The backdrop for the legislation was set hundreds of miles away from Carson City, where the Colorado River meets Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam outside of Las Vegas.
Over the past two decades, Lake Mead, which holds nearly all of Las Vegas’ water, has dropped more than 100 feet amid drought and overuse. In response, federal regulators expect to declare the first-ever shortage for the Colorado River next year, triggering cuts to Arizona and Nevada’s allocations.
With Lake Mead approaching critically-low levels, the Southern Nevada Water Authority recently turned to the Legislature to double-down on its existing strategy for using less water: turf removal.
Earlier this year, Las Vegas water planners asked the Legislature to pass a new law that prohibits water-intensive decorative turf within medians, along roads and in business parks. Lawmakers approved it with little opposition and Gov. Steve Sisolak signed the bill on Friday.
Now, the water authority, which serves the Las Vegas metro area, is tasked with implementing what its general manager, John Entsminger, described as probably “the most aggressive municipal water conservation measure that's been taken in the western United States.”
For decades, the water authority has been looking at the prolonged drought and preparing for shortages. Officials with the agency stress that they are able to weather the expected cuts because Las Vegas is already consuming less water than it is entitled to use.
But they are also looking to a future where the population of Las Vegas continues to grow — Nevada is one of the fastest-growing states — as climate change poses new challenges for managing an overused river system shared by about 40 million people across the Southwest.
The legislation, AB356, aims to reduce per capita water use by prohibiting Colorado River water from being used to irrigate ornamental turf not used for a single-family home after 2026. Ornamental, or nonfunctional, turf typically refers to grass that is installed for decorative purposes and is rarely walked on or used.
Entsminger, in a recent interview, said the prohibition would result in significant water savings. The removal of an estimated 3,900 acres of decorative turf could save roughly 9.3 billion gallons of water annually — about 10 percent of the state’s entire Colorado River allotment.
“Being able to save 10 percent of our total water supplies, without really impacting any quality of life, is really a tremendous achievement and a benefit for the overall community,” he said.
In Carson City and elsewhere, politics around water are often fractious. State-backed proposals to change water law died early into the legislative session. But the water authority’s plan earned broad buy-in from rural and urban lawmakers, industry groups and environmental groups, even some of the same people who have criticized the agency’s legislative maneuvering in the past.
“It’s an old trope in Nevada politics that your enemy one day is your friend the next day,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of Great Basin Water Network, a coalition of water users who supported the effort. “That doesn’t foreclose on the fact that we could be at odds again down the road as it relates to water policy. In this specific case, I was thrilled to work with them.”
Addressing decorative turf
The water authority serves more than 2 million residents and the millions of tourists who come to Las Vegas each year. To understand where the decorative turf is and how much water it uses, the agency uses aerial imaging that reveals where water is evaporating.
“And then we use that data to make estimates of how much [ornamental turf] we think is in each sector,” said Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of resources for the water authority.
The agency estimates, for instance, that about 1,500 acres of decorative turf exists within the footprint of multi-family residences, a category that includes apartment buildings. About 1,000 acres of the turf exist at commercial and industrial properties.
In an arid climate like Las Vegas, one that is only predicted to become warmer as the climate continues to change, the amount of water consumed to irrigate grass can add up quickly.
A square-foot of grass needs about 73 gallons of water each year to survive. The legislation would require the removal of about 3,900 acres of decorative turf (the final version of the bill exempts single-family residences). Assuming all of the grass is converted to desert landscaping, which uses about 18 gallons each year, the bill would save about 9.3 billion gallons of water.
For years, the water authority has offered cash incentives to residents and businesses looking to convert turf to desert-friendly landscaping. But in an era of cutting back, the program has run into its limits, as Entsminger noted at a water authority board meeting earlier this year.
The agency has met resistance from homeowners associations who see decorative turf as an appealing feature, Entsminger said. At the board meeting, the agency presented one response from the Altura community within Summerlin: “...our community chose Altura for the beautiful green entrance. As we are well aware there is not much of it unless you live on a golf course. With that said, Altura is declining to move forward with the proposed turf replacement.”
The water authority also encounters other types of challenges in removing decorative turf. Apartment buildings and commercial properties sometimes have a diffuse ownership structure — governed by layers of LLCs — or out-of-state owners who are accustomed to grass-centric landscaping.
Water authority officials say those ownership dynamics can make it challenging for the agency to contact a property owner about decorative turf. In other cases, out-of-state property owners, unfamiliar with the arid climate of the Southwest, might not understand the severity of the issue.
In all, turf removal has declined since the 2000s and stayed below the water authority’s goal of converting at least 150 acres per year, even after the agency increased the rebates in 2018.
“The era where just carrots are going to get [us to] where we need to get is coming to the end,” Entsminger said during the March board meeting. “We’re going to have to use some sticks.”
The water authority board, comprising local elected officials, agreed. In addition to the issues around turf removal, Entsminger raised another argument for acting: consumptive use — the total amount of water used by Las Vegas and not recycled in Lake Mead — ticked up in 2020.
“We’re probably going to have to make some harder decisions this year to right the curve,” said Marilyn Kirkpatrick, who chairs the agency’s board and the Clark County Commission.
Flipping the script in Carson City
Before Assemblyman Howard Watts III (D-Las Vegas) was elected to the Legislature and came to chair the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, he worked with the Great Basin Water Network. The advocacy group is best known for fighting against the Las Vegas water authority’s decades-long effort to pump rural groundwater from rural eastern Nevada to urban Las Vegas.
Now, as chairman of the legislative committee, the roles were reversed. Watts actively helped the water authority get its legislation to the governor’s desk. During an interview in his Carson City office last month, Watts described the new law as “hugely significant in a couple of ways.”
Watts said he viewed the turf removal legislation as “the next step in a paradigm shift for the Southern Nevada Water Authority", one where more emphasis is placed on conservation of its existing Colorado River supplies, rather than importing new supplies.
“I worked for a long time to try and get the authority to move away from the pipeline project in eastern Nevada, which they’ve done,” Watts said. “As a result, they know that the Colorado River is their primary source of water for the foreseeable future — and we need to do more to protect and enhance that source.”
When the legislative session began in February, none of the proposed bills addressed Colorado River conservation — at least directly.
But one bill, AB356, proposed by the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, looked at water issues more broadly. The bill, as it was originally proposed, aimed to create a conservation credit system for managing water rights. At the same time, there were rumblings that the water authority wanted its own conservation bill.
The market-based approach in AB356, along with companion legislation (AB354) to establish water banks, was received with skepticism from conservationists, ranchers and farmers. They were concerned the state’s proposal was not fully vetted and could lead to speculative behavior.
In that opposition, the water authority saw an opening.
In April, a few weeks after the agency’s board meeting, water authority lobbyist Andy Belanger proposed an amendment to AB356 that replaced the original bill with the turf removal program.
At the meeting where the water authority introduced the idea, a group of key players came out to back the amendment: The Vegas Chamber, the Southern Nevada Homebuilders Association and local governments. Environmental advocates quickly backed the plan, too. The Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group, released a supportive statement that same day.
With Watts’ help, AB356 was amended to become the water authority’s bill. It eventually passed unanimously in the Senate. It then passed on a largely party-line 30 to 12 vote in the Assembly, with four Republicans voting in favor. On Friday, Sisolak signed the bill into law.
“It's incumbent upon us, for the next generation, to be more conscious of our conservation and natural resources, water being particularly important,” Sisolak told reporters last week.
Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka), well-known in the Legislature for having vast knowledge of Nevada water law and being a critic of the water authority’s pipeline project, voted in favor of the bill.
In an interview, he said the numbers the water authority presented spoke for themselves. They showed significant savings.
Goicoechea initially raised concerns that removing that much grass from the valley could increase surface temperatures, but he said he was assured by the water authority’s plans to offset those impacts with the planting of new trees on drip irrigation.
“It clearly is an area that has to be addressed,” he said, referring to nonfunctional turf.
Setting the stage for a drier future
Now the challenge is implementing the turf removal program.
The legislation leaves much of that up to the water authority’s board of local elected officials. But it also calls for the creation of a Nonfunctional Turf Removal Advisory Committee. Most importantly, it sets a target date about five years from now — Dec. 31, 2026 — for the removal of most of the 3,900 acres of grass.
That year is also important for the Colorado River.
Existing rules for how to manage Lake Mead and the Colorado River expire in 2026. Leaders from the seven states that use the river, Colorado River tribes, environmental groups, agricultural interests and developers are gearing up for negotiations over how water from the river is managed as climate change increases the risk of shortages.
In a recent interview, Entsminger said the situation is serious, but that the agency is preparing for cuts by lowering demand. The turf removal legislation is one of several programs. He said removing the 3,900 acres of turf would nearly offset the deepest cuts the water authority agreed to under the Drought Contingency Plan, an agreement that spells out tiered cuts during drought.
“When people see the headlines about the hydrology on the Colorado River, when they read about these looming shortages, I think they need to know that that is serious,” he said. “That is not hyperbole. But we as a community have the tools at our disposal to meet that challenge.”
For developers and environmental groups, there is also another side of an equation: Growth. Eyeing population growth, Clark County is actively looking to increase the Las Vegas footprint.
Conserved water can also serve as a new water supply. Roerink, who leads the Great Basin Water Network, said it was not lost on him that the business community, including homebuilders and the Vegas Chamber, came out in strong support of the legislation to remove decorative turf. But he warned about the rush to put conserved water back into use for homes or new developments.
“That would be a tragic mistake,” he said.
Watts acknowledged the concern. Several big-picture trends that are driving growth in Las Vegas and across the Southwest, he noted, and it’s important for policymakers to be prepared. It would be imprudent, he said, to allow growth and do nothing to conserve water.
“I'll leave it to other people to debate the bigger-picture questions around how and how much we should grow,” Watts said. “But [the bill is] about addressing issues with the resource.”
Watts said his hope is that removing decorative turf could serve “as a model for the southwest and for other Colorado River-dependent communities.”
The regional significance of ripping out grass
In the West, municipal water agencies are wary of comparing their policies, sometimes for good reason. Every municipal water system is unique, even if they rely on the same water source. But many agencies have encouraged their customers to reconsider lawns.
Oftentimes, these rules apply to new development, said Peter Mayer, an expert in municipal water management who runs WaterDM, a consulting firm based in Colorado. What makes the water authority’s turf removal program significant is that it applies to existing decorative turf.
“The startling part of this proposal is the concept of removing existing turf,” he said.
Mayer said removing ornamental turf could put Las Vegas, which already uses a small amount of Colorado River water, in a powerful position as Colorado River negotiators meet to discuss how to manage the river after 2026. Las Vegas officials can now point to the clear and aggressive measures they have taken to ensure the sustainability of the river.
“That's a powerful position to take, especially when you've got upstream neighbors, such as Utah and Washington County, where they are proposing additional withdrawals,” he said.
For years, Utah’s Washington County, which includes St. George, has sought to permit a project that would divert Colorado River water from Lake Powell to southern Utah.
There are other less tangible benefits to removing turf.
Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River program director for the Audubon Society, said removing decorative turf helps remind people in the Southwest that they live in an arid climate.
“It helps to change the local population's perception of where they live,” she said.
Water managers, she noted, are often wary of one-size-fits-all solutions. Different water agencies have different portfolios and demands. For instance, some cities within the Colorado River Basin rely on other water supplies, not just the Colorado River.
"At the same time, I think people can learn from each other, and I'm using people on purpose, because it's both water managers and also landscaping managers and communities,” she said.
In addition to leading the water authority, Entsminger serves as the president of the Colorado River Water Users Association. He declined to say whether other cities should adopt similar turf standards, but he said “everyone on the Colorado River, in all economic sectors, is going to have to use less water.”
"I think everybody has to use less water,” Entsminger said. “And if they want to choose having turf in a traffic circle over some other sector of their economy, then that’s their decision. But our decision is to really focus on the removal of this nonfunctional turf.”
When UNLV President Keith Whitfield took the university’s top job last summer, he came to Nevada at a pivotal moment.
The university’s first Black president, he arrived by way of Michigan’s Wayne State University just as the country was roiled by inflection point after inflection point, from the ongoing public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic to weeks and months of protest over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
UNLV’s fourth president since 2014, Whitfield came to the higher education system at a time defined, both then and now, by a series of slow-motion crises. Budget were slashed last year as revenues fell, almost all instruction was shunted online and questions loomed as to how institutions would plan their recoveries in the absence of hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.
Even now, as the worst public health effects of the pandemic have ebbed as vaccine availability has widened, the higher education picture remains mixed. Optimism is high for a return to largely in-person instruction in the summer and fall, but enrollments remain down from pre-pandemic levels, and administrators are waiting with bated breath to see whether lawmakers will go beyond the 12 percent budget cuts recommended by the governor.
The Nevada Independent sat down with Whitfield to discuss some of the biggest issues facing UNLV — from the pandemic to land grant status to diversity and racism.
Editor’s note: This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How will UNLV manage COVID restrictions differently in the fall than over the past year, if at all?
Our intention is that we're going to be back in person in the fall. We haven't hit the exact number in terms of percentages, you know, before we were 80 percent, remote 20 percent [in-person], and we vacillated around those numbers just a little bit. But we do expect that to be flipped, that we're going to have, you know, 85, maybe higher than that be in person.
But we will still have some, we call them "hyflex" hybrid classes, where professors will actually offer both, both remote [and in person]. You know, this, it speaks to how skillful our faculty are, because it's almost like a Merv Griffin kind of moment, that they're kind of managing those two things. But I think that's one of the things we need to take as a positive, is that our faculty have kind of gained a new skill set in being able to manage their core classes and courses using technology and using that virtual environment. And they can go back to what they know best, which is doing it in person.
So we're trying to make as much flexibility as possible. It can't be done for everybody, but we're thinking strategically about which courses we might think about trying to have in that hyflex space. And we work very closely with our faculty to figure that out.
But that's what our intention is for the fall, that it's going to be in person, July 1.
What do you believe UNLV’s role is in managing the public health aspect of the pandemic moving forward?
You've seen a role that we played, it's one of the things that I take a certain — I'm just so proud to be here. We have truly been an integral part of how we've been trying to encourage people for vaccinations and make sure that there was testing available. We've used our campus, we've used our faculty, we've used our staff to be able to do whatever is needed in this part of Southern Nevada, to be able to try to help with that.
And I think you've asked a really good question, which is how will that messaging go through in the future? And it does, in part, depend on how we move. There's even some numbers that suggest that, while herd immunity may be around 80 [percent], — which, the number keeps going up, which is a little discouraging to me — there's some decision points around 60 percent. And that, we want to truly try to get us to at least 60 percent, and that that's going to help some.
Our folks work with the Southern Nevada Health District to be able to work on some of the messaging, I did find it interesting when I was driving in this morning on one of, I think, one of our pieces of property, there's a big lighted sign saying, ‘Hey, students, you can come get a free vaccine.’ So we're going to continue to do that.
With the drop in numbers, though, you know, there have been vaccination sites that have been closing. And we take our directions from the county and the health district, about whether they need us or not. But we're here to hang in here as long as we can. Our public health people are very interested in the messaging piece, and I think that that's going to evolve over time. You know, right now, we're starting to move into more of a time when the people who haven't gotten their vaccination, a lot of it’s because of fear and hesitancy. And we need to just be able to encourage them in different ways.
Will UNLV students be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine before they can come back to in person classes?
We will not. We do follow what the state suggests, or orders us to do, which is that that will not be a requirement. There are some requirements that the state, again, actually puts forward in terms of immunizations to attend public schools. But that's where we take our marching orders from, the state, and that is not a part of what will go on in the future.
We really do want to encourage students to be able to get vaccinated, and to come back on our campus full time, that’s going to make our environment, our community as safe as we think it can be. So that's, that's what we're going to encourage, but there won't be a requirement.
With the expectation that the Legislature will cut 12 percent of the higher education budget this legislative session, what is UNLV’s strategy for mitigating or negating the worst effects of the cuts in the long term?
There needs to be certain priorities. One of the priorities that we have is student success, and so we have to make sure that as students now have to transition back to the old way of doing things, that they actually have all the mechanisms that they need. We're looking into seeing ways that we can increase advisers, for example, because that creates clear pathways for our students to be able to get their degrees. So that's one element.
Another element is about our ability to be able to hire and retain faculty. You know, that was one of the huge swaths that we used as a mechanism for being able to address the cuts from last year. And we're hoping that — you know, it's so funny to almost hope, we're not hoping for a 12 percent [cut], we're hoping that it's no more than a 12 percent cut. Because it's still going to really, severely hamstring us.
One of the reasons why this is important is to be able to deliver the best education to our students, and to be able to have a full faculty be able to do that. Second is we've recently become a Research-1, Carnegie, top-designated research university, and that's driven by our faculty. And so having to dip into that resource that we have, in terms of being able to recruit and hire great faculty to come here, is something that worries me greatly, that it's something that we're really going to need to be able to do for us to be able to retain that status.
In addition to that, it is the other kinds of operations that we do as a university, both internally and externally, what we give to what we provide for the community, but also the kinds of things that we just do to run our normal operations. We have people working on it, I would say, you know, I could call them any point in time and say, ‘What are you doing,’ and they're working on trying to figure out ways that we can find efficiencies, because we're being forced to. It’s not necessarily the best practice, may not even be the best thing for us. But it's to accommodate and to try to adjust to a budget cut.
Our perspective on all of this is that we want to figure out a way to grow the pie, as it were, for the state. There are grants that can be pursued; we've identified a number of them, that we have the talent, and because of our location, to be able to do that. We are an urban research university, and that's a very unique combination of skills, where it's not just even for the city — we do outreach into rural areas, as well — and so we have that balance there, and there are some opportunities for us to be able to do that.
It doesn't necessarily mean it just because we're local, but we are in this part of the state, we're connected to the community, but we're going to be connected even more to the community as time goes on. And so our ability to be able to help provide support for different aspects of the community, whether it be, you know, 4-H, or….urban sorts of things in terms of economic growth and things, those are things that can fall under that land grant item, that we're very well positioned to do — we're already committed to doing those things.
But it would be great to have those additional dollars. Those additional dollars come to the state and they have more of an impact than just paying for people, they actually promote other parts of economic growth for the state. Just because there's indirect costs, it's less of a reliance on other things. I mean, you have to be careful with research dollars, because research actually usually costs money as much as it actually brings dollars in, but this is one where we kind of grow the brand of this part of the state as being both you know, community serving and research oriented.
And the land grant status designation is not only for us, but for [the Desert Research Institute] as well. We think we'll really be able to help that and expand that. So it's more of an issue of just making sure that there's fairness and the opportunity to be able to grow and do other things.
I want to ask specifically about the Extension, because President Brian Sandoval at UNR has said that there is no more room for the pie to grow, that there won’t be more federal dollars available if this change is made and that it will irrevocably harm programs already offered by UNR without being able to fully fund those same programs at UNLV. What would you say to that?
It's an interesting perspective. And I think from our university's perspective, we think a lot about collaborating. I think this is the idea of, too, that, you know, when I say grow the pie, that doesn't mean that there's only one slice per person. It's the idea that we can actually take some of these things and make an approach that's more of a collaborative approach, so that we can actually provide the best services that are possible.
Some of that money for Extension also comes from the county, [Clark County Commission Chair] Marilyn Kirkpatrick has spoken about this, and actually asked that the state, you know, put more money into Extension, and some of that comes from our citizens as well. And so we want to make sure that we can provide the additional kinds of assistance operations programs that we're suited to be able to help do. And some of that could come from collaborations between our universities, rather than just saying, "It's yours, or it's mine." I don't think that that is a way forward on most things. We really need to figure out when we can collaborate and President Sandoval and I have said this, now, a number of times — when we can collaborate, it makes sense to collaborate. And when we can compete, it makes sense for us to compete.
There's, I think, there's several things that make it sensible for us to be able to collaborate on some of those things, maybe make better, more efficient use of some of those dollars. And that's our perspective on it.
Our biggest thing, too, is that we don't want to do any harm. We're not looking to try to take away programs, we're trying to figure out, "Hey, is there a way that we either, you know, programming starts here at UNLV, or programming might be some that we reach out to our partner or our collaborator, UNR, that work that's done here in Southern Nevada, that we're better positioned to be able to help do, that we can actually take it to another level and do better.”
Sometimes, it's not always about the individual dollar, it's about the effort and the people that are there. And given our connection to the community, our desire to do everything we can — I think that's demonstrated through COVID, but it really extends to everything we do. This is a possible benefit, rather than thinking about shrinking dollars.
So when we discuss fairness and equity as part of the land grant issue, what does that mean?
I think it's more opportunity than anything else, that we have the opportunity to, one, provide services, and two, it’s not just those Extension dollars, it is these other grant dollars that are available, too. There, there are millions of them that are out there that we can do.
And, you know, that's the main crux of the idea, of just being fair. Again, one of our priorities will always be, and I think this is an easy one to think of, that we want to make sure that nothing actually decreases in terms of services and opportunities for people. We actually want to try to grow them. And so we think us being able to be at the table offers an opportunity for us to grow that, and then that it's a fair operation going forward.
So as a relatively recent outsider to the state, have you observed a regionalism or rivalry between UNR and UNLV in terms of access to funding or resources?
It's so funny when you start that, Jacob, and you said, you know, “as an outsider.” I love this town, I love being here, so, you know, I'm struggling with that a little bit, but I do understand that I have a relatively recent understanding, interacting, seeing what goes on, some of the conversations that go back and forth.
I think that a little bit of it does exist, a little bit of it still does exist. I think even the history is very complicated, because when I've looked at things like people have looked and said, “Oh, look at all the funding that goes to UNR,” but you know, they've taken a different approach to certain things, like they have used their bonding capabilities differently than we have. And so there's some differences between those two that are differences in approaches.
They are — in higher ed, we think about it as, they're a residential college or they're a residential university. And we're an urban university, and it usually comes with, I hate the word, but it's “commuter campus.” And so we attack and we deal with things in a different way, in a different approach.
I hear about the history, and I know that it comes from changes in, you know, the power base, and where people were and all those other kinds of things. And I tell you, I listened to it, I love hearing history — I never let it constrain me, I never let it constrain what we can do as a state, because this is one state.
I'm not so Pollyanna-ish to believe that we'll just eliminate that, you know, people have blue and people have red, they're going to….have those things in terms of both their political affiliations as well as their university affiliations. But I think we have to just make sure that we keep the greater good in mind. This is one of the things that I have so enjoyed about working with President Sandoval so far, is that we really do share that, you know, hey, you know, I bleed red, he bleeds blue. That's absolutely fine. But if we see something, that's an opportunity, and we are looking at some opportunities right now, with the leadership of President [Kahmud] Acharya at DRI, of ways that the three research universities around research that we can collaborate. And Chancellor [Melody] Rose is — she is a very important, unique person. And she was a really good pick, partly too because she's outside (Rose was appointed chancellor last year following decades of higher education administration experience in Oregon). And she comes with me, with not that ingrained thinking of one or the other, but thinks about possible collaborations.
