that it would now be offering vaccines on a walk-in basis.

While community leaders have praised that move, they also stress the importance of continuing to offer vaccines in other settings, particularly for people who don’t have a primary care provider or don’t feel as comfortable going to a pharmacy.

“Undocumented families are largely uninsured and even mixed-status families are largely uninsured,” said Bliss Requa-Trautz, Arriba’s executive director. “An approach of making the vaccine available at your primary health care provider is not going to be effective for folks who can’t access that.”

Community sites may also be better tailored to meeting people’s individual needs, whether that’s help filling out the paperwork or answering last-minute questions about the vaccine. The organizations that run them have also built trust within the communities that they serve.

“I receive different phone calls to get more collaborations with other agencies within other government areas and counties or and they ask us, ‘How are you making this possible? You are filling your agenda so fast and they're completely successful,’” said Luis Aceves, who works on health care issues within the Latino community through the REACH and Ventanilla de Salud program. “My answer was, ‘We have been working on building trust with our people.’”


For others, though, it’s more than just accessibility: They have real concerns about getting vaccinated.

Jenna Austin, 41, experienced this first hand within her own home. As someone with asthma and other underlying conditions and who travels frequently for work in restaurant food sales, Austin was eager to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Her husband, however, was less thrilled about the prospect.

The public health argument, she said, wasn’t going to work with him. So, instead, she emphasized all of the things that he would be able to do again once vaccinated, including traveling and going to Raiders games. She also noted that even if the government doesn’t put in place vaccine requirements, some businesses may choose to do so on their own to protect themselves and their financial interests.

Those arguments, coupled with the fact that she continued “living and breathing every day” and that Bill Gates was not, in fact, tracking her with a microchip, eventually won him over, she said. But she still had to sign him up for an appointment and, until the day he went, she wasn’t sure he would actually go.

“When he came home with that vaccine, his daughters rallied around him and told him how proud they were of him,” Austin said. “They knew how averse he was to it.”

Earlier this week, Austin said she wasn’t sure that he would make it to his second dose appointment, after how his first dose had gone.

“It was the worst experience ever. She stabbed him. It hurt immediately. He felt lightheaded. He had to have all of the nursing people around him to make sure he was okay because he could immediately feel a rush as soon as it was injected into his arm. His arm is hurting, it’s pulsating, he can’t lift it up, can’t even take a drink with his left hand and lift it to his mouth, it’s that painful,” Austin said. “Tylenol is not helping and ice packs aren’t helping and, ‘this isn’t normal,’ and ‘I told you.’ It was bad.”

But she urged him to just get the second dose so he wouldn’t have to start the process all over again.

On Thursday, she emailed with good news: He had gotten his second shot.

Experiences like this are exactly what community organizations and others involved in the vaccination effort are counting on. They’re hopeful that vaccinated people will return to their families and social circles and share their experiences in the event of persuading more hesitant folks to get vaccinated. For people with reservations about the vaccine, sometimes it helps knowing that someone close to them has gotten vaccinated.

“I definitely have heard a lot from folks that they're waiting for someone else to get the vaccine for them to make sure it's okay,” Requa-Trauz said. “I think we've already seen folks that were initially in that sort of middle ground of waiting for someone else to get it first, they're already coming to the table and getting vaccinated themselves.”

Not everyone, though, has someone at home to have those kinds of conversations with. That’s why community organizations are focusing on education and outreach so that when people finally do have the opportunity to get vaccinated, they get the shot. That can range from answering medical questions to combating misinformation about the vaccine.

“It’s almost like pre-information or pre-education,” Parker said. “We want to make sure that people have the information and any questions answered ahead of being presented with that opportunity.”

For Dr. Bayo Curry-Winchell, that has meant saying yes to as many opportunities to educate the public about getting vaccinated as possible, with a particular focus on vaccine equity within communities of color. Curry-Winchell is one of only a few Black physicians in Reno.

“The concerns are, ‘Are we going to be guinea pigs? Are we just a test case for the vaccine? Will the vaccine give me COVID-19?” Curry-Winchell said. “Taking the time to acknowledge the past, especially Tuskegee and all of these terrible things that have happened, not just amongst the African-American population but others is important because when you take the time to acknowledge it and learn from it and really help people by saying, ‘Yes, this happened, and this is why this vaccine is different,’ that really opens up the dialogue for new information to be received.”

In addition to answering people’s medical questions, she often shares a personal story with the vaccine, too. Her dad, a 98-year-old World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veteran, was initially reluctant to get the vaccine. But, after she shared with him her thoughts on the vaccine, he made the decision to get vaccinated. Three weeks later, just before his second dose, he was exposed to COVID-19.

“I do feel that shot protected him, and I know he feels the same way because he shared it with me. He was just elated that he got the vaccine,” Curry-Winchell said. “When it came time for the second shot, he had it on his calendar. He was ready.”

In Northern Nevada, Curry-Winchell participated in an effort not just to educate the Black faith community about the vaccine but Black faith leaders as well, with the hope that they would then return and share their experiences with their congregations.

“There are people who really trust their pastor or their priest more than they trust their doctor or other people,” Curry-Winchell said.

When it came time to host an actual vaccination event — which the Black churches did in conjunction with REMSA at Traner Middle School in Reno as a drive-through style operation in April — they reserved one lane just for questions. Curry-Winchell said that everybody that went through that lane ended up getting vaccinated.

“Even if they wouldn’t have, there still would have been pride in, we at least gave you the information so you can make the best decision for you and your family,” she said. “That has been kind of the key for me, to identify how we can improve upon knowledge in the medical space, access and just the diversity in information.”

