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Young Nevadans, private gatherings drive high COVID cases in this county

Updated October 30, 2020 - 1:46 pm

In an emergency meeting Thursday, a state task force approved an indefinite extension to a Washoe County directive that limits the size of most public gatherings to 50 people or less — a threshold much lower than allowed elsewhere in Nevada.

“We think that reduction in the gathering size is an important step to take at this point with the level of disease transmission that’s going on,” Washoe County Health District officer Kevin Dick said of the Reno area, which is experiencing its highest number of active cases since the pandemic began.

Gov. Steve Sisolak on Oct. 1 allowed gatherings of up to 250 people to take place in Nevada. But on Oct. 8, Washoe County health officials reverted to the previous 50-person limit.

And on Thursday, the Nevada COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force approved an indefinite extension of the local limitations starting Nov. 5. Outdoor events can apply for an exemption on a case-by-case basis. The restriction was one part of a multifaceted county action plan the task force approved to reduce disease spread.

State COVID-19 response director Caleb Cage also directed the county, its health district and local cities to work with state officials to bring additional measures before the task force next week, including a plan for targeted testing in area ZIP codes with the largest number of cases.

The direction came after Cage expressed frustration with the plan Washoe officials presented Thursday, comparing it to a plan county officials presented in September — during a downward trend in cases — aside from a new public education component.

“Education is not intervention,” Cage said. “Education is a good thing to do in addition to other measures.”

Cage also wanted to see a plan improve test turnaround time at the public health lab in Reno and increase enforcement measures against local business that are not complying with pandemic safety measures.

Emergency meeting

The state task force had not planned to convene this week but called an emergency meeting after Washoe County recently began identifying new cases at an alarming rate.

Earlier this month, the University of Nevada, Reno announced all classes would move online after fall break because 1 in 9 cases in Washoe County could be traced back to the university.

But while the recent surge in cases began primarily among people in their 20s, there has since been significant spread in people ages 30 to 59.

Officials have been unable to pinpoint any type of business or event that is most responsible for the surge. Instead, they say private gatherings appear to be driving the spread.

Still, some officials wanted more resources allocated for safety inspections at local businesses.

“If we’re not getting out there and showing there is enforcement and inspections are going on, people are not going to follow the rules so to speak,” Washoe County Commission chairman Bob Lucey said.

Lucey also asked that area officials “be more robust with their enforcement” and spend their federal CARES Act dollars accordingly. But officials with the city of Sparks said their high compliance rate did not justify diverting already-allocated federal funds.

Testing, contact tracing backlogs

CARES Act funding could also be used to implement targeted testing sites by ZIP code. But Washoe-area officials must also address a backlog at the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory, where the county sends its specimens for testing.

Lab director Mark Pandori said he was adding more workers and equipment to increase testing capabilities.

Dick said the county’s health district was also struggling to stay on top of disease investigation, which is necessary to determine a newly infected person’s close contacts. But it can take several weeks to train investigators, and the county needs more physical workstations for them.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.

The county is working to fight “COVID fatigue,” a term describing residents who increasingly choose to ignore recommended precautions. Officials have attributed recent case increases throughout Nevada to “COVID fatigue” phenomenon.

Washoe County manager Eric Brown said the county was rolling out a new “Mask On, Move On” campaign on social media. However, the county had not been able to purchase TV advertisements yet because of the price of airtime leading up to Tuesday’s election.

He added that it remains to be seen how well the public will receive the campaign.

“It’s very clear that our community is frankly tired or weary of being told what to do, particularly by their elected officials,” he said.

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

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