But we have talked about other ways in which, for example, community colleges, and the four years can actually work together — I have experienced from having been in my last institution of having pathways from community colleges to four-year institutions that make it so that it fosters if students want to do that, they can do that. And it benefits not only the four-year institution, but also the community college. And so you know, community colleges are very, very complex and different ways than research universities are, and the pathways that they create for students are critically important.
[Nevada] ranks very, very low in terms of college-educated folks. And so we have to figure out every which way we can to be able to make it so that people who do want to pursue a four-year education can do it. And so it is this bigger — I think that's what Chancellor Rose tries to keep us mindful of — is that, you know, there's much more at stake, than just whether we win the [Fremont] cannon any one year, it really is these other things.
We can have fun doing some of those competitive things, but the things that we can collaborate on that actually build capacity, build opportunities for folks, we need to make sure that we do. And like I said, President Sandoval and I have agreed on that. And he I think, is a very honorable person, and he has stuck with that. But there's things that we compete on, there's things that we want for our institutions, as well. And so we have to manage those two different pressures.
One of the criticisms made of the push for SB287 is that it has been donor driven, rather than driven by UNLV. Do you believe that the donors have outsized influence in these kinds of policy decisions for UNLV?
I'd say now, what it is, is more of a collaboration. You probably noted recently, we named the School of Medicine the Kerkorian School of Medicine. That was not done because we were strong-armed some kind of way. That was, it’s that we talked about it — it's way before my time, that was talked about. One of the possibilities, or even of actually eventualities, is that you name schools, and particularly medical schools. It's very important. If you look at what's happening in the landscape of higher education, that gives a certain level of prominence to universities.
And for us, you know, that particular example is one where we said, “You know, we're working together doing these things, we have certain desires, and guess what, we've found a way that it ultimately benefits both of us.” You know, I know that there's things that are going on in the background — you noted the [Vegas Chamber] and the chamber has been supportive of things that would benefit us. And I have very good friends in the chamber, but I don't think that they're thinking about UNLV specifically, they're thinking about the region, you know, that's what a chamber is actually for. So they're promoting those things, and then we're a mechanism by which we help them.
I mean, we're a great piece of that, and they do see, I think, the promise and the capabilities of this great university to be able to do those things. And so those things get intertwined. There's lots of ways that states move forward. And those entities that you talked about are very active in things that affect both Las Vegas and the state. But our relationship with them is one that is one that's built on trust; that's what had to be there, was that we had to trust each other.
We trusted them, that they shared our passion for trying to grow health care in the state of Nevada. And then you come together. It's a partnership, but it is really based on trust, it goes back and forth. We have good communications, we have good connections with them. As you know, we've had a couple of changes in leadership, but we have absolutely outstanding leadership. That, too — what I like is that they appreciate it. They're like, “Oh, you share the same passion as us,” and so then it becomes a partnership.
It’s been a couple months since you mentioned a push to tackle systemic racism at UNLV in your State of the University address. How are the initiatives you mentioned at the time shaping up?
Well, we're positioning ourselves to figure out just what those initiatives have been. I was blessed to be able to come to a university that was already talking about those well before what we saw happen last year, and even the current situation with George Floyd. You know, our office [for student diversity and social justice] has been there for, I think it's three years now. So those things are nothing new, we're tied for the second most diverse campus in the country. And that, then, has been a piece of how we've understood who we are.
And so, my arriving, it was really to say that, let's not fool ourselves. I think sometimes in education and higher education, we believe that, because we're educated, that racism doesn't have, you know, a foothold. And it does. And I think we're trying to be honest with ourselves about it, and think about ways that we can try to deal with that.
We've talked about this relative to hiring faculty. While we have a very diverse student body, our faculty isn't as diverse. I try to be nice, because I think our faculty, particularly the faculty Senate, our leaders, they're really passionate that we need to change these. And I go, “You know, be nice to ourselves, because we're not as far behind as others are.” Yes, we can do better, but you know, we've got a foundation to be able to do better.
But it's those structural things, and it's some of the interactions. It's so fascinating, because it's another kind of interaction or intersection that we have, like last year. What we had was the intersection between seeing George Floyd and what happened to him that intersected with COVID and a pandemic. And it was like these two monumental things that were changing our lives that really were this fascinating intersection that, hopefully, will bring long, sustainable change.
I think now we're at another point where we're recovering, and we're in a position to create a new normal. So what is that new normal going to be? And it's both between “Are we going to wear masks?” That is now one of the big questions. And also, “What are we going to do, trying to make a more fair, just and equitable society?”
And so it's something that — we're leaning on [former Chief Diversity Officer Barbee Oakes], the history that she's done, but our chief diversity officer has retired. And we've thought about that as not — while it's a huge loss, I mean, I am very sorry to see her go, because I think that she was really a force — but it does give us an opportunity to try to reset and to try to think, “Okay, so let's look now at what we've done and think about how we're going to do the next level.”
And so we're having those conversations both with faculty, staff, and with students, about what we might want to try to do, moving into both the summertime and then into the fall. I think you're gonna see a lot more activities where we make sure that we hear the voices of students and faculty and staff. I think that has been one of the biggest challenges, is that it's not necessarily about numbers sometimes. Because when you talk about effective groups, sometimes, or disadvantaged groups, many times they're minority groups, meaning that they're a smaller group. But what you want to do is to be able to hear those voices. And so we've been trying to set up ways to hear voices.
One of the things that I really have enjoyed doing, and we're only stopping because graduation’s coming up, is that I've been having lunches with students. And we do them virtually, it's not opportune, but we have a lot of fun. And they really bring up a lot of conversations, a lot of issues, that I then, you know, have a little notepad, I start taking them down, and I go to my Cabinet, my staff, and we start talking about ways that we can try to address those.
And so there are some things that are behind the scenes that are smaller issues that we're working on a building, and there aren't going to be other things that we're going to see and think of. I think we're going to see ways in which we can try to make sure that, as we look at pools of [faculty] candidates, that there's always a good amount of diversity in those pools. And if not, we don't think about them as being successful candidate searches.
Taking a look at our curriculum and seeing what opportunities we have to be able to really provide diversity, one of my little pet desires is to be able to use small videos, short videos, and other opportunities to be able to build cultural intelligence. And that be something that a student could walk away and show to a future employer, “Hey, you know, I'm going to be a great team member, I'm going to be a team member not only in terms of the state, maybe nationally, maybe internationally, but because I've got a great education, but I've also got these other experiences, and some of them are, in the way of being able to understand issues around cultural intelligence.”
So we've got a few dreams of things. We've got to keep our eye on the budget to make sure we can do things that are sustainable, because we don't want to start things that we ultimately have to end, either because we don't have the money now or that we have the money in that it's one time funding, which is a lot of money that's coming from the federal government, even from the state. We want to build things that are going to be sustainable and put us on a different trajectory relative to trying to deal with issues of diversity.
Ancillary to all this, the Hey Reb! mascot was also retired in January. What was the thought process behind that decision?
You know, my predecessor, Marta Meana, actually started that process [last year]. And essentially, we weren't using it for anything in terms of what our goings on were. A lot of times you see those characters at some of the sporting events, and so that was so different [under pandemic restrictions], so we didn't see him there.
And so that really started before then, and so by the time we came to January, and I just thought, “This has been such a longstanding issue that we have already kind of moved in this direction, we're going to stay in that direction.”
So was it more related to the history and perception of Hey Reb!, or was it a function of inertia, that Hey Reb! was already more or less phased out by that time?
Well, I'll be honest with you, the background of why he wasn't in use is because of those beliefs about that. And what's fascinating is, I can't remember which bill it is, but there's actually a bill that likely would have put a lot of pressure on us to do something about it. I think it's now positioned more for the high schools, but if you do have any mascot, or representation, that represents racism, or bias or whatever.
So there is an actual bill now that's being considered around that, I think we were just a little out ahead of it, because we've been dealing with it and thinking about it for a long time. But you know, those things were behind it.
We’re rebels. I mean, that's what we are. And believe it or not, people weren't completely happy with me keeping the “Rebel” name. Because they, in some ways, think about that rebel name with that. You know, we really want to be thoughtful about who we are as a university, and that we are “rebels,” we try to do things differently. We're not afraid to try to invent and initiate and be entrepreneurial and go out that kind of — you know, I've been called a rebel all my life. And so I don't have any problems with that.
But I really did listen to people, and I think that there was a difference between how people view that caricature and view the name “rebel.” Also, nationally, this university is known as the UNLV Rebels. It's one of those things where, you know, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's all good, but I don't think that it's one that we can say has the same kind of, you know, problems or issues that we saw with the caricature [of Hey Reb]. I think that there's a certain amount of pride that we can take when being rebels and being different down here in this part of the state, and so I'm hoping that we continue to embrace that.
As other colleges and universities have phased out racist mascots or alumni songs or other spirit-related traditions, there’s been pushback from some big-money university donors. Did you see any complaints from donors when Hey Reb! was retired?
I didn't. Our donors, we’re very thankful for them, they're part of our community. And when I spoke to them, I was really surprised that there are people who said, “Yeah, we've been arguing about this for forever, you know, it's not a big deal, let it go,” or others that say that, “You know, I do think that there was an issue with it.”
To be honest with you, I was surprised. I thought that there was going to be much more pushback from donors who have that heritage. It's that they've always seen that particular caricature, and that somehow, just because they've seen it, actually made it more important than what it was. I think the idea of keeping who we are, as rebels, was far more important to them. That was more of an identity than that caricature was.
Three counties have signaled to the state their intent to open to 100 percent capacity as soon as possible after assuming responsibility for pandemic health and safety decision making at the beginning of May.
Representatives of Carson City, Lyon County and Storey County told members of the state’s COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force on Wednesday that their goal is to progress to a full reopening after the state hands over decision-making authority on May 1. Gov. Steve Sisolak, on Tuesday, announced that the state will lift its six-foot social distancing mandate on May 1, thereby allowing counties that want to to open up to 100 percent to do so.
However, counties are being urged to continue to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations on social distancing, which, as of now, remains at six feet. Officials from two of the three counties, Carson City and Storey County, said that they intended to still follow the CDC’s guidance, while Lyon County Manager Jeff Page noted his county’s plan is “silent” in reference to the federal recommendations.
While Sisolak’s Wednesday announcement cleared the path for 100 percent reopening, state biostatistician Kyra Morgan, during the task force meeting, cautioned counties that choose to fully reopen right away.
“For all the counties who are going to take advantage of the 100 percent reopening, I just want everyone to have realistic expectations that cases will surely go up when that happens,” Morgan said. “I just want the expectation to be realistic that we will see an increase in cases when counties increase capacity to 100 percent.”
The question is whether those case increases will then manifest as increased COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, or whether the vaccination effort is able to prevent serious illness from the virus. That, Morgan said, is the unknown.
Page, Lyon’s county manager, acknowledged that increasing case numbers is likely a reality, saying he anticipates the county will “have some bumps in the road” and that “we’re going to get some people sick for a while.”
However, Page again urged members of the task force to encourage state officials to outline a framework now — as the state prepares to hand over control to the local governments — for at what point the state might need to take back the reins, as in the event of a significant statewide surge.
“Hopefully the state will start taking a look at that so it’s not perceived by this governor or a future governor as some political knee jerk reaction,” Page said. “It was hard enough in March 2020 to do what we did, and if we have to go back to that, it's going to be even more difficult.”
The three plans from Carson, Lyon and Storey share many similarities, though Carson’s plan still has to return to the Board of Supervisors for approval and nothing is set in stone as counties can change their rules at any time. All three plans allow retail stores, indoor malls, indoor restaurants and bars, places of worship, gyms and other establishments to open at 100 percent starting May 1.
Lyon’s County plan, which was approved by the county commission Wednesday morning, is more permissive on public gatherings than the other two, allowing gatherings and events to take place at 100 percent occupancy starting May 1. Carson’s plan, by contrast, caps indoor gatherings at 50 percent or 250 people, whichever is less, and outdoor gatherings at 250, while Storey’s limits indoor gatherings to 250 with no cap on outdoor gatherings.
But not all counties are eager to get to 100 percent immediately. Esmeralda County, which also presented to the task force on Wednesday, has proposed keeping the state’s 50 percent occupancy limits for businesses in place for the time being, with gatherings limited to 250 people or 50 percent. (Esmeralda, the state’s tiniest county by population, has a little fewer than 900 residents.)
Esmeralda Sheriff Ken Elgan stressed to the task force the county’s commitment to following federal health and safety recommendations.
“We’re cops, so we’ll follow what the health department says and the CDC,” Elgan said.
Six more counties — Washoe, Lander, Lincoln, Mineral, Pershing and White Pine — will present transition plans to the task force on Thursday, while the remaining seven counties, including Clark, will come before the task force the following Thursday.
In response to Sisolak’s Tuesday evening announcement, the Washoe County Commission canceled a special meeting it had scheduled for Wednesday in advance of its task force presentation. The county, in a statement, said it would need to update its plan — which the commission heard and proposed amendments to last week — in light of the governor’s announcement.
“I applaud the governor for reopening the state on June 1 and getting our economy moving again,” Washoe County Commission Chair Bob Lucey said in a statement. “Here in Washoe County, we have been working toward this goal for months.”
Washoe County’s original plan proposed lifting all capacity limits on businesses starting May 1 so long as they continued to provide for six-foot social distancing, a requirement that would be dropped once the county hit a 75 percent vaccination rate. Commissioners voted to amend that plan to loosen certain restrictions, such as allowing social distancing to reduce to three feet once the county hits a 50 percent vaccination rate.
In Clark County, Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick said at a press conference on Wednesday that she expected the county to be able to get to 100 percent reopening by June 1 as long as people continue to get vaccinated against and tested for the virus.
“My job is to ensure that our community is safe, first and foremost, and that’s what we’ve done all along is put public health first,” Kirkpatrick said. “However, we also need to weigh all the impacts from businesses that need to get back on track, mental health capacity for folks and unemployment, all of that weighs on a person in many ways.”
Under Clark County’s proposed plan, which will be considered at a commission meeting on Tuesday, the 50 percent capacity limit currently in place statewide for most businesses will remain in place, though certain other restrictions will be lifted.
For instance, restaurants will be able to seat a maximum of 10 people per table instead of six, self-service buffets will be allowed and hot tubs and spas may open. Additionally, night clubs, day clubs and strip clubs, which are currently closed under statewide rules, will be allowed to open at 50 percent capacity on May 1.
The county’s plan also lays out a framework for large gatherings, with events allowed to operate at 100 percent capacity if 60 percent of the county is vaccinated, cases remain below 1,150 per week and the test positivity rate is at or below 5 percent.
Kirkpatrick noted Clark County is in a significantly different position than rural counties, which may choose to open at 100 percent on May 1. As the state’s economic driver, Clark County needs to have a “measured approach” to reopening, she said.
“Storey County has not had many positives this entire time. Lincoln County has not. So they likely could open to 100 percent much faster,” Kirkpatrick said. “Clark County is the engine that drives the train economically. We’re also the engine that has the highest unemployment rate. We do not want to shut that down.”
Since the inception of UNLV in the 1950s as Nevada Southern, a pervasive narrative has persisted among higher education advocates in the South: UNLV is the stepchild to UNR, constantly given short shrift in budget negotiations and suffering in the long term as a consequence, even as Las Vegas has emerged as the state's economic center over that same time period.
But is that perception a reality?
The truth of the matter, according to more than a dozen interviews with those involved with higher education policy past and present, is in the eye of the beholder. There are vast — often uncontrollable, sometimes highly personal — forces putting different pressures on different actors. Regents, lawmakers, university presidents, faculty advocates and even the voting public all push and pull on a system that starts at the ballot box and ends in byzantine negotiations over full-time equivalent headcounts, weighted student credit hours and multi-million dollar budgets.
Heading into this year’s legislative session, however, there was an outward display of unity in the face of devastating budget cuts triggered by the pandemic. Between UNR, UNLV, system administrators, community colleges and even regents, there was little daylight on major issues from scholarships to sexual harassment policy to the need for “shared sacrifice” in the face of yet more budget cuts.
And thus far, more than halfway through the session, that unity has disappeared on just one issue: SB287, a bill sponsored by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) that would formally acknowledge existing legal opinions that say UNLV and the Desert Research Institute are included alongside UNR as federally recognized land grant institutions.
Originally created under the Morrill Act of 1862 and later expanded through additional federal legislation, the land grant program was meant to spur the development of universities nationwide through the wide availability and sale of federal land. Today, the designation has morphed into a historic signifier of a college's commitment to agricultural education or programming, and more broadly allows land grant schools to apply for specialized grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Education Committee Friday — a committee with no Northern Nevada members — clearing the first hurdle on its way toward becoming law. With it has come a renewed focus on decades of history and perceptions of that history that, advocates said, have placed UNR on a pedestal to the detriment of UNLV.
The land grant question
The primary purpose of SB287 is a formal recognition of what several legal opinions, including those at the Legislative Counsel Bureau and the Nevada System of Higher Education, have already concluded: that the Constitution names Nevada’s “State University” as a land grant institution, and that university — the University of Nevada — includes not only UNR, but also UNLV and DRI.
Proponents have said that because the federal government only formally recognizes UNR as the state’s sole land grant school — it was founded 147 years ago as a result of the Morrill Land Grant Act, the foundational federal law from which this entire issue derives — SB287 has become a necessity in providing UNLV equal access to apply to competitive federal grants in land grant-specific fields.
Eric Chronister, Dean of the College of Sciences at UNLV, said the current system has created a legal limbo where, even though the university’s faculty want to contribute research under land grant-specific grants offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “they’re not able to participate.”
“I'm sort of an absolutist,” Chronister said. “Either someone needs to say, ‘UNLV can never be a land grant institution,’ and our faculty need to know they can never apply for these things, or someone needs to say that, in fact, we are, so that they can. It's really that simple.”
When it became clear that lawmakers would pursue a formal recognition of land grant status for UNLV and DRI this year, university administrators and key donors jumped at the chance to secure access to more research funding at a time when the institution is seeking to solidify and maintain a status as a top-tier research university.
“By expanding accessibility to federal grants that have land-grant requirements, this legislation allows UNLV to grow the research pie by bringing additional federal dollars to Southern Nevada and the state as a whole,” the letter said. “It is our commitment that existing programs will continue to serve the Southern Nevada community.”
But the proposal has triggered deep skepticism from some administrators and faculty at UNR, where the criticism of SB287 has been most fierce. Most northern critics, including UNR President and former Gov. Brian Sandoval, have contended that this is not about denying UNLV land grant status or enshrining UNR as the sole land grant institution. Instead, they say, it’s about the financial gutting of crucial programs already entrenched at UNR for little gain elsewhere.
Key to this point of the debate is the other half of having land grant status: the Cooperative Extension. Federal land grant money, supplemented with county-level taxes, supports a number of well-liked county-level agricultural and educational programs, including 4-H and other youth programs.
Extension funding has become the core of the issue for UNR, just as it was when the issue last emerged in 2017. Then, as governor, Sandoval vetoed a similar bill, AB407, in part on the grounds that it would endanger program funding at UNR without providing the means to replace those programs at UNLV.
“There's a fixed amount of money that we receive, that the state receives, and then the university receives programmatic money associated with this land grant status,” Sandoval said in an interview with The Nevada IndependentMonday. “As a result of this bill, it will split that three ways and dilute that money which will make a two-thirds reduction, I guess you could say, from UNR’s budget in that regard, which will obviously have an effect on services.”
Indeed, as Southern Nevada lawmakers have moved to raise the land grant issue again this year, Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick co-authored an op-ed with UNR Extension Director Ivory Lyles in The Nevada Independent arguing for additional state funding for Extension programs, not less.
“Now more than ever, residents in all corners of Nevada need access to the educational programs and services provided by Extension, to help grow their businesses, educate their children, improve their health and nutrition, preserve our natural resources, and more,” the pair wrote. “It is an essential time to begin returning to the formerly equitable state-county partnership.”
As originally worded, SB287 would have severely restricted Extension funding almost overnight, essentially splitting limited programmatic funding three-ways with little consideration for existing programs.
That provision will likely be changed in the final bill language under an amendment proposed by the Nevada Association of Counties, which has suggested leaving the formal process of divvying up land-grant related funding to the discretion of the NSHE chancellor, Melody Rose.
The chancellor would then become the chief arbiter of the issue in creating a committee of land grant stakeholders, including the director of the Extension, with the end goal of creating an equitable funding structure for all parties to be approved later by regents and, finally, by legislators in the 2023 session.
Even so, Rose said the Nevada System of Higher Education is formally remaining neutral on SB287, in keeping with Board of Regents policy established when the issue arose in 2017.
“We respect the Legislature's authority to engage in this policy analysis, and my role as chancellor is to advance all of the institutions within the NSHE system,” Rose said. “And under the current configuration of the bill, if it passes, the implementation committee would provide me an opportunity to convene the stakeholders, and in a moment of pause, consider all of the options, all of the implications and craft agreements between the presidents and bring them forward after careful consideration.”
But even as the amendment has emerged as a compromise among system and county administrators, concerns remain at UNR that SB287 could hobble the institution’s Extension funding by the time the dust has settled.
“That amendment does nothing to cure the issue of whether the dilution of those scarce federal funds by designating DRI and UNLV as land grant institutions does not increase the pie,” Sandoval said. “It doesn't allow for more eligibility for more of those programmatic funds. That is fixed. That's a formula that says that it's fixed on the amount of agriculture that's going on in the state and some other factors. And the counties provide the matches to that program, to the Cooperative Extension, so all those formulas and things would be affected.”
And as much as the issue of the Extension has become the political hot potato at the core of the debate over SB287, it is not the only factor driving northern opposition to the otherwise simple recognition of land grant status.
Land grant institutions across the country are deeply rooted in the history of higher education itself, developed as part of a plan in the mid-19th century to lay the groundwork for a nationwide public agricultural and “mechanic arts” education as the U.S. rapidly settled the West.
Tracing its roots back to a class of just seven students in Elko in 1874, what would become the University of Nevada, Reno was the sole university in the state — let alone the sole land grant institution — for almost 100 years (the then-Nevada Southern University in Las Vegas only graduated its first class in 1964, and the name “UNLV” was not adopted until 1969).
