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COVID-19 Updates: County sees highest spike in cases last week

By Lucia Starbuck

The Washoe County Health District reported May 1 48 new cases of COVID-19, the highest spike in new cases that the county has seen. 

Heather Kerwin, the epidemiology program manager for the Health District, said this spike is primarily due to family gatherings that occured on April 12, Easter. 

Despite being part of your family, being in close proximity with people from outside your household should be avoided, she said. Kerwin is also seeing COVID-19 spread between individuals living in the same household.

“It’s really important that we continue to have those household contacts distance from one another, from sick persons within their own household and those household contacts do not continue to go to work as soon as someone in their house has become identified as positive with COVID-19,” Kerwin said. 

I think we have an opportunity here today to really elevate the discussion of mask usage, distancing, hand washing, to a level of really being a badge of social responsibility.”

Social distancing and mask wearing should continue to be practiced, she added. “People who refuse to wear a mask in public or just don’t wear masks in public, it’s proxy for how seriously or not seriously people are taking this. Whether or not you believe in the fashion of the mask, or the effectiveness of the mask, it really is a group effort and this only works to flatten the curve if everybody participates. 

“So, we do know that there are certain occupations, our essential workers are still driving some of these infections in the workplace and then unfortunately bringing it home to their families,” Kerwin said.

Testing efforts fall short of targets

Washoe County has been instructed by the state to test 1,000 people for COVID-19 per day. At the county’s drive-thru testing site at the Reno-Sparks Livestock Events Center, less than 300 people are getting tested every four days. 

Last week, there was a decline in testing with less than 200 people per few days of collection according to Kerwin. The Washoe County Health District said it has the capacity to test everyone that has symptoms of COVID-19, but Kerwin worries some are getting tested too late.

“We do see an increased number in people who are being diagnosed at time of hospitalization, which is concerning because it means that they’ve waited so long and gotten so severely ill that they’re now requiring hospitalization,” she said.

So far, nearly 10,000 individuals have been tested in Washoe County according to Washoe County Chair Bob Lucey. 

About two percent of Washoe County has been tested for COVID-19.

Nevada National Guard personnel assist Washoe County Health District with COVID-19 sample collection.
Nevada National Guard personnel assist Washoe County Health District with COVID-19 sample collection.

Gov. Steve Sisolak said he also needs to see expanded contact tracing in Nevada in order to continue lifting restrictions. The Washoe County Health District has a little over 20 case investigators. Staff, which includes help from members of the Nevada National Guard, contact patients who tested positive for COVID-19 and interview them to determine who could’ve been exposed.

In an effort to understand the scope of how many people have been exposed, antibody tests have been made available to the public. These tests won’t determine if an individual is currently infected with COVID-19, but it will detect if a person’s body has created antibodies in response to being exposed to the virus. 

In Washoe County, LabCorp patient service centers, including LabCorp at Walgreens locations, can administer antibody tests. Individuals must get prescriptions from their health care or telemedicine provider. One can also order a test from Quest Diagnostics without a doctor’s approval for $119

Antibody tests have been criticized for being inaccurate, however. Some tests have given false positives, leading individuals to think they are immune when they might not be. Antibody tests, also known as serological tests, are not reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

According to the FDA:

FDA does not intend to object when developers of serological tests market or use their tests without prior FDA review where: 1) the tests are validated by the developer to determine that they are accurate and reliable, 2) notification of the developer’s validation is provided to FDA, and 3) the tests are labeled appropriately, including that they are not to be used as a sole basis for diagnosis.

Officials weigh in on curbside pickup, testing and health care concerns

The City of Reno on May 1 convened via a virtual press conference to address the importance of seeking health care, capacity for COVID-19 testing and how curbside retail sales can operate in accordance with Gov. Steve Sisolak’s reopening plan.

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve started the meeting urging the community to seek medical and dental services if they need care for something that isn’t COVID-19 related. Health care services are deemed essential.

There was never a state-wide directive put in place to halt medical procedures, but hospitals have delayed some procedures to ensure there is enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers and sufficient hospital capacity to care for COVID-19 patients. Gov. Steve Sisolak announced that necessary medical and dental procedures are to resume

“When you hold off it becomes much more expensive and much more dire,” Schieve said. 

Schieve admitted that she’s been avoiding getting a root canal herself — and she’s not alone. Dr. Bret Frey with the Washoe County Medical Society said individuals have been avoiding going to emergency rooms due to fears of getting exposed to COVID-19, a trend he’s seeing nationally and locally. 

“These excessive delays, unfortunately and sadly, have led to many people dying, not from coronavirus, but from delays in surgical care, infectious care,” Frey said. “Please, I can’t stress this enough: if you’re out there with serious symptoms, don’t hesitate to come and see us in the emergency department.”

Health care officials assure that hospitals in Nevada have the capacity to care for patients with COVID-19 symptoms and other medical care needs, and are taking steps to mitigate transmission of the virus. Frey said hospitals in Washoe County are not overwhelmed, despite a recent spike.

Reporters, staff, and the governor's wife (second from left) wearing masks during a recent press conference. Image: Eric Marks
Reporters, staff, and the governor’s wife (second from left) wearing masks during a recent press conference. Image: Eric Marks

Mask wearing and social distancing crucial for business reopenings

Some retailers in Washoe County began curbside pickup over the weekend. Ann Silver, the Chief Executive Officer of the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce, reminded that there must be no physical interaction between staff and customers.

“It means that people order online if you have an online presence,” she said. “They order the product, they pay for it over the phone. The business gives you a designated time to drive up in a parking lot, or at the curb, and you pick up that item. It is delivered by employees wearing masks and gloves because we want to keep workers safe and it’s placed in a car trunk or in the back of a vehicle. It is not meant to open up craft fairs or curbside tables for display.”

Schieve urged large corporations to donate to the Community Foundation of Western Nevada’s COVID-19 relief fund to help people who still aren’t able to go to work.

“I’m imploring this community, our big businesses, we are so lucky to have you in this community but this is the time that I need you the most,” she said. “I need Tesla, I need Amazon, I need Apple, I need our large construction companies, I need you now more than ever, if you can donate to this crisis through the City of Reno. We want to put money in the hands of people who desperately need it right now.”

As more businesses gradually reopen and people start to go back to work, continued mask wearing, even if one’s glasses get fogged up, will be crucial in order to keep businesses open.

“I think we have an opportunity here today to really elevate the discussion of mask usage, distancing, hand washing, to a level of really being a badge of social responsibility,” Dr. Frey said at the press conference. “I think this is not just an important part of how we incrementally open, but it’s really a cornerstone of how we stay open.”

Sisolak warned if he starts seeing an increase in new COVID-19 cases, he will scale back his reopening plans.

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