For those working with the Latino community, part of the education effort has focused on continuing to emphasize that people can get vaccinated regardless of their immigration status.

“I have been saying, ‘Vaccination has nothing to do with immigration,’ like a mantra, repeating and repeating this,” Escutia Rodríguez said. “I think that that message has really permeated in our community.”

Those involved in the vaccination effort note that the trusted messenger who convinces someone to get vaccinated is going to be different for every person. For some, it might be a doctor or government public health official. For others, it might be a family member, friend, a trusted community organization or a faith leader.

For Nidsa Tarazon, it was the latter. While the 30-year-old paralegal normally would have been eager to get the vaccine, she was reluctant because she is pregnant. She talked to her midwife when she became eligible for the shot in February and decided to delay getting the vaccine.

But when several of her church leaders posted photos on social media sharing that they had been vaccinated and why they made the decision to get the vaccine, Tarazon, who is LDS, reconsidered her decision to wait. After reviewing the preliminary data on pregnant women and the vaccine and talking again with her midwife, she made the decision to get her shot.

“It really made me think, ‘Okay, I really should read all the studies to make sure I’m making the right choice,” Tarazon said.


For those who work in public health, it has been striking to see just how many organizations have gotten involved in the vaccination effort.

It represents the kind of widespread involvement in health that they would like to see even in non-pandemic times.

“Our intent, from the immunization program, is definitely to sustain these relationships and, at the very least, stay communicative with the partners we've made and the new relationships we've built,” Loper said. “Whether we’re in an emergency response or not, all of the partners are important and every voice that lifts up vaccine confidence and helps answer someone’s question and then helps them decide to get their vaccine is really exciting to see.”

For as plodding as the vaccination effort may seem at times, immunization officials note that with 47 percent of eligible Nevadans vaccinated, the state has exceeded its typical annual flu vaccination rate.

“I think it's optimism for COVID-19 vaccine progress, and I also think it's optimism for flu vaccine progress in the future, only because respiratory disease awareness and thoughts of lung health seem to be top of people's minds,” Loper said.

For their part, community organizations say they will remain involved in the vaccination effort for as long they are needed. Many of them got involved in pandemic response efforts simply because they saw a need in their community.

“I'm part of this community. I am an immigrant, I moved to Las Vegas 20 years ago, and I deeply care about my community,” Alvarado, with Mi Familia Vota, said. “That’s why I do this work. I'm going to be there if they need me to help with a vaccine, I'm going to be there to help them register to vote. I’m going to be there if we need to do legislative work. Anything impacts the Latino community, we're going to be there.”

But they’re also counting on vaccinated people to be ambassadors to their own individual pockets of community as well.

For Joshua Pickard, 40, that meant taking the time to calmly and clearly answer his mom’s questions about the vaccine with his girlfriend, a hospital pharmacist, during a Christmas Day phone call. It was a stark departure, he said, from their usual method of yelling at each other until one of them abruptly hangs up.

“She likes arguing. I like to argue, and we end up arguing with each other on just about anything,” Pickard, who works as a butler in Las Vegas, said. “But for this one, when she started asking us questions, we were just trying to give her the best information that we could come up with.”

The phone call, he said, ended with his mom saying that she would think about it and that they had given her a lot of information to consider. A few weeks later, she let him know that she had signed up for her first shot of the vaccine.

He’s still working on his sister, though.

“She’s not certain right now,” Pickard said. “They’re in the camp of, ‘Well, we haven’t had to change anything so far, so what’s the point?’”

Casinos, other gaming establishments to follow new county rules on occupancy, social distancing on May 1

The Nevada Gaming Control Board announced on Friday that it will allow gaming establishments to follow capacity limits and social distancing requirements set by their counties when the state turns pandemic health and safety decision-making over to local governments on May 1.

Casinos on the Las Vegas Strip and other gaming establishments in Clark County will be allowed to open at 80 percent capacity, instead of the current 50 percent capacity required under the state’s rules, and social distancing will be reduced from six feet to three feet. Gaming licenses in much of rural Nevada, meanwhile, will be allowed to open at 100 percent capacity with little to no social distancing.

For now, gaming establishments in Washoe County will be required to remain at 50 percent capacity with six-foot social distancing as the county has not yet brought forward a plan that has received the required support of several local entities, including the Washoe County Health District and the city of Reno. The county, however, plans to come up with a new plan that can pass muster as soon as possible so it can reopen further on May 1.

Gaming licensees will also be required to follow any baseline mitigation measures set by the state, including, notably, the statewide mask mandate. Gov. Steve Sisolak said the facial covering requirement will remain in place for the foreseeable future as the state reopens businesses further and continues to vaccinate residents.

Although capacity and social distancing requirements will be set at the county level, casinos, as nonrestricted licensees, will still be required to adhere to additional health and safety requirements established by the Gaming Control Board, including reporting cases of COVID-19 at their properties to the local health authority, training employees on pandemic protocols and regularly disinfecting slot machines, cards, chips, dice and other frequently touched objects. 

The new notice from the Gaming Control Board also notes that gaming licensees will be allowed to submit a request to waive any of their county’s occupancy limits or other mitigation measures starting May 1, though they will be required to “demonstrate the licensee’s measurable and material steps to vaccinate its workforce.” 

Requests will be required to “include the licensee’s detailed commitment to its obligation to vaccinate its workforce,” until a goal is reached or a certain amount of time has elapsed, the notice says.

Such requests must be submitted to the board no later than Tuesday at 5 p.m.