The national history, observers said, has become a powerful point of pride and prestige for any and all long-time land grant schools, not just UNR. But it also has developed a sense of specialization, one driven by more than a century of focus on agricultural and mining education and research, that has given rise to an argument that no school is better positioned to deliver land-grant related agricultural programs in Nevada than UNR.
“I think for us, it's more that we have years of history of building programs specific to agriculture, specific to our mining industry or ranching industry — those things right,” UNR Faculty Senate Chair Amy Pason said. “That's why we exist, that's why UNR, as an institution, exists.”
Pason said that part of the issue for faculty is a concern that their efforts in establishing and developing such programs would be rendered “meaningless” if “anybody can be named land grant without having to do the same kind of programs or responsibilities that we do.”
More than that, faculty and administrators at UNR have questioned the real-world benefit of UNLV’s land grant designation in terms of access to federal grants, suggesting it would endanger the Extension at the risk of doing little to change the federal-grant landscape in Nevada.
Sandoval said “it wouldn’t really change anything” and that UNLV and DRI would “still be able to go after the grants” they already are pursuing. Pason, similarly, said it was a minimal change, that “it doesn’t actually do anything if we just start naming our institutions ‘land grant.’”
Chronister pushed back on those characterizations as “just wrong,” pointing in part to work being done in conjunction with mining companies from the university’s geoscience department and adding that “not enough people know about UNLV.”
“In a way, it's sort of indicative of — there's a reason why people don't know enough about UNLV, because we're not given the [land grant] status that we should,” Chronister said.
He added that he would not be “so conservative” about the raw dollar amounts that could be at stake should UNLV be recognized federally as a land grant institution, saying in part that “we know we can’t go to the state and ask for more dollars, we just want the opportunity to compete for the federal dollars that support the things we’re expert at.”
But even outside the wonky arguments over legal intent, funding and research, there remain deeper concerns over the politics of a policy like SB287 — namely who is pushing such a proposal, and why they are looking to get it passed now.
There is open suspicion among some SB287 critics of the decidedly business-oriented backers of SB287, namely the Council for a Better Nevada (CBN), which has backed and presented several pieces of higher education legislation this session alone.
SB287 is the only measure proposed by the group this session that would directly and explicitly benefit UNLV, but critics point to a pattern of involvement that suggests the donors maintain more control of such policy decisions than UNLV itself.
“My understanding is that, although UNLV isn't sponsoring the bill, they do support the bill, but it isn't sponsoring the bill,” Sandoval said. “The bill was presented by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) and then through testimony of Maureen Schafer on behalf of the Council for a Better Nevada, which in my understanding, is the entity that is pushing this bill aggressively. ”
CBN — a non-profit funded by Clark County business leaders seeking to “improve the quality of life in Nevada” — has for several years been openly involved in a number of high profile higher education policies and projects, including a push to remove regents from the Constitution through Question 1 last year.
Schafer, executive director of CBN and the former founding chief of staff at the UNLV School of Medicine, pushed back on CBN’s Northern Nevada critics in part by saying “there’s a lot of them who are never going to realize that there’s a Southern Nevada to Northern Nevada.”
“Change is really hard, and we're just taking the hill right now, you know,” Schafer said. “But I don't mean to demagogue Northern Nevada, it's just that 100 or so people in those positions who just think it's always going to be this way.”
The North-South divide
Schafer’s argument, and to an extent UNLV’s argument over equity with SB287, emerge from an entrenched history of disparities between universities North and South, in which one institution time-and-time again arose as the perceived “has,” while the other was relegated to the perceived “has-not.”
These arguments emerge in part, however, as a matter of perspective. Robert Dickens spent three decades lobbying for UNR, and in that time witnessed the shift of a north-south rivalry from athletics, “where that kind of rivalry is endemic in higher education,” to politics, economics and academics, where he said it had become a destructive force.
Dickens said that as new Las Vegans — having come from elsewhere — looked to enmesh themselves in a new city, they sought the “Rebels” of UNLV as a key cornerstone of that urban community.
“In the process, over time, of becoming a Southern Nevadan, you also drank the Kool Aid about the sectionalism,” Dickens said. “And it's rampant … And that creates a conflicting challenge for all decision makers, because you have two different institutions doing the same kind of business, both performing well … and they want to move on and take care of the things that are their missions. And, frankly, when this stuff enters the Nevada Legislature or the executive branch, it becomes deleterious.”
But, Dickens said, that sectionalism arose for a bevy of reasons, from the origins of UNLV as Nevada Southern to the geographic proximity of UNR to the Legislature in Carson City to the relationships between some UNR presidents and lawmakers to the high turnover of leadership at UNLV.
Also key to this dynamic, he said, was the frequently complex and opaque manner in which the state’s budget was finalized by lawmakers. That process was for years led in the Senate by Republican Sen. Bill Raggio, a famed friend of UNR (his name now adorns the university’s College of Education) who chaired the powerful Senate Finance Committee from 1993 until 2005.
Barbara Buckley, a former Democratic assemblywoman from Clark County who served from 1994 to 2011, including a stint as Assembly speaker from 2007 to 2011, said “it was no secret” that Raggio played a major role in how higher education funding was distributed.
“In the 90s and the 2000s, there were not as many representatives from Southern Nevada as there are today, and the Senate leadership positions were controlled by legislators in Northern Nevada,” Buckley said. “And so historically, there was a perception, and many say a reality, that UNR received greater funding than UNLV.”
Buckley said the budgeting process then was as it is now, frequently “quick and frenzied,” leaving little time to assess detailed budgets like higher education.
But even in Raggio’s absence, most observers agree that the most substantial budgeting differences between UNR and UNLV were not ironed out until the passage of an entirely new funding formula — one based on so-called weighted student credit hours rather than full-time equivalent headcounts — in 2011 and 2013.
Even then, controversy reignited once a Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation revealed in 2016 then-Chancellor Dan Klaich had misled lawmakers during the formula revision process by presenting a letter to a committee under a consultant’s letterhead.
Klaich denied wrongdoing and said that some emails presented by the Review-Journal story were meant as jokes, though he did eventually resign. Shortly after his exit, legislators drafted AJR5, a measure that would pull the regents from the Constitution as a means of increasing legislative oversight over the higher education system (that measure ultimately failed at the ballot box last year, though a similar bill has been revived this year as SJR7, a bill backed in part by CBN).
Today, it’s unclear whether regionalism extends beyond the realm of sports and such niche funding issues as SB287. Last year saw the appointment of new presidents at UNR and UNLV and a new chancellor, and the trio — alongside the other college presidents and the regents — have so far signaled unity on major issues being proposed by legislators.
Even on budget cuts, the universities have toed a similar line, stating on one hand that the 12 percent cuts being pursued by lawmakers as part of the governor’s recommended budget will be devastating in the short term, but on the other hand that they understand the need for shared sacrifice if it means long term survival.
SB287 will next head to a floor vote by the state Senate sometime before the first house passage deadline on April 20.
For years, state lawmakers and local elected officials have quietly and not-so-quietly expressed frustration at the bickering and lingering controversies from the Clark County School District Board of Trustees.
But the effort to move to partially appointed school boards may have its best chance yet to pass this session in the form of Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson’s AB255, heard Tuesday afternoon in the Assembly Education Committee.
The bill attracted more than an hour of public comment, with many local Southern Nevada governments, business groups and one teacher’s union in favor of the proposal, but with another major teacher’s union, several education advocates and trustees themselves opposed to the change.
But Frierson indicated that patience with fully elected school boards may be wearing thin.
“I think that school boards are just as important as picking a doctor, and you don’t elect your doctor,” he said during the hearing. “Because they have important decisions, whether it's HR, whether it's development of curriculum, whether it's budgets, whether it's ethics, I think these are all reasons why we need to find a way to make sure that we have a richer experience moving forward.”
The bill itself would reduce the number of elected school board positions in the Clark County and Washoe County school districts from seven to four and allow for appointment of three local governments — one from the county commission and one each from the two largest cities in each county. The new districts would need to be nearly equal in population and composed of a contiguous area, which Frierson said could be accomplished during the scheduled 2021 redistricting process.
Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) has introduced similar legislation in the form of SB111, but that measure has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.
Frierson said he was open to suggestions on the bill, noting that he didn’t intend the measure to villainize any school board members, but said the overall goal was to increase accountability for the state’s largest school boards.
“In a state where we have one of the largest school districts in the country, we can't afford to have some of the distractions and dysfunction that we have in years past,” he said.
Supporters of the bill included a wide range of local Southern Nevada elected officials, including Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick, who called in to support the bill, saying that there has been “many opportunities missed” in potential collaboration between the Clark County school board and other local governments in the county. She specifically noted that a bill passed last session authorizing a sales tax increase had helped the county establish an anti-truancy program, but said the school board had proven difficult to work with in the sharing of data.
“I think what you heard here today is students, students, students need voices, voices, voices,” she said. “I think you also heard that there's a diversity of issues that are out there, and that we need folks that can bring a level of professionalism and some additional insight to the school board trustees.”
Other supporters included lobbyists representing the cities of North Las Vegas, Las Vegas and Henderson, the Vegas Chamber, the Retail Association of Nevada, and the Clark County Education Association — union executive director John Vellardita criticized the CCSD board as spending the past decade engaged in “dysfunctional behavior at the expense of students and frontline educators.”
“We need change, and we need it now,” he said.
But several opponents of the bill suggested that lawmakers could adopt other accountability changes that could increase the level of professionalism among school board members, but didn’t think lawmakers should take away the ability of voters in large counties to choose their school board representatives.
The Nevada State Education Association testified in opposition to the bill, listing several suggested accountability changes ranging from advisory seats on school boards, a statewide code of conduct for trustees with options for possible removal, better compensation, and even ranked choice voting in school board races. But union representatives said that taking away voting power would lead to less accountability, not more.
“Appointed school boards are shielded by an appointing authority who typically has significant other responsibilities, in addition to the appointment of school board members,” NSEA lobbyist Alexander Marks said. “It's extremely rare to see an elected official voted out of office over the actions or conduct of another official they’ve appointed.”
Other education advocates said that despite any warts, electing school board trustees in the long run was the best option for a state with a political climate such as Nevada — and that decreasing the number of school board districts could reduce the diversity makeup of the boards.
“Anytime that you increase the size of a district, you are diluting minority communities,” law professor and education advocate Sylvia Lazos said during the hearing. “I think it is very important to have African-American and Latinx voices in a district that is 68 percent made up of minority children.”
One member of the Clark County School District Board of Trustees, Danielle Ford, called in to the meeting, but wasn’t allowed to testify because she had a technology issue and called in during neutral testimony. The board passed a resolution opposing the measure at a recent meeting, and a trustee from Washoe County also submitted a letter in opposition.
Clark County Trustee Irene Cepeda submitted a separate letter to the committee, writing that her three years in office had been the “most difficult responsibility I’ve ever taken on with the exception of parenting a teen and a toddler.” She wrote that the job of a trustee calls for extremely long hours on complex topics, with little compensation for the work put in.
“This first (generation) immigrant and college grad from North Las Vegas wants what everyone else wants, increased student outcomes for all our students,” she wrote. “Having a highly effective school board will help move us toward that goal, however they need to be supported. Only changing the composition of the board will amount to disenfranchisement, more constituents to represent and more of the same.”
Steve Waclo and his wife, Zita, have long loved the Hawaiian islands.
Last February, over the course of four days, they took a train ride around a farm on Kauai, sipped margaritas on Oahu, snorkeled with tropical fish off the coast of Maui and visited lava flows on the Big Island. The island cruise was a much-needed respite from the snowy Carson City winter for the retired couple.
As their ship clipped across the Pacific Ocean to Ensenada, Mexico, the final port of call on their cruise, the captain came in over the intercom: They had received word from the mainland that multiple passengers on the previous leg of the ship’s voyage had fallen ill with COVID-19, which was at the time still in the early stages of spreading across the globe. The ship, the Grand Princess, would be changing course and returning to San Francisco, its port of departure, immediately.
At first, the couple didn’t see any reason for alarm. No cases of the new virus had been identified onboard, and the early return seemed precautionary. The most substantial change was that they had to be served at the buffet. But when they reached the Bay Area, they watched with interest as the Coast Guard airlifted test kits onto one of the top decks of their ship.
Shortly after, all passengers were ordered confined to their cabins, their meals delivered to them on trays at their doors and the news of their fate delivered to them largely by the national media. Information on the boat itself was scarce.
“We didn’t know where we were going to go. We were out in the ocean going around, which was kind of disturbing,” Zita Waclo said. “Nobody told us even when we were going to get off the ship.”
The Waclos found themselves entirely at the mercy of the federal, state and local government officials back on land who were struggling to figure out what should be done with them and their fellow passengers.
As the Grand Princess held 50 miles off the coast of Northern California with 3,533 passengers and crew members, President Donald Trump made his preference known: that the boat stay where it was. At the time, 238 people in the United States had tested positive for the virus; results from the airlifted test kits showed the ship would add 21 more to that total.
“I like the numbers being where they are,” Trump said during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”
Two days later, on March 8, state health officials in Nevada finally received the full list of the names and contact information for the 49 Nevadans on the ship. (A 50th, the spouse of another passenger, was later identified.) As the Grand Princess docked at the Port of Oakland the next day, state officials scrambled to prepare to bring the Nevadans home so they wouldn’t be sent to an out-of-state military base to quarantine. The final decision, though, was up to Gov. Steve Sisolak.
“You have a situation where there’s this new virus. People are really fearful and scared. You have a group of Nevadans who are on this cruise ship. You want to protect the residents back home, so you don't want to bring in potentially infected folks back into your state, but you also are worried about these Nevadans who are now stuck on this ship and then being told they're going to go to an army base and then, potentially, an army base in a state very far away,” Michelle White, the governor’s chief of staff, said.
The next day, Sisolak emailed the passengers directly to let them know his decision: They would be coming home. In the email, he acknowledged their frustrations and anxiety over the lack of information they had received and said he felt the same.
“I can assure you that my frustration will be loudly and clearly expressed to leaders in Washington D.C.,” he wrote.
Back on the ship, the Waclos watched from their stateroom balcony as ambulances, buses and trucks lined up at the docks in Oakland. Below them, National Guardsmen readied supplies and rearranged tents. People needing medical attention were carried off the ship. It brought the gravity of the situation into focus.
“Watching the ambulances back up and the stretchers being taken off, we realized this is serious business, people are dying,” Steve Waclo said. “We could potentially die if we do something wrong, if someone slips up.”
When the Waclos were finally told one morning it was their turn to disembark, they had no idea where they were going. It wasn’t until they were on a bus to the Oakland International Airport they were told they wouldn’t be heading straight home to Nevada but rather flown to the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, in Southern California. Federal officials wanted to test all the passengers for COVID-19 before sending them elsewhere.
At home, state officials felt equally in the dark as the federal government provided them with an ever-changing timetable for when the Nevadans could return.
Local health districts made preparations to receive the passengers once they landed on Nevada soil, including securing the personal protective equipment and vehicles needed to transport them home. A representative of McCarran International Airport voiced concerns about even being able to receive the Southern Nevadans when the time came because of flight restrictions associated with a planned visit by Trump that week. State officials sent out flurries of emails each day informing local officials and airport representatives that the Nevadans were coming, not coming, then coming, and then not coming again.
This went on for four days.
“I completely understand the frustration with the lack of timely detailed information from the feds as I too share in this sentiment,” Malinda Southard, manager of the state’s Public Health Preparedness Program, wrote in an email to Clark County’s fire chief on March 11, a Wednesday. “Best I can do is keep pushing us forward to get our residents home soon and safely.”
In Washoe County, local health officials were eager for their residents to be home. They had gone to the airport three times in anticipation of the passengers’ arrival, only to be called off. Officials just hoped that when the operation was finally a go it wouldn’t be in the middle of the snowstorm expected to roll in that weekend.
Of course, it was.
“I have confirmation we have a dedicated plane out of Miramar tomorrow just for Nevada residents. US HHS confirms there are no more maybe’s probably’s hopefully’s — our people are coming home tomorrow!!” Southard wrote in an email to state health officials on Saturday.
That night, nearly two feet of snow piled up in Incline Village, half a foot in Northwest Reno and an inch elsewhere in town. Ski resorts shuttered as an avalanche warning was issued. Washoe County Health District staffers scouted their neighborhoods the next morning to figure out if the roads were passable; they even had to go buy snow chains first thing that morning for one of the vehicles.
After days of anticipation, the plane touched down in Reno at 12:27 p.m. on March 15. The Northern Nevadans, at least, were home and the Southern Nevadans, who were on the same plane, soon would be, too.
Many of the Washoe County residents needed help getting down the stairs and out of the plane before they were loaded into two vans. One of them, staffed by health district employees Jim English and Wes Rubio, would make stops in Reno before heading over Mt. Rose Summit to Incline Village. English read the directions and checked in on the passengers while Rubio drove.
Both were suited up in white, full-body hazmat suits, full face respirators and gloves as they plowed through the snow with a van full of weary, N95-wearing, COVID-exposed passengers. An unmarked sheriff’s car trailed them to make sure there was no trouble.
At each stop, they battled snow flurries and their respirators iced over in the freezing temperatures. At one point, they swapped their transit van for a four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee in a passenger’s Galena cul-de-sac to make it over the summit to Incline through four inches of snow. They had to keep driving. There was nowhere else for the passengers to go.
“We were trying to do as best we could to protect the public and those people that were on that on that bus just to at least get them home,” Rubio said. “It was a massive effort.”
The repatriation of the Grand Princess passengers was not only a massive effort but also the first major challenge in the pandemic where local, state and federal officials were asked to work together to solve a pressing public health problem. They would be asked to overcome many more together in the months to come, from ramping up testing and contact tracing efforts to deploying a mass vaccination campaign.
“That was a big test,” White said. “Then, it only got harder.”
For state and local officials in Nevada, the repatriation effort was largely a success story, a proof of concept that they could work together and communicate effectively to achieve a common goal. Despite their frustrations with the lack of information onboard the Grand Princess and at Miramar, the Waclos praised the state’s response. Once they were home, Carson City Health and Human Services called them every morning during the 14-day quarantine period to check in on them and offered to bring any food and medicine they needed; the governor even called once to see how they were doing.
“I was very impressed by the Washoe County people and the Carson City people,” Zita Waclo said. “They were ready for us, and they really followed up very well.”
The coming months, however, would strain relationships between state and local governments as they struggled to address a daunting public health crisis with few resources and what much of the time felt like little to no support from the federal government.
Sometimes the adversity brought them together as they allied to face a grim future in the face of no centralized national response strategy. The Grand Princess incident, they say, should have been a harbinger of what was to come in the way of federal communication and support during the course of the pandemic. It also showed that state and local governments could work cooperatively to meet the needs of everyday Nevadans.
But the adversity also sometimes wrenched them apart, widening a growing political divide in the state and turning existing cracks in differences in beliefs over the role of state and local governments into deep chasms. Sisolak’s COVID-19 response plan, formed in the absence of a national response framework, caused rural governments long known for rebelling against the federal government to direct their ire instead toward the state. And even when the state and local governments agreed about how to best address the pandemic, underresourced and overworked officials often struggled to effectively communicate with each other, leaving wounds and eroding trust.
There’s a term doctors use to describe what happens to COVID-19 patients when their immune systems go into overdrive: It’s called a cytokine storm. When it happens, the body’s immune system turns against itself and starts to attack healthy tissue and organs.
It’s not unlike the position Nevada has often found itself in over the last year.
There’s an oft-repeated phrase in the emergency response world about how disasters should be managed: They’re supposed to be locally executed, state managed and federally supported.
But, from the get-go, state officials in Nevada say federal support was lacking in the pandemic response. The tone was set at the top, they say, with Trump’s comments downplaying the seriousness of the virus and supporting unproven treatments. This seeped down to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which clashed with the state over more mundane, bureaucratic public health policies, including whether asymptomatic individuals should be tested and which COVID-19 tests were reliable enough to use in nursing homes.
“There was never a time when our decisions, the governor’s decisions, at the state level and our partnership with the local governments was not undermined by the mixed messages or new messages coming out of the federal government,” Caleb Cage, Nevada’s COVID-19 response director, said.
Cage, the former head of the state’s Division of Emergency Management under Gov. Brian Sandoval, said the first step in any emergency response is to move past collective denial by getting everyone’s buy-in on the seriousness of the situation. That’s much more easily done with something like the response to a wildfire, where the threat is readily apparent, than it is for a pandemic, where the threat is an invisible pathogen.
That collective buy-in, however, never happened. Instead, Trump painted Democrats’ response to the virus as part two of the January 2020 impeachment trial in an attempt to cost him his re-election; Democrats, meanwhile, were eager to point out all the ways in which they believed Trump was failing to lead on the pandemic.
“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus — you know that, right? — coronavirus, they’re politicizing it,” Trump said at a rally in South Carolina on Feb. 28. “... And this is their new hoax.”
The politicization of the virus, Cage said, created an incentive for people to stay in the denial phase, hindering the federal government’s ability to move to the collective response phase.
From the state’s perspective, it was trying to communicate one thing to the general public and having it constantly contradicted by federal leadership. A week after Nevada made the decision to shut down nonessential businesses on March 17, 2020, the president was still drawing parallels between COVID-19 and the flu. (Scientists believe COVID-19 may be 10 times more deadly than the flu, though the exact mortality rate is still unknown.)
“We lose thousands of people a year to the flu. We never turn the country off,” Trump said at a Fox Newsvirtual town hall on March 24. “We lose much more than that to automobile accidents. We didn’t call up the automobile companies and say, ‘Stop making cars. We don’t want any cars anymore.’”
The politicization of the virus made it more difficult for the state to get widespread buy-in from everyday Nevadans on the importance of key parts of the state’s pandemic response, too. On one hand, there was Sisolak, the state’s Democratic governor, advocating the importance of mask-wearing; on the other, there was Trump, the Republican president, waffling on the benefits of masks. Even though the scientific evidence only supports one of those two positions, the issue felt — and continues to feel — political to many because of the differences in the way that Republicans and Democrats spoke about masks.
The divide in messaging over public safety measures became, perhaps, the clearest when Trump rallied thousands of supporters in Minden and Henderson in September in defiance of Nevada’s COVID-19 health and safety rules. Dave Fogerson, who at the time managed Douglas County’s pandemic response as deputy fire chief at the East Fork Fire Protection District, said the event put him in a difficult position.
Officials at the county — which is home to more than twice as many Republicans as Democrats — made clear that the event would go on. The local paper, the Record-Courier, summarized the county’s position as this: “Spokeswoman Melissa Blosser said that after careful consideration and weighing the authority of state directives versus First Amendment rights, the county ultimately decided to welcome the sitting President of the United States to our community.”
