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COVID now a major cause of death in Nevada — more than flu, overdose

Updated August 17, 2020 - 7:46 pm

COVID-19 has claimed 1,000 lives in Nevada, making it one of the leading causes of death in the state and far outpacing the flu and pneumonia combined.

On Wednesday, the death toll increased by 19, bringing the tally since the local outbreak began in March to four figures. Late Thursday, the numbers rose to 1031.

Gov. Steve Sisolak on Thursday morning recognized the milestone as a moment of “great sadness” for Nevada and pledged his administration “will continue doing everything we can” to fight against the spread of the coronavirus.

“These deaths are a sobering reminder that we must remain vigilant and do all that we can to slow the spread while we’re in the throes of this horrific pandemic,” he wrote in a statement. “At this time, I implore all Nevadans to do your part. Wear a face covering, practice social distancing, and above all, take seriously our personal responsibility to help slow the spread and protect those around us.”

The rising toll positions COVID-19 as the sixth-leading cause of death in Nevada, behind heart disease, all cancers combined, chronic lower respiratory disease, accidents and strokes, according to state-level data from 2014-2018 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

COVID-19 is estimated to be the third-leading cause of death in the country, and its ranking in Nevada could rise as the year progresses and the death tally grows. The ranking compares fatalities for COVID-19 through mid-August with annual figures for other causes of death.

Nationwide, COVID-19 “is going to be a major cause of death, more than anything else other than heart disease and cancer,” said UNLV epidemiologist Brian Labus, a member of the Nevada governor’s COVID-19 medical advisory team.

In less than six months, the disease has killed more people in Nevada than do many other leading causes of death on average, according to CDC data. These include in order of deadliness: Alzheimer’s disease, drug overdose, suicide, flu and pneumonia, diabetes, firearm deaths, chronic liver disease and homicide.

The average number of flu and pneumonia deaths in the state per year has been about 600, for example. Flu is one cause of pneumonia, though there are many other viral and bacterial causes, Labus said. When the fatal pneumonia is known to have resulted from an influenza infection, a death is attributed to the flu.

The COVID-19 numbers can be eye-opening “if you’re saying that this isn’t a big deal, that this isn’t something we need to worry about, that it’s just like flu or some other illness,” Labus said.

If anything, he said, the total number of COVID-19 deaths has been underestimated because some infected people have died without being tested.

To be counted as a death from COVID-19, the disease must be the primary cause of death, according to reporting guidance from the CDC.

“If you’re positive for COVID, and you get hit by a bus, it’s not a COVID death here,” Labus said.

The human factor

Reaching the milestone of 1,000 deaths serves as a sobering reminder that “the mitigation measures that have been put in place are necessary and will continue to be necessary going forward,” said Caleb Cage, who directs the state’s COVID-19 response, during a Wednesday briefing with reporters.

Yet despite the rising death toll, Robert Scully believes people continue to underestimate the disease. His 69-year-old cousin, Daniel Scully, was the first Nevadan to die from COVID-19.

“I think they don’t realize how severe it can be, how easily it can be transmitted,” said Scully, whose cousin, because he was over age 65 and male, was at higher risk for complications from the disease.

Daniel Scully, a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, died at MountainView Hospital on March 15. His 96-year-old mother, who lived in Chicago, died from the disease in May.

The number of people reported to have died from COVID-19 in Nevada represents about 1.7 percent of the more than 58,000 who have tested positive for the disease, but the actual fatality rate is lower because the number of infected people exceeds the number being tested. Health authorities say most infected people experience mild symptoms or none at all and subsequently may not seek out testing. An antibody study conducted in Northern Nevada’s Washoe County and published last month indicated that the fatality rate there was about 0.8 percent, for example.

But victims’ families say the numbers do not convey the full impact of the disease.

“It’s easy to forget that each one of those numbers has a human being behind it, and each one of those human beings has a family,” said Steven Fehr, whose husband, Isaias Urrabazo, lost his mother to the disease. Fehr said Maria Urrabazo was 79 years old.

Urrabazo knows the disease in concrete terms. Two of his brothers also were also hospitalized with COVID-19, one for three months.

“I would ask those people (who doubt the seriousness of the disease) to wear a mask, so we can get through this together,” he said. “I think that we sometimes just lose ourselves in this political climate, and I think we have to get back to just being compassionate human beings and just caring for each other.”

Follow our Data Guide: Tracking the coronavirus’ impact on Nevada

Editor’s Note: This story was updated Aug. 13 to include a statement from Gov. Steve Sisolak on the death toll surpassing 1,000 people.

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

Contact Michael Scott Davidson at sdavidson@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Follow @davidsonlvrj on Twitter.

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