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COVID-19 vaccinations continue for high-priority groups; hospitalizations on the rise

By Bob Conrad
A Washoe County public health nurse administers the COVID-19 vaccine.

Washoe County District Health Officer Kevin Dick on Wednesday said that his agency is not in control of who can and cannot get COVID-19 vaccinations.

“I do want to comment on the large number of calls we have coming into the Health District,” he said. “We have people that are calling with their opinions about who should be prioritized for the vaccine, and very often it’s them that wants to get the shot first.

“It’s important for people to be patient and understand that the priorities for the vaccine are established by the state … following guidance from the CDC. We’re not making decisions here at the Health District that are going to deviate from the tiered structure the state establishes. Nobody is going to get the vaccine because of their opinion.”

He said the repeated phone calls are taking away from staff time to deal with the local response to the global pandemic.

There are four tiers in order of priority for vaccinations. The first tier prioritizes healthcare workers — Dick said he will be getting his first shot tomorrow — and first responders. The largest segment of the population, those who are at risk of contracting the coronavirus disease, will be eligible as the vaccine becomes available. People who are healthy are in the last tier on the state’s list.

“A key point to consider is vaccine supply will be limited at the beginning of the response, so the allocation of doses must focus on vaccination providers and settings for vaccination of limited critical populations…” the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services explains in an online document.

When the vaccine ultimately becomes available to everyone could be months away. Here is the county’s explanation of the tiers.

“Supplies will increase over time, and all adults should be able to get vaccinated later in 2021,” the CDC announced this week.

The vaccines are deemed safe and “introduce a weakened viral protein to cause an immune response,” according to the state nonprofit Immunize Nevada. Dick said thevaccine will be effective against the new virus strain being reported in England.

Drops in COVID-19 cases due to vaccinations won’t be seen until after January, officials predicted.

Daily new cases on the decline

The seven-day average of new cases is declining, Dick said, but is still dangerously high.

The county is reporting 326 daily news cases, on average, from 383 cases a week ago, Dick said. There was a peak of 835 cases just before Thanksgiving, but that has been declining.

The governor’s “pause” is partly responsible for the declining number, Dick said, as well as people avoiding gatherings prior to Thanksgiving. However, there was another increase in cases after Thanksgiving likely because of family gatherings.

“It’s very important for people to understand that we are seeing increased transmission when people are gathering, and it’s very important with where we’re at right now to try to avoid those gatherings and continue with the reduction of cases so that we can keep people safe until the vaccine is available to them,” he said. “We’re also concerned that people are getting exposed when they’re out and about shopping for the holidays.”

Dick suggested supporting local businesses with curbside pickups if at all possible.

The county reported Wednesday an additional eight deaths since yesterday. That brings the number of total deaths in December to 155. Prior to December, deaths totaled 278.

More hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients

Officials said the region never quite reached the “severe” level it was anticipating two weeks ago. The Truckee Meadows COVID-19 Risk Meter remains in the very high range just below “severe.”

Jeremy Smith, the director of regional planning with the Truckee Meadows Regional Planning Agency, also confirmed daily cases are on a downward trend, but hospitalizations are at an all-time high.

“Since the end of October and beginning of November we’ve seen a significantly steep rise in the number of COVID patients in the hospital,” Smith said, “and they’re taking up more and more of the share of the total population of the hospital. The hospitals are filling up, and we’re getting to the end of our potential capacity.”

A predictive model for the threat meter, which takes into account the number of cases and the hospitalizations — ICU bed use in particular — shows that the region will remain in the very high risk category through this week.

Dr. John Hess, with St. Mary’s Medical Group, said the hospitalizations are very concerning.

“Once the people are in the hospitals, [they] are very sick,” he said. “Traditionally, it has taken much longer for them to get out of the hospital than other illnesses.”

COVID patients are typically hospitalized for twice the amount of time as those being treatedfor the flu, Hess added. That means COVID patients inherently strain hospital resources. Even with fewer patients coming in, new patients are a burden to hospitals already close to capacity.

“It’s a very difficult situation with the hospitals right now,” he said, even with expanded capacities, such as the beds in Renown’s parking garage.

Governor Steve Sisolak Wednesday echoed warnings of health officials.

“While we are working toward large-scale vaccination distribution, we must remain vigilant,” he said. “So as you discuss whether to take the risk and gather together in the coming days, I ask you to consider the nurses, doctors and first responders who will be working shifts on Christmas to keep us safe. The actions we take will impact them directly.”

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