Privately, though, Fogerson said that people who supported the event were calling to apologize.
“‘Hey, sorry we’re doing this. We want to do this because how often does the president come to town? But we understand what we need to do to keep this going,’” Fogerson recalled them saying. “In the end, the county gave me an award when I left Douglas County for all those efforts — even though we were, it seemed like, on opposite ends of the spectrum — because of trying to do that balance of, ‘Here's where we need to go and here's what you need to do to get there.’”
For state health officials, the pandemic brought a significant shift in the kind of communication they were used to having with their federal counterparts. For one, inconsistent communication from the federal government about what was expected made it difficult for state health officials to do their jobs, Richard Whitley, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, said.
“They weren’t responding to us as a state in the same way that we were familiar with,” Whitley said. “All of those seemed to be in flux and seemed to be being changed while we were needing, perhaps, that relationship to be at its strongest.”
One example state health officials point to from the beginning of the pandemic was the conflicting guidance they received from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about which individuals coming in by plane needed to be quarantined.
In one instance, state health officials struggled to get contact information from the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine (DGMQ) for three passengers on a Las Vegas-bound Korean Air flight who had recently been in China. The state only discovered the situation after news outlets reported the flight had been diverted to Los Angeles, one of three airports that was screening for COVID-19 at the time.
State officials said that CDC representatives they spoke with seemed not to be aware of their own agency’s latest travel guidance. Melissa Peek-Bullock, the state’s epidemiologist, said one federal official even hung up on her.
“It wasn’t clear that everybody within the organization understood that guidance,” Peek-Bullock said. “The inconsistent messages that were coming from CDC to the states made it very difficult and frustrating for us early on.”
The situation prompted Whitley to pen a letter to the CDC expressing his concern.
“I understand this is a rapidly evolving situation; however, I am concerned about the breakdown between the communication the states have received from the CDC, and information provided to the CDC DGMQ,” Whitley wrote in a Feb. 11 letter. “Our state relies on DGMQ to assist in the response to travelers, and the lack of communication in this circumstance created frustration and confusion for all those involved.”
State health officials also saw politics seep into their everyday work. For instance, they were shocked when Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, directly telephoned Nevada’s chief medical officer, Dr. Ihsan Azzam, in early March to request his help in getting Adam Laxalt, the former attorney general of Nevada and a prominent Trump supporter, tested for COVID-19 after he was possibly exposed at the Conservative Political Action Conference but showing no symptoms. At the time, the CDC’s own guidance restricted testing to symptomatic individuals.
“We do everything possible to treat all people the same, focusing on their risk and not on who they are in terms of importance,” Whitley said. “That’s not a population approach. That’s a privileged approach, and so they set a tone for that.”
State health officials were also wary when the federal government quietly changed the rules to require hospitals to directly report COVID-19 data to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services instead of to both HHS and the CDC, and asked nursing homes to directly report their data to the federal government instead of to the state. Those moves made it challenging for the state to get its hands on valuable COVID-19 data, Whitley said.
“We had to figure out our own ways of collecting the data and identifying where the opportunities for intervention were and where the problems were, with not direct assistance from the federal government,” Whitley said.
The state also directly clashed with the federal government in its policymaking as well. The CDC, for instance, released new guidelines in August that said asymptomatic people should not “necessarily” be tested for COVID-19. The move prompted an immediate backlash from Nevada health officials, who made it clear the state would continue asymptomatic testing.
“When you really have large widespread outbreaks of pandemic, this is the time to test more, not the time to test less,” Azzam said.
Nevada also made the decision in late June to follow in the footsteps of more than a dozen other states and enact a mask requirement in the absence of any federal rule. It wasn’t until late January, a little more than a week after President Joe Biden took office, that the CDC finally issued its first mask order, for travelers only.
“We kept on asking the CDC, ‘Should we start implementing masking for everybody?’ and we were told, ‘No, we don’t really need that,’” Azzam said. “If we don’t know who is spreading the virus, it’s better to mask everyone. You can’t prevent 100 percent transmission, but you can prevent a reasonable amount and reduce infection.”
State health officials’ biggest dust-up with federal health officials, though, came in October. The federal government had directly distributed antigen tests — a type of COVID-19 test helpful in identifying people with COVID-19 but generally less accurate for those who don’t have the virus than the gold-standard PCR tests — to nursing homes, with what state officials described as very little guidance on how to use them appropriately. Nursing homes were also given no guidance on how to report the results of those antigen tests to the state to be counted in its COVID-19 data, state officials said.
As state health officials scrambled to develop that reporting mechanism, they noticed that the antigen tests were coming back with a high percentage of false positives. Among 39 positive antigen tests sent for confirmatory PCR testing, 60 percent came back negative for the virus.
State officials’ immediate concern was that some nursing home residents were incorrectly being identified as positive for COVID-19 and sequestered with true COVID-positive patients, thereby exposing them to a virus they didn’t actually have. So state health officials issued a directive to nursing homes to stop the use of the antigen tests as they looked into the issue further.
In a scathing letter in response to that decision, Adm. Brett Giroir, the Trump administration’s COVID-19 testing czar, accused state health officials of “a lack of knowledge or bias” and said their decision would “endanger the lives of our most vulnerable.” He added the federal government would “take appropriate steps” if state health officials did not “cease the improper unilateral prohibition” on use of the antigen tests.
“Your Department’s across-the-board ban on POC antigen tests in such settings is based on speculation,” Giroir wrote. “It may cost lives.”
In response to those threats, state health officials rescinded their directive while reiterating their concerns over use of the tests and asked the federal government to reconsider its stance. (One federal official did, however, note in an email to state health officials the CDC does not recommend that nursing homes group asymptomatic patients into a COVID ward based on a single antigen test; rather, those individuals should be considered presumptive positive and isolated with precautions until a confirmatory PCR test is performed.)
What could have been a civil back and forth over a policy difference turned into a heated clash. Peek-Bullock described the federal government’s response to the state’s decision on the antigen tests as “very unusual.”
State officials say that even when they believe the federal government was genuinely trying to help, it often did so in a way that subverted the state’s role in the pandemic response. For instance, when hospitals struggled to secure PPE early on, the federal government provided it directly to hospitals and other health care providers, instead of sending it to the state to then be sent to the counties to then be distributed to hospitals — the usual chain of custody.
“I believe in their minds they were doing it to fight bureaucracy,” Cage said. “But there's a reason this framework is in place, and that's because these private hospitals, public hospitals, aspects of the health care system in the state are asking us for resources, and we don't know how to prioritize the resources if the federal government is going around us.”
But the federal government was critically helpful to the state in one primary area: funding. As of early March, it has provided nearly $25 billion in federal aid to Nevada with $4.1 billion more on the way from the American Rescue Plan. State and local officials say that federal funding — approved by both Republican and Democratic-controlled congressional chambers and signed into law by both Republican and Democratic presidents — was key to their pandemic response efforts.
And, a year since the pandemic began, the federal-state relationship is healing. State officials say they have seen a night and day difference in their relationships with their federal counterparts since Biden took office earlier this year. They report that communication has significantly improved with federal officials — U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra met with Sisolak at the Capitol in Carson City this week — and when they have a request, such as federal support to catch up on a vaccination data-entry backlog earlier this year, it’s usually granted.
They say it isn’t because Biden is a Democrat, either.
“The difference in mutual respect, collaboration, willingness to have hard conversations, willingness to work together, willingness to not worry about who gets blamed for what and all of this — that’s just the starting point,” said Cage, who worked previously under two Republican governors and is a lifelong Republican voter. “The previous administration had what I believe will be long remembered as the poorest disaster response in the nation’s history.”
The state’s frustrations with the federal government, however, have a parallel: Local governments’ frustrations with the state.
The root causes of each are strikingly similar. Local governments, charged with executing the finer points of the state’s overall pandemic response, say they often found themselves struggling to play catch-up when the state publicly announced its latest COVID-19 health and safety policy because they had been given little advance warning. They also grappled to keep up with ever-shifting state policies about which establishments could be open, to what extent they could be open and the timetable for those rules. Some think the state struggled to be collaborative in its response as the pandemic drew on, unwilling to cede its decision-making authority even when circumstances may have necessitated different solutions for different parts of the state.
The frustrations date back to the state’s initial decision to close schools and shutter nonessential businesses in mid-March of last year. To some extent, counties understood the hurried nature of the decision: The state was in an emergency situation and was reacting to a constantly developing situation. But they still found themselves in the uncomfortable position of trying to provide guidance on a local level — to residents and businesses alike — to policies they themselves had just learned about.
“I still remember when we closed everything down and schools were closed, we met in Douglas at 7 o’clock the next morning to, ‘Oh my God, did you hear that yesterday? What are we going to do? How are we going to take care of this?’” said Fogerson, the former deputy fire chief from Douglas County. “Kind of having a panic moment because we were being reactionary.”
Local officials say they often scrambled before each state press conference to figure out what was going to be announced before it was released publicly. In the early days of the pandemic, local officials say they often received no advance information about what policies were going to be announced; they were happy when they started getting even an hour or two’s notice.
“When I was in Douglas, it was ‘What do you mean there is going to be a press conference at 3 o’clock today? Aren’t they going to tell us what it is? Why do we have to watch it on TV?’” Fogerson said. “Whereas now the governor’s office is leaning forward a bit more and getting some information out ahead of time.”
Because local officials had little warning about new state policies, particularly early on in the pandemic, they felt there wasn’t an opportunity for them to voice their concerns and have a consensus-building conversation with the state, which meant some local governments were charged with carrying out policies they didn’t agree with, believe in or understand. The state may not have needed counties’ permission to enact emergency policies under the law, but the state did need local buy-in for those policies to be most effective.
State officials acknowledge the frustrations of their local counterparts. But when they reflect on why they didn’t bring local governments into the fold earlier, they see themselves moving quickly to make choices deep in a crisis response mode that didn’t allow hours for multiple roundtables and scores of phone calls about each policy decision. White, the governor’s chief of staff, said there were dozens of consequential policy decisions the state was making each day.
“It is hard to loop in everyone who feels that they need to be looped in. I'm not saying that they shouldn't be. I'm not saying that their voices don't matter, that they wouldn't have great input,” she said. “But the reality is you have to make those decisions quickly. We have an incredibly small staff that can only make so many phone calls.”
On the flip side, the state’s attempts to centralize certain aspects of the public health response were complicated by the fact that public health in Nevada is historically decentralized. Public health services are provided at the local level in Clark and Washoe counties, as well as Carson City, which together make up more than 90 percent of the state’s population, while the state is responsible for managing public health for the remaining tenth of the population living across 14 rural Nevada counties.
While the localized public health delivery model can be quite effective, in the time of the pandemic it meant the state was often in the position of offering assistance to local health districts for contact tracing or testing, though the decision of whether to accept that help was left to local jurisdictions. That made it difficult, if not impossible, to have a standardized public health response across the state.
“There needs to be a level of statewide response consistency, yes, but there was great latitude and need for them to be completely different locally because they have different resources,” said Julia Peek, a deputy administrator in the Division of Public and Behavioral Health.
As the pandemic drew on, the state made several overtures to local governments to try to create that latitude on the emergency response side as well.
The first came in the form of a so-called Local Empowerment Advisory Panel, or LEAP, which was tasked last spring with assisting counties as they started to reopen businesses after the shutdown. Sisolak, during a late April press conference announcing the new body, said it would be a “disservice” to the state’s residents to pretend its urban and rural counties have the same needs.
When Eureka County Chairman J.J. Goicoechea was asked to join the panel as a representative of the state’s rural counties, he was optimistic. His urban counterpart on the panel was Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick, whom he had a longstanding collaborative relationship with and who had recommended him for the job.
But LEAP’s responsibilities ended up being much narrower than Goicoechea initially anticipated, centering primarily around drafting reopening guidelines for approval by the state.
“We thought we were going to have maybe a little more authority and we were going to approve this or approve that or do some things,” Goicoechea said. “It never really materialized.”
Once all businesses — save strip clubs, night clubs, day clubs and brothels — were allowed to reopen, LEAP essentially fell by the wayside. It was frustrating not only for Goicoechea but other local officials who believed the state was finally starting to get things right by delegating more authority to the rurals and bringing more people into the decision-making process.
“LEAP just dissolved, because we were no longer effective. We weren't being talked to,” Goicoechea said. “That’s the unfortunate thing.”
The governor’s office, however, said it was more that LEAP evolved.
“The input and interaction and coordination with a lot of those leaders who were a part of that group, I don’t think, has stopped at all,” White said. “I think things just take on a different form as we’re going through that response.”
In August, Sisolak announced a new pandemic response framework. This one, he said, would also take into consideration counties’ innate differences: Counties would be evaluated based on three criteria to determine whether they are at elevated risk for the spread of COVID-19 and, if so, they would be required to present a mitigation plan to a new statewide COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force.
The task force, though, ended up doing more management than mitigation. The body spent its first several weeks determining whether bars in seven counties could reopen following a summer surge in cases. As cases began to climb in the fall, counties flagged at elevated risk of transmission spent significant time telling the task force about their plans for community-wide education about the virus and almost no time about any new mitigation measures, such as business closures or limits on gatherings, they planned to put in place.
In fact, in the more than seven months it has existed, the task force has only approved one concrete mitigation measure stricter than the statewide standards. In September, Washoe County proposed keeping its gathering sizes small as the state moved to allow larger events to take place.
“[The task force] made it fairly clear that with the increase in cases that we were seeing in Washoe County that the county needed to do something or the task force was going to do something to them,” Washoe County District Health Officer Kevin Dick said. “That perspective and understanding on the part of local leadership provided some leverage to get them to that commitment.”
Even under the task force model, some counties still felt like they were under the thumb of the state. Scott Lewis, director of emergency management for Nye County, said it sometimes felt like counties were children trying to appease their parents.
“What its intended goal was, as a state, what can we do to best remedy this as a collective team?” Lewis said. “And it was never that. It was always like a parental type of approach, and we had to come up with the magical words to make our parents happy with us.”
Cage, who chairs the task force, acknowledged the body did not work out in practice the way in which he had initially anticipated. Counties, for instance, largely did not bring forward to the task force individual mitigation measures during the fall surge, and the task force didn’t put them forward either; rather, Sisolak enacted a new “statewide pause” that limited occupancy at businesses and again limited gathering sizes homogeneously across all 17 counties.
“The governor always had reserved the right to do so, and that’s where we got in November,” Cage said. “So in a sense it worked as it should. My personal opinion is that the pressure locally was so much that there really wasn’t an appetite locally to put additional measures in place.”
While it may not have been a robust decision-making body, the task force has helped repair some relationships between the state and local governments by providing a regular forum for communication. Some local officials say the task force opened a line of communication to the state.
“From my perspective, and I can only speak for Lyon County, once they developed the task force and put Caleb Cage in charge of it, the majority of my communication complaints went away,” said Jeff Page, Lyon’s county manager. “We were getting good, direct positive feedback from Caleb and the task force as to what they were expecting, what the issues were and what the challenges the state was facing were.”
Dick echoed those sentiments, calling the task force “worthwhile overall.”
“I think that relationship between the health district and Caleb Cage and the members of the task force has really strengthened over time,” Dick said.
Nowhere was the state-local relationship, perhaps, more strained over the course of the pandemic than in rural Nevada, where individual liberty is prized and love of government is scarce.
Initially, as Clark and Washoe counties were hit hard by the virus, rural counties were optimistic that they might be able to avoid the virus altogether. While urban America grappled with SARS scares in the early 2000s, rural America was largely untouched by the virus. Rural counties hoped their isolation and low population density would come in handy this time, too.
It quickly became clear that would not be the case as tiny Humboldt County, with a population of a little less than 17,000, became Nevada’s hardest-hit county, the result of a large family gathering that had exposed many individuals to the virus. As the virus began to spread across rural Nevada, public health experts and rural officials became increasingly concerned about the effect COVID-19 could have on those communities, owing to the fact that rural counties generally have older populations than urban ones and the dearth of medical care in rural counties.
For some rural health officials, the importance of community buy-in about mitigation measures quickly became evident. Rural Nevadans might not take kindly to rules being handed down to them from the federal or state governments, but they could be appealed to on an individual level to take steps to protect themselves and their community.
The rest of the country was grappling with how to balance individual liberty with the need for collective action too, but that tension was acute in the rural West.
“One of the things that makes our country special is all the choices that we have. To me, that is a very sacred thing. It is, I think, to all of us,” Dr. Charles Stringham, Humboldt County’s health officer, said. “But, as a result, when you fight the virus in the United States, your best weapon is information and also trying to encourage people by being compelling, because at no point did we ever have interest in encouraging people by regulating or legislating. We’ve just never really wanted to do that here in Humboldt County.”
Stringham’s approach was particularly introspective: If the residents of Humboldt County weren’t listening to him, he figured his message needed to be more compelling. He started a series of “Ask Me Anything About COVID-19” Zoom sessions to answer community members’ questions about vaccination, viral transmission and the efficacy of mask wearing, among others, in a commonsense, plainspoken way.
“My hope was that if people really did think that masks were ridiculous and that they didn’t work, and if people really did think that six feet seemed arbitrary, and that if people really did think that mutations in the virus would negate the effect of vaccinations, that they could call in and ask those questions and get real answers,” Stringham said.
During one of those Zoom calls in December, Stringham was asked why he and other members of the medical community were so focused on social distancing and mask wearing instead of advocating the benefits of, among other things, the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. Stringham was calm and deliberate in his answer, saying he wished the drug would have worked to treat COVID-19 but that scientific studies didn’t bear that out.
“There's always an assumption that if allopathic physicians don't do something, that it's because we're holstering that or we're sequestering it, we're not bringing that to bear,” Stringham told the man. “But the bottom line is that in allopathic medicine, we have to be able to prove that something has an effect.”
Another asked why the media makes such a big deal about COVID-19 deaths and not flu deaths. Stringham explained that 34,000 people in the U.S. died of the flu during the last flu season; at the time, 300,000 had died of COVID-19. He also noted that people who contract COVID-19 can go on to develop long-term health conditions that impair their quality of life.
“I can't even really talk about this without getting a little bit choked up,” Stringham said. “This is not the flu. It is not the flu. I wish it were, but it isn't.”
Other rural communities took a similar approach. In Ely, Mayor Nathan Robertson went on the local radio station every day to answer people’s questions about the virus, from technical inquiries about which businesses were allowed to be open and what assistance was available to broader questions about whether martial law had been declared and whether the National Guard would prevent people from getting to their doctor’s appointments in Salt Lake City.
“There was a real vacuum of just credible answers,” Robertson said.
As the state created new COVID-19 health and safety rules, the focus for some rural leaders was how to help their businesses comply. Robertson said Ely’s focus was on assisting businesses at the local level to avoid the state sending out compliance officers.
“Everybody was just kind of in an attitude of cooperation: ‘Hey, how can we help? Our goal is to make sure your business stays open,’” Robertson said. “We can’t afford to lose a single restaurant in our community. We can’t afford to lose any of our businesses. We’re so isolated.”
In Lyon County, Dr. Robin Titus, the county’s health officer and the Republican Assembly leader, advised local ranchers about how to group guest workers into pods so that if someone tested positive for COVID-19, they would know exactly who was exposed.
“They were paying attention. They were calling me,” Titus said. “They wanted to make sure things were safe.”
And though rural Nevada has earned a reputation for opposing the state’s COVID-19 health and safety rules, several rural officials say they believe their residents took the virus seriously when it counted. Titus said she has a 95-year-old patient who was very cautious about the virus and stayed home. Goicoechea, who is also Eureka County’s health officer, said his residents were “really good” at isolating and quarantining when they tested positive or someone in their household came down with the virus.
“They may be chipping their teeth on Main Street saying, ‘This is all fake. This is a hoax. I don’t believe in it,’” Goicoechea said. “But when we called them up and said, ‘You’re positive, I need you to shut ‘er down. You gotta stay home. Let us know what we can do,’ they went home and they stayed home and they cooperated.”
Of course, compliance wasn’t universal. Robertson acknowledged there were some instances in Ely where people called the sheriff alleging a business was discriminating against them because they weren’t wearing a mask. Law enforcement would inform them that businesses could put in place whatever rules they wanted and could kick them out for not following them.
“They were like, ‘Well, what do you mean? They didn’t let me in.’ And they’d say, ‘Well, this is a private business. They don’t have to,’” Robertson said.
Multiple rural officials also noted that there was always going to be some degree of pushback from their residents about the state’s rules simply because of the high price they place on individual freedoms. But they also believe that philosophy shouldn’t stop people from doing the right thing for their neighbors.
“You don’t have to choose either safety or freedom,” Stringham said. “You can absolutely have both, and that was the message that I was trying to deliver.”
But, because of the communication role they took on, some rural officials found themselves in the difficult position of trying to be the bridge between the state and their residents. They didn’t have great answers when their residents asked why the state had allowed casinos to open to 50 percent but churches were required to be limited to 50 people. They didn’t have great answers when residents asked why their kids couldn’t go to school but daycare centers were open. They didn’t have great answers for why casino restaurants remained closed while eateries across the street could open.
“That would be frustrating, because you would be getting calls from these businesses going, ‘Hey, my neighbor across the street, who’s got a restaurant, their restaurant is open. Why can’t mine be open?’” Robertson said. “There would be a lot of calls like that.”
They also didn’t have good answers for their residents about why certain statewide policies should be applied to them when they were experiencing a low level of case growth in their communities or could pinpoint where the case growth was coming from. In White Pine, most cases were traced back to specific gatherings, including a Halloween party and a softball game, Robertson said.
“When the sheriff’s office gets something from the county health officer and that says, ‘Hey, so-and-so tested positive,’ he knows exactly where that person is most of the time. He knows who they hang out with,” Robertson said. “He can say, ‘Well this is how you get ahold of so-and-so and here’s how we do this,’ and bing-bada-boom, it’s done.”
Rural officials who have tried to actively aid the pandemic response by getting their communities to follow the state’s health and safety protocols have often found themselves in the community’s crosshairs as a result.
“There’s some lifelong friends of mine who are very, very upset. I mean, they’re to the point where they don’t want to talk to me because they think I quote-unquote ‘drank the Kool Aid,’ if you will,” Goicoechea said. “But everything I’ve done is to protect people and to protect the economy. I’m not taking unnecessary risks but, at the same time, I’m willing to take some calculated risks because I know where the disease is spreading in my community.”
It didn’t help that the pandemic became a political issue, either. If conservative rural Nevada was already wary of government officials telling them what to do, they were particularly wary of a Democratic governor from Clark County telling them what to do — particularly when that message contradicted the one coming from their local officials and a Republican president most of them supported.
Lewis, Nye’s director of emergency management, said that though local officials have become more supportive of pandemic response efforts “because they see the light at the end of the tunnel,” it used to be “horrific” to come before the county commission at each of its meetings to give a COVID-19 update when many didn’t believe in the severity of the virus.
“The political side of it was probably one of the worst things to deal with when we’re trying to make sure we meet the state’s requirements, we meet the state mandates and yet our local governments were telling us just the opposite,” he said. “They wanted nothing to do with it. They didn’t want to hear the reports. They didn't believe in the masks. They didn’t believe in the numbers and what the numbers meant. The deaths were made up, and it was a huge conspiracy, and that was extremely disheartening.”
In fact, the political discord was so severe that several rural county commissions, starting with White Pine County, passed a series of similar resolutions opposing Sisolak’s emergency directives. Robertson, who leads the only incorporated city in White Pine, framed those measures as chest-thumping by a small contingent of politically motivated individuals.
“I mean, honestly, I think I got more support for just being level-headed and cool and attending to the issues than I would have by screaming and thumping my chest and sending nastygrams to Carson City,” Robertson said.
Goicoechea, who said that he was responsible for drafting 99 percent of the version of the resolution Eureka County passed in January, acknowledged the measure was a statement. But he said it’s also one that his constituents needed to hear.
“People needed to see it in writing,” Goicoechea. “I’m not going to make a demand, knowing that he has the authority granted in the Constitution of the state of Nevada and he was exhibiting that under his emergency powers. But I did want him to hear we want things to be done differently. We expect them to be done differently.”
Looking back, rural officials wish there had been more communication with the state early on.
“We’re the ones down on the frontlines trying to implement what you’re drawing down from the top,” Robertson said. “If you want to know how it’s going, if you want some help on ‘hey, how could this go better?’ talk to your mayors, talk to these people, talk to these county commissioners, and there could’ve been more of that.”
Now, the relationship between the state and rural Nevada may, in some ways, be worse than it has ever been. Rural officials believe there is a healing process that needs to happen.
“It’s too far into it. We’re 12 months in. If it had been six months: ‘Okay guys, let’s get back to work,’” Goicoechea said. “But now we’re 12 months in and I feel that maybe some folks are really starting to entrench: ‘Hey, you guys aren’t working for us and when you do come back, you think you’re just going to come out here and start dictating how we’re going to do this stuff?’ I’m very fearful that the relationship we’re having with the state agencies, there’s going to be a long time trying to build that back.”
Beyond the rural context, the relationships between the state and local governments have continued to have their hiccups.
In response to the state’s decision to expand gathering sizes in September, health district officials in Clark and Washoe counties sent a strongly worded letter to the state, saying that it was “inappropriate” for local health authorities to not be consulted in the state’s public health decision-making process.
More than six months after the state’s first emergency directive, local health districts found out about the decision at the same time as the public.
“Our phones would just light up here. All of those businesses were calling us to find out what was going on, how they were affected, what they needed to do. We didn’t have any more information than they did,” Dick, Washoe County's health officer, said. “That was quite frustrating.”
While they were given slightly more notice before the state put in place its statewide pause this fall, concerns over communication remain. The state’s overtures to local governments — in the form of LEAP, or the task force — while positive have often felt like just that: overtures.
“I think there could be better communications, and more regular communications,” Dick said. “There have been opportunities for those dialogues and discussions but they haven’t been continued. There’s been some activity and initiative to make sure those communications happen and then they sort of go away.”
Counties say they still sometimes have to play catch up when it comes to the state’s policies. Lewis, Nye’s director of emergency management, said everyone had just gotten on board with the state’s tiered vaccination structure — though some believed it didn’t make the most sense for Nye — when the state announced that it was moving to a new, lane-based approach.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Lewis recalled thinking at the time. “Here we are toeing the line and the line came back and snapped us right in the butt.”
Even now, a year after the pandemic began, Lewis isn’t sure what exactly his role is supposed to be. With the ongoing rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is supposed to be managed at the local level, he still feels like he doesn’t have the flexibility he needs to make decisions at the county level.
“Every time we made a decision it was, ‘You can’t do that, you have to do what we tell you or what we’re giving you,’” Lewis said. “I’m like, ‘Well, no, no, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say I’m responsible for the decision and then take the ability away from me.’”
In Clark County, Sisolak and Kirkpatrick, the commission chair, have butted heads at points over the course of the pandemic, including after Kirkpatrick publicly pushed for the state to reopen businesses more quickly after the winter surge and Sisolak targeted Clark County for inequalities in the vaccine distribution process. For her part, though, Kirkpatrick says communication with the state has improved.
“Some days are harder than others, because we try to understand what’s behind the reasoning,” Kirkpatrick said. “But I will tell you there are a lot more meetings, a lot more conversations.”
And then there’s Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who during a CNN interview last year suggested the city serve as a “control group” to determine the benefits of social-distancing measures and recently said the governor’s prolonged emergency power “smacks of tyranny,” indicating that Sisolak had been unwilling to hear her input.
Sisolak, in an interview earlier this month, acknowledged his communication with local governments could have been better. But he also noted that there are hundreds of local government officials around the state and said it’s just not possible to communicate with all of them.
“Some of them were saying, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t you do this?’ or ‘Why don’t you do that?’ There’s 17 counties I’ve got to deal with, not just one,” Sisolak said. “They all want some attention, they all deserve some attention, and we can always do better.”
And, alluding to Goodman’s earlier comments, Sisolak said that he refused “to let the citizens, the residents of Nevada be used as test subjects or guinea pigs.” Whatever criticism he has received for his decisions during the pandemic — whether for being too strict or too lenient in the state’s rules — he bears.
“The buck has to stop with somebody and it stopped with me,” Sisolak said.
Still, multiple local officials said they give the state credit for the way it supported their pandemic response at the county level. Jeanne Freeman, public health preparedness program manager for Carson City Health and Human Services, said that trust between her agency and the state is deeper than it was before.
“They have their perspective and what they see, but then they have inquired, they have listened to us when we’ve said, ‘We see what you’re saying about that, but we’re not sure that’s really going to be how it’s going to work when we get it down to the local level,’” Freeman said. “We’ve met them in the middle. They have given a lot.”
Lewis said there were some state officials with "really spectacular personalities" that "shined" during the pandemic who understood the difficult situation local officials were in.
"I understand there's both sides of that because they're obviously overworked," Lewis said. "There was that lack of compassion and empathy both ways."
And some local officials, despite their complaints, give Sisolak and the state credit for the difficult position they were in.
“Part of my respect for the governor is those tough decisions that he's made to protect the state of Nevada,” Dick said. “I really commend the governor and his courage for the decisions that he's made. But I haven't seen that type of leadership, for the most part, coming at the local level.”
If anything, the pandemic has underscored the importance of relationships — and highlighted how difficult it is to build them in the middle of a crisis situation if they weren’t already there.
“Theoretically we could’ve done listening tours and town halls and developed those relationships as much as we could,” Cage said. “But the resources and the time constraints were so extreme and really remain so extreme right now as we transition to the vaccination effort that there really just was not the mechanism, the capacity to do that.”
Fogerson, who was appointed the head of the state’s Division of Emergency Management this fall, says the value of relationships is something he tries to keep in mind as a local-turned-state official.
“At the state, your job is not to do. Your job is to support and enable the local providers,” Fogerson said. “I used to get very mad at state employees that would come down and tell me how to do something or, ‘Here, we’re going to do that for you.’ … It’s going back to that civics lesson of who really needs to be the sharp end of the stick and how do we help them to sharpen that stick better?”
For some in local government, it finally feels like things are looking up.
In February, Sisolak announced the state would be transitioning the responsibility for COVID-19 health and safety mitigation measures to the counties by May 1. Mask and social distance requirements will remain in place statewide, but it will soon be up to counties to figure out how many people can be inside a business and how large gatherings are allowed to be.
Several counties, at multiple meetings of the COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force last week, voiced their intent to open businesses 100 percent as soon as they can. Most businesses across the state are allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity.
“We can do it safely. We have the plan. We’re ready. We’re looking forward to it,” Goicoechea, the Eureka County Commission chair, said. “We will be ready to go and open up safely in a big way as soon as he lets us.”
For the next couple of weeks, county staff will be working on their plans for the transition to local control and getting them approved by their county commissions. Those plans will then be presented to the task force sometime in mid-April.
“That’s one of the smart things about what the governor is doing is put that decision-making process back in the hands of the people in the state of Nevada to use the sense that they have to take care of themselves and their families, and businesses to take care of their business and their customers,” Page, Lyon’s county manager, said.
Local governments now find themselves grappling with the kinds of questions the state has been facing all along, including how to enforce any mitigation measures.
Once the transition to local control happens, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration will continue to enforce statewide policies but doesn’t have the authority to enforce local policies. That will be left to local code enforcement officers, who may not have the bandwidth to routinely surveil stores, and sheriffs, who, as elected officials worried about their reelection bids, may not be interested in enforcing the measures.
Counties are also pondering what happens if cases once again start to rise: Will the state step back in, or will it be up to them to put in place mitigation measures on their own?
“Go ahead and kick it out to local government control, see a spike in the summer, and then issue some kind of an emergency directive that we’re going to pull back some of these openings, you will have a complete uprising,” Goicoechea said. “That is my biggest fear.”
While Sisolak said the state would remain “flexible” and continue to monitor trends on a county level during the transition to local control, the goal of the new plan is for counties to take the reins and the state to step back. Still, Sisolak will retain the legal authority to issue new statewide emergency directives unless the Legislature takes action to limit the governor’s power.
Republican lawmakers have put forward legislation this session that would do just that, though those proposals have not yet been given hearings by Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature.
“There’s three branches of government for a reason and this extended emergency stuff really needs to be defined on what the governor’s role should be, and that’s the thing: There’s really no definition of it and that’s the problem,” said Titus, the Republican Assembly leader. “We're trying to put some bills forward to define it, but so far we haven’t gotten any traction with that.”
Counties, however, are finding that taking the reins from the state is easier said than done.
“I want people to open their businesses up to 100 percent capacity, but my fear is if that happens and then we get wave three of COVID and it’s more severe than wave one or two, do we go back to what we’ve been doing? That’s a concern,” Page said. “I’ve said this publicly: I thank God I’m not the governor. I can’t imagine making those types of decisions and impacting people’s lives.”
A year into the pandemic, Titus, who is also a family practice doctor in Lyon County, is of the mind that people are well-informed enough to be able to make choices about what behavior is safe or unsafe. She says it’s the kind of conversation she often has with her patients when discussing treatment options.
“Once a person has all the information, and I give them the information that I have, they have the right to refuse treatment. They have a right to self-determination, even if I didn’t agree with their decision, even if I thought they made a bad choice,” Titus said. “Once we’ve educated everybody as the government, once we give them good informed consent, they have the right to choose not to do that.”
There are, however, limits to that idea.
“You have the right to self-determination as long as it doesn’t impact those around you,” Titus said. “You have the right to get COVID if you want to. You have a right to make a bad choice and get sick, but if your choice then impacts the entire roomful of people that you’ve now exposed, I’m sorry, we have the right to remove you from that room.”
From top state officials down to everyday Nevadans, many are of the belief that the biggest challenge of the pandemic wasn’t the virus itself, but the lack of communication — and, by extension, the relationships, community and trust that come along with that — to respond to it.
Without communication, state and federal governments can’t cooperate, state and local governments can’t work together and governments at any level can’t effectively convey important, potentially life-saving, information to their citizens.
“Communication, it’s always going to be something we have to strive for in government to do a better job of,” Page said. “It’s always going to be our biggest failing.”
The virus came to Nevada slowly, and then all at once.
At the beginning, it was a specter, a theoretical possibility but — public health officials optimistically thought at the time — an improbability. Nevada’s state epidemiologist, on Jan. 13, 2020, penned a report on the developing situation: Health officials in China had identified a novel coronavirus. There were 41 confirmed cases, all residents of Wuhan besides one recent visitor to the city, and one death.
“At this time there has been no evidence of person-to-person transmission, although there is still much to learn in regard to this novel virus,” state epidemiologist Melissa Peek-Bullock wrote in the report.
The primary focus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said, was on standing up facilities at the three primary airports travelers to the U.S. from Wuhan pass through in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. All passengers from the city were to be screened upon arrival and, if unwell, referred to a hospital for further evaluation.
At that point, all state health officials here could do was communicate that information to local health authorities statewide and continue to monitor the situation. She wrote that the CDC believed the overall risk to the public was low.
The Silver State’s first brush with COVID-19 came nearly two weeks later. A Northern Nevada resident was transferred to a Bay Area hospital for isolation and monitoring after arriving in San Francisco from Shanghai with a cough, shortness of breath, fever and other flu-like symptoms. Her travel companion, who had not been stopped in California and made it back to Washoe County, fell ill too. Though neither of them had been to Wuhan, the first woman’s case was concerning enough to place them formally under investigation for the virus.
Fortunately, they were soon cleared after the first woman tested negative for COVID-19.
A few days later, a Southern Nevada man who had recently traveled to Wuhan was admitted to a local hospital after coming down with a sore throat, fever, cough, chills and body aches. He also tested negative.
The most dramatic early investigation centered around a Southern Nevada flight attendant who had been exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 case while on the job. Health officials had instructed the man to isolate; instead, he traveled with his family to Los Angeles, where he came down with a cough. Health district officials told him not to fly back to Las Vegas. He refused. They suggested he drive back. He refused. They asked for his itinerary. He refused.
For two hours one February evening, state officials, CDC officials and health officials in Las Vegas and Los Angeles scrambled to secure a public health “do not board” order that would prevent the man from flying. Complicating things, because the man was a flight attendant, he could fly standby on any one of the many airlines that flies between the two cities — and his name wouldn’t appear on a flight manifest until he had boarded.
The “do not board” order came too late: State officials received a call from the CDC at about 8 p.m. The man had flown standby and had just landed in Las Vegas. The “do not board” order was issued just after he boarded the plane. But, once again, it ended up being just a close brush with the virus. Health district officials that night made contact with the man, who agreed to cooperate with their investigation and isolate in his home; four days later, he tested negative for COVID-19.
This game of whack-a-mole continued for several weeks as it became clear that finding COVID-19 in Nevada was not a matter of if but when.
State and local health officials from across the nation, during a call on Jan. 26, shared their concerns about asymptomatic spread of the virus; China had reported that such spread was occurring, but the CDC had been unable to confirm. The possibility of asymptomatic spread was important because it meant that a traveler or multiple travelers could have unknowingly already brought the virus to the U.S. With little to no testing available at the time and extreme restrictions in place on how tests could be used, health officials would have no way of knowing to what extent the virus was already here.
Health officials on the call discussed the possibility of school closures and requiring employers to allow remote work, measures to help halt viral spread. But there was still so much they did not know about the virus.
“It was emphasized that decisions are required to be made with a lot of uncertainty and limited knowledge of the infectious period, overall infectiousness and sustainability of transmission and severity of this novel virus, so decisions need to be cautious and re-evaluated as we learn more about the virus,” Peek-Bullock wrote in one of her daily reports about the call.
A month later, a virus that had once been a point of interest was now a cause for concern. Fourteen cases had been identified in the United States, including two cases of person-to-person spread, while an additional 39 people with the virus from the Diamond Princess cruise ship and Wuhan had been repatriated to the country. Nevada health officials held a call with representatives of local health districts, the state public health lab and the state hospital association to discuss federal guidance, testing capacity, hospital preparedness, isolation and quarantine and public messaging.
Peek-Bullock, in her Feb. 24 daily report, underscored the seriousness of the situation, bolding and underlining the following:
“During the weekly national call today, CDC emphasized their goals, stating we cannot stop every traveler now that sustained transmission is occurring outside of China, but it is important to continue to slow and continue to contain the spread in the U.S. CDC stated that we are to expect spread to occur in the U.S. and now is the time for states to assess their readiness and ensure they are prepared. They emphasized this is not expected to go away, and in fact is expected to escalate.”
In short: The virus was here in the U.S., even if we hadn’t found it yet in every state. The only option now: Slow it down.
Four days later, Gov. Steve Sisolak gathered together more than two dozen of the state’s top government and health care leaders — state health officials, hospital representatives, local health district leaders, congressional staffers and education officials among them — in a crowded, standing-room only conference room at the Grant Sawyer State Office Building in Las Vegas. More joined from Northern Nevada by phone.
It was a meeting of the minds, so to speak, except that many had never actually met, according to some who attended. But in the coming weeks and months, their names would be familiar throughout the state: There was Dr. Mark Pandori, head of the state public health lab; Dr. Fermin Leguen, head of the Southern Nevada Health District; and Christopher Lake, the public face of the hospital association on all things COVID-19.
Despite the growing seriousness of the situation, those in the room didn’t have any idea just how quickly things were about to change, how bad it would get or how long it would last.
Afterward, the group descended to the building’s lobby, where they huddled behind Sisolak for his first press conference on COVID-19. He stressed to the public three things: That there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases in Nevada, that the immediate health risk from COVID-19 was low and that there had been no COVID-19-related deaths in the United States.
He did, however, note that more COVID-19 cases were likely to be identified.
“We’re going to prepare, not panic,” he said. “We’re going to choose collaboration over chaos.”
Six days later, on March 5, Ronald Pipkins became the first Nevadan to test positive for the novel coronavirus.
It was the beginning of, perhaps, the most difficult year in Nevada’s history, one that would lay bare the chronic underfunding of public health systems, a lack of investment in aging state infrastructure, including its unemployment system and continued economic overreliance on the tourism industry.
It was a year that would see 1 in 10 Nevadans test positive for the virus and more than 5,000 lose their lives to it, more than all U.S. military casualties in the nearly nine-year Iraq War.
It was a year that would see a quarter of Nevadans unemployed, as the state’s economy came to a sputtering halt last spring in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. It was a year that would see a sharp rise in depression, anxiety and substance abuse in a state that already struggles to provide mental health services to its residents even in good times.
It was a year that would pit the state’s public health needs against its economic ones, every day a Sophie's choice.
It was a year that would see Sisolak come under heavy criticism for not communicating with the public well enough, for not bringing local governments into the fold early enough and for making policy decisions that seemed, to some, arbitrary and capricious, infringing on their individual liberties.
It was a year that would sow deeper divisions in a state with a long history of bipartisanship that’s increasingly been tested in the last few years. It’s a year that would see rural communities refocus their longstanding mistrust of government from the federal level to the state.
It was a year that would see Nevada’s health care providers pushed to their limits, overwhelmed, scared and at a loss for how to best care for their patients. It’s a year that would see Nevada’s fragile health care system pushed to its limit, too, and, surprisingly, not break.
It was also a year that would see resilience in the face of despair.
It’s a year that would see rank-and-file public health officials work harder than ever under the most scrutiny they had faced in their lives.
It was a year that would allow Nevada to take advantage of its relative nimbleness and lack of bureaucracy and move quickly to devise innovative solutions to meet the state’s needs, even when those solutions didn’t always work out as expected.
It was a year that would make clear to many that Nevada, as divided as it is, is still, at its heart, a scrappy Western state whose residents are accustomed to fighting for survival against the odds.
This is the story of that year.
Early in January 2020, public health experts didn’t see much reason to worry.
There are outbreaks of disease all the time, and a novel coronavirus in of itself wasn’t necessarily concerning.
SARS and MERS, two novel coronaviruses that surfaced in 2003 and 2012, respectively, claimed relatively few lives despite their high levels of mortality, in part because their spread was typically associated with symptomatic individuals. That meant that isolating people who were ill was very effective in containing spread. Plus, there are a bunch of everyday coronaviruses that circulate through the general population that only cause the common cold.
“There are weird things always popping up all over the world, and most of them don't turn into anything,” said Brian Labus, an assistant professor of public health at UNLV and former senior epidemiologist for the Southern Nevada Health District. “That's why it's hard to get really excited early on when you hear about some new virus like this because most of the time they do not spread that easily from person to person, which means we're not going to have a big outbreak.”
Public health officials started to take the virus more seriously, though, as more information came to light about it, including the fact that it could be transmitted person-to-person and spread by people showing no symptoms.
On Feb. 11, Nevada State Public Health Lab officials validated the CDC’s assay, meaning that they now had the capability to test for the virus at their lab in Reno. It was the same day the virus received its official name from the World Health Organization. It would be labeled SARS-CoV-2, and the disease caused by it would be called COVID-19.
Lab officials, though, didn’t want to sit around and wait for the virus to come to them. They were already having conversations with the Washoe County Health District about whether they might be able to start looking for COVID-19 in samples already at the lab that had been collected to be tested for other respiratory illnesses. So much of the focus to that point had centered around testing symptomatic people who had relevant travel history or were close contacts of confirmed cases. Northern Nevada health officials wanted to know if the virus was already here.
But, at the time, the CDC had strict rules about how the test could be used, namely, to test those with travel history or contact. That would’ve made sense, public health experts say, if the virus had behaved more like SARS. But even by that point in February, there were indications the virus was spreading asymptomatically, even if the role of asymptomatic transmission was still unclear.
That meant that Nevadans sick with respiratory illnesses might have COVID even without a relevant travel history or confirmed close contact.
“It's not that I'm trying to point fingers or make fun of anyone, but we already knew how ridiculous that was then,” said Pandori, the lab’s executive director. “The chief [epidemiologist] of Washoe County and myself already wanted to start looking, but we had to wait.”
Heather Kerwin, Washoe’s chief epidemiologist, believes Nevada might have been able to identify cases a few weeks, if not an entire month, earlier had officials been allowed to start screening respiratory specimens for COVID-19. Pandori said it is “very easy to hypothesize” that earlier surveillance testing could’ve had an impact on the trajectory of the virus.
“When you don't react quickly to something or as quickly as you can, from a surveillance perspective, it's essentially a fact that you allow it to make headway or to spread in a manner that you might have had an opportunity to intervene,” Pandori said.
But, at that point, the federal government, at the highest echelons, wasn’t taking the virus seriously. President Donald Trump, at the White House on Feb. 10, said the country was in “great shape” and suggested the virus would disappear “in April with the heat, as the heat comes in.” Two weeks later, he said the virus was “very much under control in the USA” and that the country had had “very good luck.”
We still don’t actually know how early COVID was circulating in Nevada. When the antibody test for the virus came out last spring, the state lab tested old blood samples they had stored from December 2019 and January 2020 but didn’t find any antibodies for COVID-19. Some studies have tried to extrapolate how early the virus was spreading in Nevada and elsewhere across the country. One projects the virus was already spreading in Nevada by mid-February and puts the state among the first 10 to have community transmission.
Doctors here, based on what they now know about COVID, believe they were seeing cases as early as January. At the time, they chalked it up as a particularly severe flu season.
“In January, we were seeing tons of people with flu-like illness, and we were calling it the flu,” said Dr. Scott Scherr, the regional medical director for TeamHealth, which manages five emergency departments in Las Vegas and one in Elko. “When you look back at it, it wasn’t flu at all. It was COVID.”
In those early days, it wasn’t yet clear what kind of an impact the virus would have on Nevada, but government officials and the health care industry were starting to prepare. Clark County started updating its emergency plan. Hospitals started to think through the difficulties they might face in securing personal protective equipment, much of which is manufactured in China. They also dusted off their mutual aid agreements, which let them lean on each other for support in a crisis situation.
What was clear though, by the end of February, was that COVID was coming. For Las Vegas, a city that hosts nearly 50 million visitors a year, the virus was always just a short drive or plane flight away.
“We understood that it had all the makings to be a large scale, global pandemic at the time,” Peek-Bullock said. “But early in January and February, I don't know if any of us would have predicted where we would be sitting here a year from now.”
The situation escalated quickly: Concern became alarm.
On March 5, Nevada went from zero COVID-19 cases to two: Pipkins and a Washoe County man in his 50s who contracted the virus after sailing aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship. Though government officials, public health entities and health care workers had been preparing for the last few weeks, the first two cases brought the seriousness of the situation into sharp focus.
“Once we had the ability to really start identifying cases, those case counts grew very quickly,” Peek-Bullock said. “We know now the virus is transmitted very efficiently person to person, so I think that from our perspective, it really ramped up quickly for us too.”
Within a week, two cases had become 11, and health officials here knew that as they continued to test they would only find more cases.
Publicly, state and local officials put on a brave face: Yes, more cases might be identified. But if Nevadans did their part — avoiding contact with sick people, cleaning surfaces and washing their hands — we would get through this together. After all, Nevadans had leaned on each other in the aftermath of the mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip two and a half years earlier. Why would this be any different?
“I encourage all Nevadans to prepare, not panic, and to continue to choose to collaborate over chaos,” Sisolak urged at a press conference two days after the first cases were announced.
But panicking happened anyway. Grocery store shelves were stripped bare as Nevadans, and those across the country, stocked up on toilet paper and canned goods, unsure of what was to come.
Behind the scenes, the governor’s office was assessing whether it had enough body bags and having conversations about air quality control standards should the furnaces in the crematoriums start burning overtime. In the governor’s office, a chart on the office wall showed the cases increasing day by day, doubling and then tripling. What they needed was more information, more guidance. Enter the governor’s Medical Advisory Team.
Dr. Paul Sierzenski, chief medical officer of the acute care services at Renown, was in the parking lot of Raley’s one day in early March when he got a call from the governor’s office asking him to join a new five-member advisory team Sisolak had established to help guide his decision-making.
The group’s first meeting was March 14, and the governor’s objectives, according to the meeting’s minutes, were straightforward yet seemingly impossible: He wanted to, one, figure out how to help identify individuals with COVID-19 and, two, define goals for the state to contain and mitigate the spread of the virus.
The governor’s office, the minutes note, wanted guidance only on one initial objective: “How do we inform the governor to make decisions on social distancing, mass gatherings, school closures, based on logic and facts for containing, mitigating, preventing?”
The members of that team, in interviews, praised the science-based approach and the decision to bring them — some of the state’s top minds in public health and infectious disease — into the fold so early on. The group still provides advice to this day, though it doesn’t meet nearly as frequently as it did in March and April last year, when it convened almost daily.
But there was one big problem: The Medical Advisory Team knew about as much about this novel virus as the rest of the public did. Sure, its members were familiar with SARS and MERS. They grasped influenza pandemic planning. They knew the playbooks on what they were supposed to do. But knowing what to do and figuring out how to do it are two entirely different things, they quickly learned.
“We had the plan but not the infrastructure,” said Trudy Larson, dean of the School of Community Health Sciences at UNR and one the members of the governor’s Medical Advisory Team. “This is so new for us as a country. No matter how much we wanted to, we really didn’t know all the pieces to put in place and, really, because of some of the social disruption that the country had gone through, we also didn’t have a common way of looking at these things.”
Caleb Cage, former head of the Division of Emergency Management under Gov. Brian Sandoval, who was pulled in to assist the Sisolak administration’s response to the pandemic, felt similarly. Though the state had previously participated in exercises to drill the state’s pandemic response such as Operation Rabbit’s Foot in 2015, Cage said that nothing could’ve prepared them for what it would be like to live through the last year.
“I’m not saying it is bad training and a bad exercise, but it certainly doesn’t stand up to the experience that we’ve had over the last nearly a year,” Cage, the state’s COVID-19 response director, said. “The stakes are real. In an exercise the stakes are, ‘Oh, you learn a lesson and you don’t do it again next time.’”
Part of the problem was, as the governor was asking his Medical Advisory Team big, important questions about how to respond to the virus, the members were themselves still trying to answer basic questions: How easily does the virus spread? What’s the death rate? What will actually stop the spread?
Those in the governor’s office said they were sure the answer — whatever it was — would be found in science: They believed in science. They trusted the scientists. They wanted to do what the scientists said.
“I think there's always this mindset that we will figure this out, that we will figure out a way as a country to control this and get a handle on it,” said Michelle White, the governor’s chief of staff. “I think that was the expectation of all Americans, that that's what we do, that we will get a grip on this and figure out a way to keep it controlled.”
The virus, however, had other plans.
When Nevadans awoke the morning of March 18, the roar of everyday life had dulled to a quiet murmur. School playgrounds were empty. The state’s four-mile-long adult playground was empty too as casinos famed for never closing chained their doors and boarded up their windows.
Slot machine screens blinked blue. They were out of service, and Nevada was too.
The writing had been on the wall. Two days earlier, schools in Nevada and 25 other states closed their doors, the rest to follow suit in the days to come. By the time Sisolak announced all gambling in the state would cease as the clock struck midnight on St. Patrick’s Day, several major resorts were already in the process of shutting down their operations, facing a wave of canceled bookings. Other nonessential businesses were given until noon to close up shop.
A bevy of people — public health experts, doctors, epidemiologists, business owners and representatives of various sectors of the economy — had provided their input to Sisolak and his staff in the days and hours leading up to the shutdown. But the decision was Sisolak’s alone to make. White said it was an “excruciating” process.
“At some point, when you’re the leader and everyone’s looking at you, you have to make that choice and you know it’s going to be massively consequential and you know that it is going to be applauded or it is going to be booed by all sorts of people and that that doesn’t matter at some point, that you just have to do what you think is best with the information you have in front of you,” she said.
Sisolak, in an interview, recalled walking out onto the balcony of his office at the Grant Sawyer Building in Las Vegas one evening in early March and looking out at the lights of the Strip.
“I’m saying to myself, if I shut this down, those lights are all going to go dark and 100,000 people are going to be out of work and kids aren’t going to be able to go to school, and I thought about the potential ramifications of what those decisions would be,” Sisolak said, choking up. “I came in and I said, ‘I’ve got no choice, we’ve got to shut it down,’ because too many lives were at risk.”
His primary focus, as he made clear at the time, was the public health crisis at hand. Back then, public health officials didn’t even know how deadly COVID was. Because of limited testing early on, data out of New York City, which was hit early and hard by the virus, showed that nearly 1 in 10 New Yorkers who had tested positive for the virus died from it. Some health experts were recommending people clean their groceries and packages because of concerns about surface-to-surface transmission. Little had been confirmed about the role of asymptomatic transmission.
At a press conference announcing the business closures, many questions focused on cause and effect: Would businesses face penalties if they remained open? How would the government police it? Sisolak, however, seemed irritated.
“I don't know if I can make this any clearer ... This is affecting the lives of our citizens. People are dying. Every day that is delayed here, I'm losing a dozen people on the back end, they're going to die as a result of this,” Sisolak said, bristling. “It's incumbent upon the citizens of this state to take this seriously. Next question.”
It’s not that the governor’s office wasn’t aware of the economic consequences of shutting down and how many Nevadans’ lives would be affected. But the public health crisis seemed so daunting and the shutdown so necessary to get the virus under control.
Furthermore, the shutdown was billed as a short-term situation. The school closures were initially supposed to last only three weeks. Businesses were to be closed only for 30 days. But the virus stubbornly lingered as hospitals scrambled to secure resources and learn how to treat this new disease.
At the beginning of April, Sisolak put in place a “stay at home” order, formalizing what had existed in spirit for several weeks and extended the closures of nonessential businesses and schools. By the middle of the month, the shutdown had been extended to an undetermined date and schools closed for the rest of the academic year.
“It’s a symbol of truly no one really knew how long this was going to last for,” White said of the early emergency directives. “It was this immediate decision making needed to protect the health of the public in that moment.”
Everyone wanted certainty in that time, from everyday Nevadans to the governor himself. Everyone wanted to know that if only we did X, then all of this would be better. But we didn’t know what X was. In those months, the entire world was still solving for X.
“We want to be able to say, ‘This one is 100 percent foolproof,’ and oftentimes in this situation, the options that we had to lay out on the table — not only is it not always a no-win situation, it is, how do we lose the least?” White said. “How do we do the most good for the most people, understanding that each one of these choices is going to have a negative impact on someone or something somewhere?”
At the worst point in April, statewide unemployment hit 28.2 percent, climbing to 33.5 percent in Las Vegas. Today, 1 in 4 Nevadans is enrolled in Medicaid, the state’s insurance program for low-income individuals and families, up from 1 in 5 before the pandemic.
State officials and public health experts say it can be easy to criticize these early decisions with the benefit of hindsight. We now know the virus is not as deadly as we initially thought, though still more deadly than the flu. We also know that COVID got much worse in Nevada this fall than it ever did in the spring. When Sisolak closed nonessential businesses in March, there were only 55 confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide. At the worst point in the pandemic this fall, the state was identifying more than 2,700 new cases a day. But they say that lessons learned during the spring shutdown and the time it bought the state were precisely what allowed many businesses to remain open, at least to some extent, this fall.
Had we known back in March what we know about COVID today, those who helped advise the governor said, they might have made different recommendations about closing businesses and schools. But thinking back to what they knew at the time, they — and the governor himself — believe that shutting down was the only option.
“It was really just a lot of unknowns that led us to all we could do to stop the transmission,” Labus, one of the members of the governor’s Medical Advisory Team, said. “Nobody knew what was going on with this particular virus. We were still trying to understand it.”
In late March, as the refrigerated trucks began to pull up to New York City hospitals, Nevada — a state where people sometimes grimly joke that the best health care you can get is at McCarran, the airport, leaving town for a city with world class medical care — braced for an onslaught.
Health officials worried that if New York City, which has some of the most hospital beds per capita of anywhere in the country, couldn’t handle COVID, how would little Nevada fare, particularly its rural residents, some of whom live more than 100 miles from the nearest hospital?
“If they couldn’t handle it there, we definitely couldn’t handle it in Nevada,” Labus said.
Sisolak temporarily placed the state’s Department of Health and Human Services and Division of Emergency Management under the direction of Major General Ondra Berry, adjutant general for the Nevada National Guard.
It was an operation completely unfamiliar to the Guard. In some ways, it was easier: Guard members weren’t deployed overseas and could return home to their families every night. They didn’t have to face the day-to-day horrors of war. In other ways it was more difficult: They faced the danger of bringing the virus home to their families, as the death toll mounted quickly.
Berry likened the daily COVID death reports on the nightly news to the daily casualty reports they’d get during the Gulf War. Since March 26, at least one Nevadan has died from COVID-19 each day with the exception of one day. At the peak this winter, Nevada lost 47 in a single day.
“It may not be the same atrocity that you may see in war, but you are in a battle for people’s lives,” Berry said. “If the best solutions are not in place, then those who we care [about] and love and matter may not get to see tomorrow. It’s a different kind of similarity, but it’s a fight.”
And it was coming. Nevada, the state born in the heat of battle, readied itself.
When Pipkins tested positive for COVID-19 at the North Las Vegas VA Medical Center in early March, his doctors were in disbelief. It was the first novel case in the VA system nationwide. Higher-ups from Washington, D.C. called every day for an update on his case.
The initial treatments Pipkins’ doctors tried didn’t seem to work, so they did the only thing they could think to do — put him in a medically induced coma and hook him up to a ventilator to keep him breathing while his body continued fighting.
“That’s all that we had at the time. That feeling as a physician — especially when people would come to us and say, ‘Hey, listen, you’re the expert. What can you do to make me better?’ — I had no good answer at the time. All I could say is, ‘Listen, I can keep you alive until something happens, but that’s the best that I can do,’” said Dr. Myron Kung, a pulmonary critical care physician at the VA hospital and one of Pipkins’ doctors. “That’s a frightening position to be in as a provider.”
Kung said he was learning more and more about the virus watching CNN, just like everyone else was.
Scherr, the emergency medicine physician, recalled patients flooding into the ER in March and April struggling to get enough oxygen; doctors’ first instincts were to intubate them and place them on ventilators to keep them breathing. Just as state officials were working with the best information they had at the time, so, too, were doctors struggling to fight a virus with what they knew. Though patients’ chances of surviving significantly dropped once they were ventilated, it still gave those like Pipkins a fighting chance.
The problem was, what would they do when they ran out of ventilators?
“In the beginning of it, our ICUs were full,” Scherr said. “Our ventilator capacity was near 80 percent.”
Once the state effectively shut down, the numbers started to drop. A peak of 711 COVID hospitalizations in early April plummeted to 421 just a month later. In the same timeframe, the state went from having 240 COVID patients on ventilators to only 115.
Doctors, nurses and hospital officials across Nevada say that initial shutdown — painful as they know it was for so many of their friends, family and fellow Nevadans — bought them critical time to prepare. They secured additional resources, including personal protective equipment and ventilators, set up additional bed space and learned more about the virus and how to treat it. That decision, they say, saved an untold number of lives.
It’s impossible to know exactly how many lives Nevada might have lost had it acted differently. If Nevada were New Jersey, which like New York was also hit early and hard by COVID, it would’ve lost more than 8,000 of its residents to the virus. If it were Mississippi, which has taken a relatively lax approach to COVID restrictions, it would’ve lost 7,000.
To date, Nevada has lost more than 5,000 lives to the virus.
“When we first started seeing that surge of COVID, there was not a single hospital in the [Las Vegas] valley that was ready to deal with that,” said Dr. Shadaba Asad, UMC’s medical director of infectious disease and another member of the governor’s Medical Advisory Team. “If the city had not been shut down and that spread of infection had not been halted, or at least reduced, I think it would have resulted in a catastrophe where our hospitals would not have been able to take care of the patients who became ill.”
Early on, hospitals were focused on making sure they had the bed space and staff to handle a sudden influx of COVID patients, who typically require lengthy hospital stays. There were two ways to accomplish that: Facilities could either increase bed space, as Renown did when it made the decision at the end of February to set up an alternate care site in its parking garage, and bring on additional staff, difficult when states were competing for a limited pool of traveling nurses, or they could decrease the number of patients in the hospital, thereby reducing the number of beds and staff needed.
While some hospitals focused on the former, Nevada hospitals statewide did the latter, suspending all non-urgent surgeries. That means people who needed hips replaced could not get them replaced and people who needed tumors removed at some point in the near future could not get them removed.
“It’s really with a heavy heart that you make that decision that we’re going to stop that,” said Lake, executive director of community resilience at the Nevada Hospital Association, which announced the suspensions back in March. “It’s not a financial decision, it’s really a triage decision.”
Nevada hospitals, like those everywhere else in the world, also struggled to secure personal protective equipment (PPE) for their workers as global supply chains collapsed and the cost of basic, necessary medical equipment like masks, gloves and surgical gowns skyrocketed. Because testing was so limited early on, hospitals had to treat every patient as if they might have COVID. So did first responders. That meant expending significant amounts of PPE on every patient — PPE that had quickly become the scarcest resource.
“It was sort of like a shark feeding frenzy with blood in the water,” Lake said.
The situation got so bad that the first mission of a private-sector task force established by the governor to assist with the state’s COVID response raised $10 million dollars to purchase personal protective equipment, including 2 million N95 masks, 2.6 million surgical masks, 1.5 million gloves and hundreds of thousands of face shields and goggles.
Meanwhile, in hospitals some workers say their facilities were keeping PPE under lock and key. Others tried to buy their own supplies and bring it from home. But the heart of the issue was that there just wasn’t enough available in Nevada, across the country or around the globe.
“I can’t even begin to explain this fear and dread even amongst health care providers when we started getting these first patients because it’s a highly contagious disease and knowing very little about it, being exposed to it day and night and not sure if we were actually protecting ourselves, if we were taking the disease back to our loved ones,” Asad said.
And time has borne out how important personal protective equipment is in protecting hospital workers. When Yarleny Roa-Dugan, a labor and delivery nurse in Las Vegas, fell ill to COVID in January 2021, it wasn’t because she had been exposed to a patient but rather to her carpenter husband, who they believe contracted the virus at work from someone who wasn’t wearing a mask and later tested positive.
On one level, the concerns over PPE were about protecting health care providers. But they were also making sure that hospitals had enough staff to treat all of their patients. If health care workers were already a scarce resource in Nevada before the pandemic, what would hospitals do if a significant portion of their workforce had to quarantine because of exposure to COVID or because they fell ill to the virus themselves?
When Pipkins came into the VA hospital in March, 47 employees who came into contact with him had to quarantine at home for 14 days because they weren’t wearing PPE.
“If you started quarantining health care providers exposed to people with COVID, before you knew it, you would have nobody to take care of these patients,” Asad said. “We started learning slowly, and this had primarily to do with availability of health care providers, if a health care provider was exposed to somebody with COVID, as long as they had absolutely no symptoms concerning for COVID, they were allowed to work with precautions, daily symptom monitoring and daily screening.”
The state shutdown also bought doctors critical time to learn how best to treat the illness. They discovered it was better to place patients on their stomachs and give them high flow oxygen for as long as they could bear, only putting them on a ventilator as the last resort. They started giving their patients steroids. They started using remdesivir, an antiviral drug, and convalescent plasma.
Spring, as it turns out, was just the beginning for Nevada’s hospitals. The state would see nearly twice as many COVID-19 patients hospitalized during the summer surge and three times as many during the fall surge compared to the worst point during the spring.
But doctors believe if not for the initial shutdown, they never would have been prepared for what was to come.
“It would have broken down the health care system completely and it would have resulted in innumerable, avoidable deaths,” Asad said.
If the goal had been solely to stop all spread of COVID-19, the best way to accomplish that would have been to lock every single person on the planet inside their home until everyone infected with the virus had either recovered or died from it.
This was, of course, never a realistic option.
Nevada’s lockdown, by comparison, was relatively porous. People were still allowed to go to the grocery store and pick up takeout. Workers in some essential industries, such as manufacturing and construction, were allowed to continue to go to work. Friends and family could still gather privately in small groups in their homes.
Still, some Nevadans may have been hopeful the lockdown would eliminate the virus and they would be able to emerge sometime in late spring or early summer and return to life as they knew it. State officials, however, knew that was not going to be the case. Their focus was mitigation.
They knew a lockdown couldn’t reasonably last forever, and they knew that cases would rise once it ended. That’s why, once the initial tide of COVID-19 cases started to ebb, their focus turned to figuring out how to reasonably stop as much spread of the virus as possible while also allowing Nevadans to do the things they reasonably needed to do to sustain themselves.
The answer was, on its face, simple: One, they needed Nevadans to continue to interact as little as possible to limit the spread of the virus; two, they needed all Nevadans who wanted to get a test to be able to get a test in the event they fell ill; and three, they needed to be able to contact trace all Nevadans exposed to the virus to prevent them from spreading it to more people.
But changing human behavior is a tricky, if not impossible, proposition. Plus, Nevada was already lacking in public health infrastructure prior to the pandemic, which meant it was nowhere near prepared to undertake a testing and contact tracing effort of this magnitude, despite best intentions.
Early projections suggested that states would need 30 contact tracers per 100,000 residents. That would mean Nevada would need nearly 1,000 contact tracers. State officials estimate they had 10, maybe 15, contact tracers at the time.
Other gaps quickly became apparent as well. State officials discovered early on that several counties, which are required by state law to have county boards of health, did not.
“I remember calling one sheriff in a rural county and saying, ‘Who's your county health officer? Tell me about your last board of health meeting,’ and he was like, ‘I have no idea what you're talking about,’” said Julia Peek, deputy administrator in the state’s Division of Public and Behavioral Health. “He scrambled to get it set up, to a ton of his credit.”
The state's two public health labs — the Nevada State Public Health Lab in the north and the Southern Nevada Public Health Lab in the south — were also ill prepared for something of this scope. Both labs were well-accustomed to testing for infectious diseases, foodborne illnesses and sexually transmitted infections on a small scale, but widespread testing for COVID-19 for every Nevadan who wanted it?
“I think people still don’t appreciate or understand that there was not and there still is not and there likely will never be an infrastructure whereby every person can get a test when they want it,” Pandori, head of the state public health lab, said. “Even with disaster and bioterror preparedness, which started to be financed pretty heavily after 9/11, in particular, that money does not come within a trillion miles of making labs and public health labs possible to test anyone who needs a test at any given moment.”
That didn’t stop Nevada from trying. Health officials knew that as soon as Nevadans were allowed back out in public again, the virus would start spreading and they would need a way to find it. The answer, for Southern Nevada, came from an unusual source: UMC, the county-run, safety-net hospital. UMC’s mission, as a public hospital, is to serve the community. In the time of the pandemic, that meant effectively joining the state’s public health response.
“Did I ever think we would be doing COVID testing and running a massive vaccination enterprise? Absolutely not,” Mason VanHouweling, UMC’s CEO, said.
Toward the end of March UMC realized it needed a better solution for COVID testing. It was still the tail end of the flu season, and the hospital couldn’t tell whether its patients were sick with the flu, COVID or both. From there, UMC started talking about how the hospital could not only expand testing for its own patients but also help with the demand for public testing, which was incredibly slow and scarce at the time.
So, the hospital shuffled its funds around, including capital it had originally intended for other projects, and made the decision to set up a second, complete lab that would be able to turn around test results within 24 hours and run up to 10,000 COVID tests a day. To date, UMC has run nearly a million COVID-19 tests across Nevada, about a third of the 2.7 million tests that have been run across the state. The lab ended up costing the hospital about $1.3 million to develop and $57.5 million to operate in labor and supplies.
While there were initially talks with the governor’s private sector task force about bringing in a Chinese company, BGI, to help to establish the lab — which the U.S. government warned against — VanHouweling said the hospital decided on its own to go a different direction.
Jim Murren, former MGM Resorts CEO and head of the state’s private sector task force, helped the hospital secure a contract with Thermo Fisher, a Massachusetts-based company, to provide open source, high-throughput test machines that would allow the hospital to use a wider range of supplies for the machines and meet the demand the hospital anticipated. He did so by selling them on the idea that the company would be able to pitch to its shareholders that their test supplies helped Las Vegas — and by promising them that they wouldn’t face a ton of red tape with the contract and that government officials would move quickly on the decision.
What’s still not entirely clear is why so much of the focus from government officials and the private sector task force was on helping UMC with their entirely new lab instead of assisting the Southern Nevada Health District in expanding its existing public health lab. The Southern Nevada Health District said the answer lies in the governor’s office. The governor’s office said it was just a matter of UMC being ready and willing to quickly step in to fulfill that role. Murren said it was because UMC’s lab was considered one of the best in the nation and that he was betting on VanHouweling, the Air Force veteran who turned the once-struggling hospital around.
“I bet on people,” Murren said. “I’ve done it my whole life.”
Renown, in Northern Nevada, ended up filling a similar public health role in its community by investing $3 million on expanding its testing infrastructure. At the height of demand, Renown was running 7,000 tests a week in a county with a population of a little less than 500,000.
The Nevada National Guard also played a critical role in establishing testing infrastructure statewide, both in urban Clark and Washoe counties but also in rural Nevada and on reservations where they facilitated mobile testing efforts.
“There's nothing in the National Guard playbook that talks about setting up a testing center,” Berry, the Guard’s adjutant general, said. “But these are people who bring a variety of skill sets to the fight every day and they just knew how to do logistics, they just knew how to do planning, they knew how to do communication ... Whatever they were tapped on the shoulder to do, they just figured it out.”
Testing alone wouldn’t halt the spread of the virus, though: Nevada would need to be able to trace the virus by making contact both with the people who tested positive for the virus and with the people they had potentially exposed. Early on, the state was inundated with pitches from vendors promising their platform would be the one to solve all contact tracing ills; it settled on contracts with Salesforce and Deloitte to ramp up a digital contact tracing system and workforce. Though state officials had received early indications that their local counterparts weren’t interested in a new system, the state was hopeful that if they built it, the health districts would come.
While those preparations in the spring set the stage for the state to start reopening, the coming months would push the newly expanded testing and contact tracing infrastructure to its limit. Public health experts say the expectation that the state would be able to test every Nevadan who wanted to be tested and trace every Nevadan who needed to be traced was too rosy, particularly in light of the tremendous case volume the state would see in the summer and fall.
“The way I describe contact tracing is that you're tracing down those embers of a fire, you're trying to put out the last part of it,” Labus said. “When the forest fire is raging, it doesn't make a lot of sense to find all those little embers.”
Still, as April turned to May, the state collectively breathed a sigh of relief. Cases were no longer exponentially increasing. Hospitalizations were on the decline. Testing had ramped up. Health care workers felt more equipped to treat the virus.
But it was still just the beginning. The wildfire was yet to come.
Reopening Nevada was easier said than done.
Shutting down was immensely challenging for businesses, but it was a relatively straightforward policy once it became clear what entities were allowed to stay open and what were not. Reopening, however, would not just be the reverse of closing. It would need to happen slowly and methodically, with an eye toward figuring out which businesses were the safest to open and how to mitigate risk in those deemed less safe.
Sisolak, at the end of April, announced the state would begin an “active transition” toward reopening. He emphasized that it would be done in a data-driven way and that the state would be required to see a “consistent and sustainable” downward trajectory in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, sufficient hospital capacity and health care workforce and the ability to test all symptomatic patients.
The governor laid out his reopening plan in a winding, 28-page document titled the “Nevada United Roadmap to Recovery” that strove to offer certainty to an uncertain public. It outlined a four-phase reopening plan complete with Nevada-themed nicknames for each phase: "Battle Born Beginning," "Silver State Stabilization," "On the Road to Home Means Nevada" and "Home Means Nevada — Our New Normal." Each phase would allow time for the state to reassess the data and make sure that it was on track before proceeding to the next phase of reopening.
The roadmap broadly laid out the contours of which businesses would be allowed to open in each phase. Outdoor spaces, small businesses and “select retail” would be allowed to open under the first phase with strict social distancing, hygiene measures and occupancy limits. But the finer points of which businesses, exactly, would be allowed to open and how were still yet to be determined.
That responsibility largely fell to a new Local Empowerment Advisory Panel, or LEAP, established by Sisolak to help counties assist businesses with safely reopening. The name made it sound, perhaps, more formal than it ended up being in reality.
How it actually worked was that three of the panel’s members — Clark County Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, Eureka County Commission Chairman J.J. Goicoechea, and Dagny Stapleton, executive director for the Nevada Association of Counties — would spend hours on the phone on the weekend brainstorming what guidelines they thought made the most sense, which Clark County staff would then spend hours typing up. They’d then send those over to the state Department of Business and Industry for a first review and then onto the governor’s office for final review.
“I'll tell you, it's super easy to close things down, it's very hard to open things up,” Kirkpatrick said. “You're trying to think of every single business and trying to put some common sense and public health in the same conversation so that people could navigate and be open and be open safely.”
The biggest challenge, though, was figuring out how to safely reopen casinos.
“If you look from purely a public health angle, the fact that our casinos are open seems like a really bad idea,” Labus said. “But, at the same time, that's what the economic basis of our state is, and there is going to be all sorts of public health fallout if we close them. People will lose their jobs, they'll lose health insurance, they won't be able to feed their families, all those kinds of things, and those cause health problems as well.”
Because keeping the casinos closed forever was not an option, the state focused on what could be done to open them safely. Conventions, at the beginning, were out. Table games, while not ideal, could be done with strict spacing requirements and other precautions. Other establishments inside casinos, like restaurants, would adhere to the statewide guidance for those kinds of businesses.
Even public health experts from outside Nevada emphasize there isn’t necessarily anything riskier about a casino than any other establishment that brings large numbers of people together, so long as the appropriate mitigation measures are in place.
When it comes to data on points of exposure — an imperfect science for many reasons — hotels and casinos are not at the very top. Recent data show they’re behind restaurants and grocery stores in Southern Nevada.
“You can open a casino and, yes, you can put measures in place to make sure that you reduce it to a very low level of spreading,” said Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. “To blame the casino and say, hey you guys have to do your part, and yes they have to, but also the community and everybody has to do their part.”
Both the state and the resorts had a vested interest in making casinos as safe as humanly possible. Resorts didn’t want to earn a reputation for being superspreaders, and the state worried about being put on other states’ travel blacklists, both of which would defeat the point of reopening casinos in the first place.
“We knew that it would be this tricky, delicate balance of wanting to make sure people could come here in the safest way possible at each time throughout this pandemic and protecting the reputation of the state, and particularly of Las Vegas, to make it a place where people felt safe coming and where other leaders across the country felt safe sending their own residents,” White, the governor’s chief of staff, said. “When people come here, it means Nevadans have jobs, it means Nevadans feed their kids, it means they can pay their electric bills.”
But, as safe as state officials and resorts could try to make the Las Vegas experience, bringing people together from all over the world is inherently a risky proposition. Just look at the polio scare centered around Mecca in 2005 or the superspreader conference in Boston that led to more than 300,000 cases of COVID-19.
“I would be concerned if I am a health official in Nevada, especially in Las Vegas, about who’s coming to us and what kind of variants and how much this will impact circulation of the virus in my community,” Mokdad said. “We’re not attacking the casinos, but we have proof that such events when people meet for a conference or for a wrestling game or a football game, it spreads the virus.”
For the many Nevadans who were unable to work from home this spring, the governor’s reopening plan was greeted with a sigh of relief. They would be able to go back to work. Their family members would be able to go back to work. Life would start returning to some semblance of normalcy. The four-step plan laid a clear path forward for the state.
On May 9, Nevada entered “Phase 1” of business reopenings, which allowed dine-in restaurants, hair salons and nail salons to open with capacity restrictions. Churches, gyms and bars were allowed to open as Nevada moved into “Phase 2” later that month. Finally, on June 4, tourists started to trickle back to Las Vegas as casinos once again opened their doors.
The “new normal,” it seemed, was within reach.
It was clear that cases were going to increase.
But what state officials perhaps didn’t fully comprehend as Nevada started down the path of reopening is how quickly they would do so as many Nevadans, who had for the most part been shut inside their homes for months, rushed back to their daily lives.
“It looked like, for a large proportion of people in our community, there was this sense of a kind of victory over the virus,” said Leguen, district health officer for the Southern Nevada Health District. “As you look back at the months of May, June and July and compare it with today, you will see there wasn’t that high level of compliance of people with mitigation measures, the use or masks, social distancing or the avoidance of public places. They felt at the time that the pandemic was over, everything is great, let’s go relax and party.”
At the low point in May, fewer than 100 people were testing positive for COVID-19 each day. By mid-July, that number had skyrocketed to more than 1,000.
Local health districts were quickly overwhelmed by the number of cases they needed to investigate and contacts they needed to trace. Before the pandemic, Nevada’s contact tracers were responsible for tracing relatively small outbreaks of illnesses. Even syphilis, which poses a significant public health challenge for Nevada, was nothing compared to COVID. There were only 2,000 cases of syphilis reported in 2018; over the summer, Nevada was seeing that many COVID-19 cases in two days.
While the state was able to step in and offer up its contact tracing platform and workforce, local health districts were still overwhelmed by the number of disease investigations — that’s the initial interview with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 — they had to complete.
With the help of the Nevada System of Higher Education, the state was eventually able to scale up the number of trained public health professionals who could do disease investigation and contact tracing work. But it took time and, in the meantime, people got frustrated. Some Nevadans reported it was taking days to weeks to get their test results back and even longer to receive a call from a disease investigator — if they received one at all. At some point, health districts had to triage, focusing on the most recent positive cases first before working through their backlog.
As summer drew on and the number of new cases being identified each day began to drop, the state finally started to settle into a good rhythm. Leguen said he was even starting to feel optimistic because the health district’s workforce had expanded to such an extent that it seemed to be almost too much for the number of new cases being reported each day. At the low point in September, the state was seeing fewer than 300 new cases a day on average.
But when the fall surge hit, they were once again overwhelmed. The health district again went into triage mode. At the worst point in early December, more than 2,500 cases of COVID-19 were being identified each day, still far too many for the more than 500 people currently dedicated to contact tracing in Clark County.
State and local health officials are the first to acknowledge where their efforts fell short.
“Is any of it perfect? By no means and no stretch of the imagination,” said Peek, who helped coordinate contact tracing efforts at the state level. “Honestly, we’ve probably had more tears over building up contact tracing in the end.”
In Northern Nevada, Washoe County District Health Officer Kevin Dick said, they were essentially racing against rising case numbers to get computers, phones and space set up for contact tracing staff. Complicating matters was that even when the health district was able to contact cases in a timely fashion, there was no guarantee that people would follow the guidance given to them to quarantine and monitor for symptoms.
“In a perfect, theoretical world, maybe we could succeed with that approach,” Dick said, addressing whether it would have been possible for the state to prevent case growth with contact tracing. “In the world that we live in, I think it's fraught with difficulties.”
But the system, imperfect as it was, represented a massive improvement from the state’s capabilities a year before. To date, 1 in 2 Nevadans has been tested for COVID-19 and 58,667 cases have been identified as a result of contact tracing efforts statewide, or about 20 percent of cases reported.
The state also launched a privately funded contact tracing app, called COVID Trace Nevada, in late August to help the contact tracing effort. Though the rollout of the app was initially slow, 687,244 Nevadans have downloaded the app or opted into exposure notifications on their smartphones to date and 265 Nevadans have entered a verification code into the app confirming their positive result which has resulted in 973 exposure notifications being sent.
Looking back, public health experts say perhaps the only way Nevada could’ve ramped up testing and contact tracing to the levels we eventually ended up needing in the fall would likely have been to have a cohesive national plan and federal financial investment back in February or March.
“At the time, there were few enough cases that it was actually practical to perform contact tracing around every case. But of course, that was also the period when the [Trump] administration felt that because there were so few cases we have very little to worry about,” said Dr. Kevin Murphy, an infectious disease specialist in Reno. “That was a golden missed opportunity.”
The hospitals, meanwhile, were not all right.
By fall, Nevadans and others across the U.S. had grown weary of mitigation measures and had started to engage in riskier behaviors. Increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases soon followed here and nationwide. By then, the doctors inside the hospitals responsible for treating COVID-19 patients were growing tired too.
“I think it went from a sense of, ‘Okay, let's get this done. We're on the frontlines. This is a pandemic. We're going to see the light at the end of this tunnel,’ to, six months after that, ‘This is fatiguing. I'm tired of it,’” Scherr, the emergency room physician, said. “We had tons of endorphins at the beginning, our adrenaline was up, ‘This is what we do,’ to, ‘Damn, I’ve got to see this every day, all day.’”
Things got so bad that Renown finally started putting patients in the alternate care site — a parking garage-turned-medical unit. At Sunrise, the hospital was squeezing in patients in its old emergency departments and surgical post-op spaces. Some hospitals had patients in hallways waiting for rooms to open up. At one point, Scherr’s emergency medicine group offered its services to cover the night shift at one smaller hospital where two ICU physicians were responsible for covering 60 to 70 patients, just so the doctors could get some sleep.
“Ten days after Thanksgiving, that was the longest, probably hardest hit time during COVID,” Scherr said. “Especially in Vegas, we were over 100 percent hospital capacity. Our ventilator capacity was not close to being threatened because of our new treatment strategies, but our ICU capacity was.”
As bad as things were, hospital association officials said Nevada never reached ICU collapse at any time over the last year. That’s the point where hospitals no longer have the equipment, supplies and people to provide the needed level of care to their patients. Though hospitals individually were stretched to 100 percent or more of their capacity, the system held.
But Lake, the hospital association’s executive director of community resilience, said Nevada “got pretty close,” particularly during the summer surge. At one point, ventilators loaned to the state from both California and the Strategic National Stockpile were being FedExed around the state to the hospitals that needed them.
“If you envision it as a rubber band that you’ve pulled so tight that if you add one more patient — the straw that broke the camel's back — that rubber band will snap,” Lake said.
It’s not exactly clear why the hospital situation in Nevada never was as severe this fall as it was in Southern California, which hit zero percent ICU capacity in December. There are, however, a number of theories.
One is that maybe Southern California hospitals are much more siloed and don’t lean on each other the way that Nevada hospitals do through their master mutual aid agreement. During each surge, Nevada hospital CEOs were on calls with each other every other day discussing capacity and who could take more patients.
Another is that maybe because Nevada experienced a significant surge in cases over the summer in a way that California didn’t, doctors had significant clinical competency by the fall. Doctors say that although this fall surge was stressful, there are now clearer protocols for treating COVID-19.
Maybe it’s just that Southern California is much more densely populated than Nevada so that when things got bad, they got really bad. Or maybe, for whatever reason, Southern California’s surge picked up speed faster than Nevada’s did and the mitigation measures that the governor put in place in late November successfully halted the spread.
Or it could be that it still helps to be a small state where everyone knows everyone. They have to, in some ways, to survive in a health care landscape that at times still feels like the Wild West.
“One of the upsides to being a small state and a state that doesn’t invest a lot of general fund [dollars] into public health is that we have to know our system and we know our partners,” said Richard Whitley, director of the Department of Health and Human Services. “One thing you have to do when you don’t have a lot of resources, you have to know what you do have and what you can rely on.”
The last year has been a rollercoaster.
As cases went up, down, up, down, up again, down again and now have plateaued, state officials tried to balance public health needs against economic needs. Businesses closed, businesses opened, there was a mask mandate, bars closed again, bars opened again, restrictions on large gatherings loosened, businesses and gatherings faced new restrictions and, now, finally, those restrictions are once again loosening.
Those ever-changing guidelines were part of an effort to respond to the current milieu and to ensure that the restrictions in place matched the current severity of the public health crisis. But oftentimes, they left residents confused and frustrated that things were changing once again.
As it turns out, the governor’s “Nevada United Roadmap to Recovery” plan from the spring would be just the first iteration of many documents outlining how the state would manage through the pandemic.
It would be followed by “Road to Recovery: Moving to a New Normal” in August, a plan that shifted much of the responsibility for implementing mitigation measures to a new statewide task force. Then, there was the “statewide pause” in November, which saw new limits be placed on businesses and gatherings. Now, we’re operating under “Nevada’s Roadmap to Recovery,” which plans to transition almost all responsibility for COVID-19 mitigation to local authorities.
It’s hard to say which mitigation measures have been the most effective.
Public health experts believe the case trends are probably, in part, psychological. Cases go up when people hear that cases are going down and feel safe to go out and do things; cases go down when people hear that cases are going up and they should be careful and limit their exposure. But they also believe the mitigation measures themselves have blunted the impact: When there are fewer people visiting a business or a smaller number of people at a gathering, there’s less of a chance that someone there has COVID and, if they do, hopefully more space to minimize transmission.
The one mitigation measure, though, that top public health officials say has been key to limiting case growth: the state’s mask mandate, which was announced on June 24 and went into effect two days later.
While Nevada was among the first 20 states to enact a mask mandate, multiple public health experts said they would’ve liked to see the state enact one sooner. At least seven states enacted mask mandates in April, six did in May and Nevada was one of five states to do so in June.
“[The Medical Advisory Team had] been discussing it for a while, trying to get support for that. It was just one of those things, it’s a political decision as much as it is scientific. We recognize those issues. But at the same time we were told, just think of the science. So from a scientific perspective, it's really easy to say, this is what you should do,” Labus said. “When you actually have to put it in place, it's a little different, and that's what the governor had to decide.”
The governor, for his part, said he didn’t even have a full understanding of how effective masks were when he put the mask mandate in place.
“It's easy to look back and say, yeah, I wish I’d have done it earlier, but I didn't know then what I know now,” Sisolak said. “I think at the time we made the decision as quick as I thought there was enough evidence to warrant that decision being made and that's why we did it when we did it.”
As other states like Texas and Mississippi have now begun to lift their mask mandates, Sisolak has made clear that Nevada won’t be heading in that direction. When the state transfers control of coronavirus health and safety measures to local governments in May, the statewide mask mandate will remain in place.
“I think that’s an irresponsible thing to do now,” Sisolak said of governors who are lifting mask mandates. “There’s no science or medical advice that says that’s the appropriate thing to do.”
The last year has been difficult, to say the least, for most. But Nevada’s public health workers, stoic as they may outwardly appear, are struggling.
They will acknowledge that they weren’t prepared and that there were areas where they might have done better. They’re sure that even more of that will become clear with time. But they also believe it wasn’t for lack of trying, and many of them are near their breaking points.
“It’s like we were pushing a wagon, and it worked when we had four people holding the wheels on and now you’re expecting us to enter NASCAR. Guess what? We’re not prepared, and it’s not for creativity or lack of effort,” Peek said, tearing up. “We're doing the best we can with the resources that we have.”
The deck was stacked against Nevada’s public health system from the start. Nevada ranks last in the nation for public health spending per capita. As recently as 2019, public health officials had pleaded with lawmakers for additional public health dollars, which they said would allow them to be more proactive in responding to Nevada’s health needs as they develop, instead of reactive, to no avail.
In some ways, it’s a miracle the situation hasn’t been worse in Nevada. But it has taken a toll on those trying desperately to hold the wheels on the wagon.
Hateful emails stacked up in their inboxes, health officials say. Peek-Bullock, the state’s epidemiologist, recalled someone suggesting picketing outside her house after she appeared at a press conference.
“That was the moment for me that it really hit home because that crosses the line between your work life and your personal life, and you think about your family,” she said.
Like every other Nevadan, the pandemic has taken a toll on their personal lives in other ways as well.
Cage, the state’s COVID-19 response director, has seen his brother and sister struggle to run their family-owned bars and restaurants in Reno. Both he and Sisolak have also been public about their experiences testing positive for the virus. Peek recalls trying to essentially homeschool her kids in real time while also working 12 hours a day. In the evenings, Kirkpatrick, the Clark County Commission chair, spends her evenings helping her 6-year-old granddaughter with her homework and getting her ready for bed before doing even more work. Dr. Tony Slonim, Renown’s CEO, learned he lost his dad to COVID the day the hospital held a press conference in April announcing the opening of their parking garage alternate care site.
“You want nothing more than to do whatever you can to make their pain go away, right? In this case, it's the frustration, the uncertainty, the economic challenges, all of that, and trying to get to a place where you can do something that makes sense based on policy, based on science, and all of those things,” Cage said. “It doesn’t square with the emotional pull of doing something for a family member that you love dearly.”
They’ve felt overwhelmed and exhausted. They don’t know what to do with comments from people who suggest they have an agenda or are financially benefiting from the public health emergency. Many of them didn’t have their first day off from work until many months into the pandemic. As salaried employees, the state’s top health officials don’t get overtime and, in fact, have had their pay cut because of mandatory state worker furloughs. But, then, some of them have struggled with feelings of guilt because they feel lucky to have a job when so many others were and still are out of work.
They know they don’t always get it right. But they say their number one goal has been to wake up each day and do the best they can possibly do for the state of Nevada.
“The story is that the government is horrible and the government's doing something wrong, not that these people are working an ungodly number of hours per week and they rarely get to see their children for the good of Nevadans,” Peek said. “At some point we will have to exhale and we’ll have to shift down and go back to normal life. I don’t know how that’s going to look, honestly, we’ve been on full speed for forever. I don’t know how we’re going to go back to normal.”
The pandemic was always going to be an uphill battle, particularly for Nevada.
How is a state supposed to respond to a pandemic when it’s economy is built on the idea of bringing lots of people together from all around the world to a four mile patch of earth to have fun drinking and clubbing and gambling in close proximity to one another and then return home — exactly the things one ought not to be doing during a pandemic?
To the rest of the world, it may have appeared as if Nevada was being cavalier in its public health response when it made the decision to reopen casinos. But then, to the rest of the world, the totality of Nevada is Las Vegas and the totality of Las Vegas is the Strip, where we presumably all eat and drink all day long before going back to our high rise condos to go to sleep at night.
The rest of the world sees the waitresses, bartenders, bellmen and guest room attendants when they visit, the humans that make the casinos, and by extension, the state run, but they don’t see the homes those workers go back to and the families who rely on them to put food on the table. They don’t see the grocery store clerks, the delivery drivers and the teachers who make everyday life here possible. They don’t see how the taxes they loathe paying on their hotel rooms go to fund things like schools and Medicaid. They don’t see that — without the Strip, without the tourists, for better or for worse — life in Nevada ceases to exist.
State officials and public health experts knew on some level the casinos had to open. Perhaps only congressional approval of a universal basic income could’ve kept them closed. But the state’s decision to many felt — and still feels — contradictory, hypocritical even. Sisolak, during a press conference in mid-November, asked Nevadans to voluntarily stay home for two weeks as cases spiked statewide. But, when asked, he said the measure did not apply to tourists, who he urged to continue to travel to the state while following all health and safety protocols.
Sisolak, in an October speech, called it Nevada’s “great balancing act.”
“The public needs to understand that if we don’t step up together and follow all public health measures, hard decisions and trade offs lie ahead. This pandemic has been framed as a false choice, shut it all down or do nothing. But we know that's not the case. We know that doesn't have to be a reality. We know we can't afford it. We can continue doing our best to balance the health and safety of Nevadans with the need to protect our economy, keep people employed, provide an education to our kids, and more,” Sisolak said. “I promise that I'm doing everything I can to manage this balancing act, and that balancing act in Nevada is perhaps the toughest than any other state.”
But it was maybe less a balancing act than an attempt to make two inherently contradictory priorities live in harmony, like trying to force the negative ends of two magnets together. On one hand, there’s general agreement that bringing people together for lots of face to face interaction in casinos was probably not the best idea for stopping the spread of COVID. But if the casinos remained closed and tourists were warned against coming to the state, tens of thousands of Nevadans would be out of work, struggling to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. They would be thrown into poverty, which brings its own set of negative public health consequences.
Nevada didn’t have the options some other states had. White, the governor’s chief of staff, recalled a conversation with an official from another Western state and wondering how leaders there had lessened the impact of the pandemic on their economy. The official told her that most of their employees were able to work from home.
“She goes, ‘Have you considered that?’ I’m like, ‘Well, we have, that would be phenomenal, but you can’t have the dealer or the valet or the cocktail waitress or the busser work remotely. We are a state that is funded primarily on face to face social interactions in large groups with a lot of people you don't know,” White said. “It's what makes us stay fun and great and amazing. In a pandemic, it puts policymakers and decision-makers in an almost impossible situation.”
In truth, maybe it wasn’t a balancing act between COVID and the economy but rather a balancing act between preventing people from dying of COVID now and preventing people from dying from poverty, mental health and substance abuse issues later.
From the perspective of those in the governor’s office, this was exactly what they thought they had been saying all along. But they realized the sentiment had, perhaps, only been peppered here and there in the governor’s speeches, in 20-page guidance documents and calls with the press. Perhaps it wasn’t clear enough to the public. That’s why they decided to have the governor drive the point home during an October press conference.
White said that the governor’s October speech was designed to speak to the frustrations of everyday Nevadans. The governor’s office understood that Nevadans were frustrated that their favorite family-owned restaurant was struggling while Strip properties were apparently bustling with tourists.
“As people view these decisions and form opinions on them, I don't blame them if they are sitting there saying, ‘This isn't fair, I'm mad.’ because they're looking at it through the lens of their world,” White said. “Putting myself in their seat, I might be mad too.”
Those close to the governor say that, as the pandemic progressed, he got more comfortable with living with, and governing through, the uncertainty. Sisolak has a reputation for being decisive — his critics would call him headstrong or a bully, even — and he’s someone who likes to make a decision and stick with it. They’re not qualities that naturally lend themselves to leading well during a pandemic.
“One of the things he had to come to grips with here — and it took a few months — is there wasn't a decision he was going to make that might still be the right decision in two weeks. He began to really live that moment and live with the need for flexibility and agility and constant adjustment — monitor, measure and adjust — knowing that when he did some of the reopenings that he might need to pull that back,” said Billy Vassiliadis, a longtime Democratic campaign consultant who is close to Sisolak. “It was more living in that moment and knowing that decisions needed to be done and revisited and done and revisited, I think he started to communicate that more confidently. He became more confident in the certainty of the uncertainty."
Sisolak, reflecting back on the last year, acknowledges that it was difficult for him as a leader to come to terms with the fact that there were no right answers and that he might choose to do something today he’d have to reverse tomorrow. And he knows that people have disagreed with him — there have been people carrying AR-15s outside the Governor’s Mansion in Carson City telling him so.
But he said that what he focused on was doing what he thought was right at the time and knowing that when he put his head on his pillow at night that he made his decisions with the right intentions.
“Can you have a disagreement on timing or on the severity of some decisions? Sure. People are always going to be there to disagree,” Sisolak said. “I'm telling you, when I looked at that Strip and those lights and saw them all going off, it's like, man, am I doing the right thing? Is this the right thing to do? And, yeah, I know it's going to be criticized. I know people aren’t going like it. I might have lost sleep over it, but I know I did the right thing.”
There are, of course, things that Nevada could have done differently.
We could have shut down earlier, harder and longer. We could have never shut down at all. Our schools could still be closed, or our schools could have opened fully months ago. We could have devoted even more time and resources to testing and contact tracing. We could have concentrated more power in the hands of the Legislature or local governments. We could have invested more in public health over the last decade. We could’ve invested in an aging unemployment system. We could have put much more effort into true economic diversification instead of, as always in good times, once again hanging our hat on the resort industry.
“When I look back at outbreaks, and I've been working outbreaks for two decades, at the end of the outbreak, it always plays out differently than you would expect it to at the beginning. The question I always have is, well, if I were in the same position, would I make those same decisions?” Labus said. “If I can say, yes, I’d make that same decision today, even knowing ultimately that it was wrong, but based on that information it was the right decision at the time, that’s how I look at our success.”
But even the death of one Nevadan to this virus was always going to be too many, let alone 5,000.
“You talk to a surviving family member of somebody that lost a family member to COVID and couldn't get into the hospital even to say goodbye to them, and it puts things in a different perspective,” Sisolak said. “That chair where that person sat at the kitchen table is always going to be empty.”
The federal government requires them. Standard confidentiality clauses.
The agreements are rarely discussed. But they are central to SB77, a proposed state Senate bill that could exempt certain pre-decisional meetings and records involving environmental issues from the Open Meeting Law and Public Records Act. Eureka County, a main proponent of the bill, has argued a change is needed to comply with both the federal agreements and state law.
April Corbin Girnus wrote an excellent piece about the issue for the Nevada Current: Right now, counties are often hampered by confidentiality rules. To discuss issues, they are stuck between following (or breaking) the federal confidentiality agreements and the state’s transparency laws.
But open government advocates have argued that the proposed bill would limit transparency in a process that has real-world consequences — whether mines are approved or power lines are erected. Ahead of a recent hearing, a coalition representing environmental groups, civil liberty advocates and news organizations, sent an opposition letter that’s worth reading (here’s a link).
It is worth noting, too, that Eureka County’s natural resource manager, Jake Tibbitts, said the county opposes changes to the Public Records Act, and he is working to amend the drafted bill.
“If this were to move forward, we're totally open to stripping out all of that,” he said.
What struck me was why this bill was proposed in the first place. When the legislation was floated last fall, it was the first time I had heard of these federal confidentiality agreements. Given the federal government’s large role in permitting projects, they struck me as significant.
Before I get into that, some incredibly technical (but important!) background:
Every year, dozens of local governments, tribes and state agencies participate in what is known as the NEPA process. NEPA stands for the National Environmental Policy Act. A lot can be said about it, but for now, the most important thing is that it requires federal agencies to analyze the environmental consequences of projects on federal land — and the outcome is significant.
Nevada is about 85 percent federal land, so there are a lot of NEPA proceedings happening at any given time — and in many different corners of the state. When a federal agency starts the NEPA process, they invite local and state agencies to act as “cooperating agencies” during the crafting of an environmental analysis. It allows local and state agencies to convey opinions in an otherwise federal process. But there’s a downside: This is where confidentiality comes in.
These cooperating agencies — Churchill County or the Nevada Department of Transportation, for instance — must sign agreements with federal land managers, like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). But the agreements, a BLM spokesperson said, include standard language about confidentiality to prevent the “release of predecisional information or working documents.”
That puts a jurisdiction like Eureka County, an entity governed by three county commissioners, in a tough position. The county, at the center of the state’s gold mining activity, wants to have a say in the process for analyzing environmental impacts. To participate, they must agree to keep information confidential. At the same time, the Open Meeting Law requires that elected officials deliberate in public. But if they deliberate in public, they risk breaking the confidentiality clause.
In 2009, the BLM chastised the county for doing just that: The Eureka Sentinel disclosed a report that showed pumping associated with a controversial molybdenum mine would have big effects on water. The disclosure suggested that the county broke its confidentiality agreement.
To avoid the issue, Tibbitts or one county commissioner typically represents the views of the county in the NEPA process. But state law limits their discussions with other elected officials.
“It's been a whole struggle for me the whole time I've been here,” Tibbitts said.
This is especially a problem in rural counties that have small staffs or lack departments devoted to natural resources issues. Instead, a single county commissioner might take the lead in representing a county’s interests without being able to deliberate with their colleagues.
But is Open Meeting Law the best venue by which to address the issue? That’s another question.
Open government advocates and environmentalists say no. They argue that a federal fix to the confidentiality language, stemming from the “deliberative process exemption,” might be needed.
“The answer isn’t less transparency,” said Patrick Donnelly, the state director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The answer is more transparency. Let’s not make things worse.”
Donnelly sees SB77, as written, fitting into efforts to weaken state law around open government.
He is also watching AB39, an Assembly bill that would exempt agencies from disclosing their deliberations prior to making a decision. Such a move would make it harder for the public to understand the interagency process, and in some cases the science, informing decisions.
“It would eliminate transparency,” he said. “Most public records requests I've ever done, which have resulted in important finds for our conservation campaigns, would have been exempted.”
Here’s what else I’m watching this week:
The Clark County Commission meeting. Yes, I’m aware that everyone tuned into the Clark County meeting on Tuesday for a different item: To watch the commissioners vote to change the name of the Las Vegas airport, currently dedicated to former Sen. Pat McCarran, a virulent and well-documented bigot. Now, with the FAA’s approval, it will be named for one former Sen. Harry Mason Reid. But all that to say, there was another big item on Tuesday’s commission agenda:
The Clark County Commission gave its unanimous approval to a climate action plan (here’s a link to the plan). It’s a major step for the state’s largest local government. With the majority of Nevada’s population, Clark County could play a key role in planning for more extreme heat and drought. “The impacts of climate change are very real and they are upon us,” commission Chairman Marilyn Kirkpatrick said Tuesday. “As a county set in the Mojave Desert, we know what’s at stake with our water and energy supply and intensifying heat island impacts. This plan recognizes those unique challenges.”
“First-hand experience:” Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson cited “Nevada’s diverse population and first-hand experience in issues relating to climate change, public lands, immigration and health care” as reasons why we have “a unique voice that deserves to be heard first” in nominating presidential candidates. Why we aren’t already first? I don’t know. POLITICO’s Tyler Pager and David Siders have more on that.
Natural gas in the Legislature: Gov. Steve Sisolak’s climate strategy recognized the need to transition away from natural gas to meet a goal of reducing total greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. As I’ve written about before, this issue is coming to Carson City. Earlier this month, Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson) wrote an opinion piece for The Nevada Independent about why she is proposing legislation that would require gas utilities to undergo a more rigorous regulatory process when building new infrastructure. The bill would also require that state utility regulators study natural gas in the context of the state’s climate goals. Nevada’s largest gas utility, Southwest Gas, responded to the op-ed on Nevada Newsmakers last week.
The natural gas PR-person Nextdoor: Mother Jonesclimate reporter Rebecca Leber digs into the tactics that the fossil fuel industry is using to influence customers to believe that natural gas stoves are preferable to electric stoves. The story includes an example from California, where an employee for a PR firm logged onto Nextdoor to stir up opposition to an electrification effort. Spoiler: There are Instagram influencers too. The reporting provides context for how the natural gas industry is doubling down on past efforts to sell gas stoves amid efforts to reduce fossil fuel use to combat climate change and a growing recognition of the health problems caused by indoor air pollution.
Texas, the electric grid, and climate change: The L.A Times’ Sammy Roth writes that “for all the differences between the events in Texas and California’s more limited rolling blackouts last year, there’s a common lesson: Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more severe as the climate crisis worsens. And the U.S. power grid is not prepared to handle the hotter heat storms, more frigid cold snaps and stronger hurricanes of a changing planet.”
Shout it from the rooftop: You can’t build a new city without water. When I heard Gov. Steve Sisolak tout Blockchains LLC in his State of the State — with the words “smart city” — I could not help but ask about the water. We started digging, and what we found was that Blockchains, a big donor to politicians (and The Nevada Independent), wants to pipe water from rural Nevada. It scooped up water rights in northern Washoe County for more than $30 million and has also looked elsewhere, including in Humboldt County. The big takeaway here: Development of any sort, though especially a new city, is a question of natural resources as much as anything else.
Rancher sues BLM over lithium mine: A Northern Nevada rancher is suing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over the Trump administration’s approval of the Thacker Pass lithium mine north of Winnemucca. The lawsuit alleges that the land agency’s approval, in the final days of the administration, violated environmental laws, the Sierra Nevada Ally’s Scott King writes.
Judge rules against lifting mining moratorium: “A federal judge on Thursday overturned a Trump administration action that allowed mining and other development on 10 million acres (4 million hectares) in parts of six western states that are considered important for the survival of a struggling bird species,” Matthew Brown reported for the Associated Press last week. A District Court judge ordered the Bureau of Land Management to reconsider the Trump administration’s decision, which did not fully consider how it would affect the imperiled Greater sage grouse.
The commission to study water law: A few weeks ago, we reported that Supreme Court Chief Justice James Hardesty planned to empanel a commission to study how water law is viewed in the judicial system and examine whether to create specialty water courts. An order requesting the creation of such a commission is now online, and a public hearing is scheduled for March 3.
Reno attorneys fined in Swan Lake flooding lawsuit: A Washoe County District Court judge fined City of Reno attorneys “$1,500 for failing to admit to facts in the Swan Lake flood case filed by Lemmon Valley residents,” Bob Conrad reported for This is Reno. “The sanction is on top of awarding more than $750,000 in damages to plaintiffs in the case. The award does not include attorney fees, which could double the amount owed to plaintiffs and attorneys.”
Contact tracing in wastewater: “Findings from wastewater testing suggest the U.K. variant of the coronavirus is circulating in Southern Nevada, according to one UNLV researcher, but the prevalence of the more contagious variant is unclear,” theReview-Journal’s Blake Apgar writes.
Boost in outdoor activities: The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) saw a jump in hunting and fishing license sales during the pandemic — and 2021 is expected to be better, Sudhiti Naskar reports for This is Reno. Our reporter Tabitha Mueller broke down the numbers in our legislative newsletter (you should sign up to receive it). “If there is a silver lining, it's in people's turning to nature for mental health, or physical health," NDOW Director Tony Wasley said in January.
Update: This story was corrected at 9:09 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18 to indicate that NEPA stands for the National Environmental Policy Act, not the Nevada Environmental Policy Act, as an earlier draft stated.
When Amy Camacho completed a vaccination interest survey through the Washoe County School District, she found herself answering yes to many questions.
Camacho, a fifth-grade teacher at Van Gorder Elementary School in Sparks, is a Type 1 diabetic and a double transplant recipient. Her doctors highly suggested she get the COVID-19 vaccine, but the 44-year-old said she’s “not here to take anybody’s place in line,” so she filled out the form and assumed her turn might not come until mid-February or March. But her wait was short.
She received an email offering a vaccination appointment and then her first dose on Jan. 23. Camacho described it as a “thrilling” moment.
“I have been given this gift of life,” she said, “and I’m going to protect it with everything I’ve got.”
Camacho was one of 377 school employees who received a dose that day at North Valleys High School, where the Reno-area district was operating a vaccine point-of-distribution (POD) center. It’s part of the school district’s plan to inoculate employees as efficiently as possible — a logistical feat that’s more complicated for the state’s two largest districts. The Washoe County School District has roughly 8,000 employees, making it the largest employer in Northern Nevada. The Clark County School District, meanwhile, has more than 40,000 employees.
Not all school staff members will opt for the vaccine. It’s not mandatory, though employees have shown strong interest in the vaccine, said Emily Ellison, the Washoe County School District’s chief human resources officer.
“I think people are very enthusiastic about it — just hopeful that, you know, this is a step in the right direction,” she said.
Nevada, like dozens of other states, has prioritized school employees for receiving the vaccine — a bid to keep schools open or reopen ones that have remained virtual. The process has been underway for several weeks in Nevada, particularly in rural areas. But the urban districts had to figure out how to accomplish this on a much larger scale.
In Washoe County, that has meant a three-pronged approach: vaccinating employees at district-run PODs or sending them to fire stations or to the county health district when those places have additional vaccines to administer, Ellison said.
The school district also prioritized employees based on factors such as health conditions, age and their jobs, Ellison said. For instance, employees working with severely disabled students who may not be able to wear masks were prioritized.
“That's how we created the queue,” she said. “So every time we operate a POD, or we have appointments available through other sources, we send out invitations to schedule to the next people on the list.”
As of Tuesday, the district had offered a vaccine opportunity to 2,858 employees, Ellison said. The district expected to issue another 1,220 invites later in the week. About 80 percent of employees offered a vaccination appointment have been accepting.
The district’s plan, though, hasn’t eliminated some confusion surrounding the vaccine. Will Harper, a teacher at Spanish Springs High School, snagged a vaccine Jan. 13 after he and his wife registered on their own for an appointment at a Washoe County Health District-run event. The 51-year-old listed his occupation as a secondary school teacher.
“If they would have said, ‘You’re taking a shot from someone who is 65 or older or higher risk than you, do you really want to do this?,’ I probably would have said no,” Harper said. “But, again, it was made available.”
Harper said district officials later sent an email urging employees not to make their own appointments. But he stands by his decision.
Spanish Springs High School, where he and his wife work, closed for several days in November because of coronavirus exposures that created staffing shortages, Harper said. He doesn’t necessarily fear going to work each day but said he views the vaccine as a way to protect himself, his students and their families. Many of his students who are learning English as a second language live in multi-generational households, he said. Some have had parents or grandparents die after contracting COVID-19.
“I felt like a shot was far more protection for me and my students than soap and water and luck,” he said.
The Clark County School District sent employees an email Tuesday saying they could register for the vaccine online and would be contacted when they’re eligible to schedule an appointment at a POD hosted by the Nevada System of Higher Education. The message followed confusion last week after a flurry of memos that left some employees waiting to get a vaccine, only to be turned away.
A day after the latest vaccination memo, the Clark County School District announced it would be transitioning the youngest students to in-person learning starting March 1. The Clark County Education Association has called for the prioritization of staff members who would be returning to school buildings under the hybrid model.
Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara and Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick said school employees involved in the hybrid reopening — including teachers, bus drivers, support staff, principals and others — would be prioritized to receive the vaccine. It’s unclear whether that prioritization would occur based on information employees provide while registering online or if that will be accomplished a different way.
“We have taken all of that into consideration to ensure that everybody that we need to ensure that school can open will have the opportunity to get their vaccine,” Kirkpatrick said.
Kristan Nigro, a kindergarten teacher at Steve Schorr Elementary School in Las Vegas, received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Friday. Despite what she described as “system hiccups” and “miscommunication,” Nigro eventually was able to register online and then schedule an appointment for her lunch break.
She wants to return to brick-and-mortar classrooms and considers the vaccine a key step toward doing so.
“My biggest thing is I’m in the business of educating kids,” Nigro, 35, said, “and I feel like I can’t properly do my job sitting in front of a computer for hours during the day.”
Jen Loescher, 43, is a middle school math trainer through the Southern Nevada Regional Professional Development Program but still a school district employee. She supports prioritizing vaccines for employees who will be returning in person. Much of her professional development sessions can be done virtually for now.
Still, Loescher registered online to get in the queue, and that’s when she encountered a concerning step: The online form requested her full Social Security number.
As a prior identity theft victim, Loescher said that question left her uneasy, but she didn’t want to ruin her chances of getting in the vaccination line.
“If I left it blank, what would have happened?” she said. “I don’t know.”
How long she and others will wait for the vaccine is also a big unknown. The Clark County School District has not released information about how many employees have been vaccinated or offered a vaccine appointment. Plus, both school districts acknowledge they’re operating at the mercy of available dosages.
“At this time, Nevada only receives one-week advance notice of the quantity of vaccines coming into the state which causes some uncertainty in determining how many people can be vaccinated daily,” Clark County School District officials noted in an informational document.
Ellison said the Washoe County School District hopes to finish deploying first doses by the end of February and the second dosages by the end of March.
“The big variable is the vaccine availability,” she said, noting that the district built its timeline estimates on “conservative estimates of availability.”
But an army of Washoe County school employees — almost 600 — said they would be willing to volunteer at the district-run vaccination POD, helping direct traffic or check people in for their appointments. The outpouring of support, Ellison said, bodes well for the operation.
“I was really hopeful, of course, that we would see that kind of turnout because the enormity of the task is, you know, unprecedented,” she said. “But I really do think that speaks to kind of the core of the people that we employ.”
The Clark County Commission swore in four members on Monday, including one whose race was so close his opponent is disputing the results in the Nevada Supreme Court.
The swearing-in ceremony was held outdoors at the Clark County Government Center amphitheater in downtown Las Vegas. Nevada Supreme Court Justice Abbi Silver swore in Marilyn Kirkpatrick, Ross Miller and Michael Naft, and newly elected North Las Vegas Justice of Peace Belinda Harris swore in William McCurdy II.
Miller’s oath of office comes after a narrow victory against his Republican opponent, Las Vegas City Councilman Stavros Anthony. In November, Miller was in the lead by 10 votes out of more than 153,000 cast. Anthony filed for a recount that led to election officials including 74 additional ballots that widened Miller’s margin of victory to 15 votes.
“I am going to Nevada Supreme Court for residents of Clark County Commission District C, where the Register of Voters has called into question whether the election results reflect the true will of the voters. Spread 10, 30, 15 votes. 139 irreconcilable discrepancies and errors,” he tweeted on Dec. 30.
In November, Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria reported to the commission there were 139 ballot discrepancies in District C. Although this halted the commission’s initial vote to certify the election results, Gloria explained at the Dec. 1 meeting that such discrepancies include instances when the number of the individuals who checked in at the polling location does not match the number of ballots cast, and that it happens every election.
McCurdy, of District D, replaces Lawrence Weekly, who was termed out. Miller, of District C, replaces Larry Brown, who also was termed out.
Kirkpatrick has been a District B representative since 2015, and Naft, of District A, was first appointed by Gov. Steve Sisolak in 2019. Commission terms are four years.