Updated December 30, 2021 - 5:56 pm
The omicron variant of COVID-19 and relaxed restrictions on public gatherings have combined to form a “perfect storm” that is sending coronavirus cases sharply higher in Clark and Washoe counties, a state official said Thursday.
Speaking on a day when Clark County added 2,366 new COVID-19 cases, state biostatistician Kyra Morgan said at a news briefing that a recent report showed the more-contagious omicron variant was responsible for 25 percent of test samples from Nevadans that were genetically sequenced. “And it could have gone up since then,” she added.
“I do think what we’re seeing right now is kind of a perfect storm,” she said. “We don’t have the controls that we had in place at this time last year as far as business restrictions and things to try to keep people from gathering in large groups … (and) the new variant … spreads more quickly than delta.”
The storm is so far primarily affecting Clark and Washoe counties, home to the state’s two most-populous urban centers, but officials said they expect it to spread to the state’s rural areas in the coming weeks.
“Confirmed cases may continue to rise in the coming days and weeks, which would align with what we’re now seeing in the wastewater,” said Daniel Gerrity, the microbiologist leading the effort, adding that five of the authority’s seven sampling locations saw record levels of the coronavirus this week. Additional testing is being conducted by a UNLV researcher to determine the prevalence of omicron in the latest samples, he said.
Despite concerns about omicron and public gatherings, other state officials stressed at the briefing that partyers attending New Year’s Eve celebrations in Las Vegas, including the massive fireworks show on the Strip, can remain safe if they obey rules on masks and observe recommended mitigation measures such as social distancing. And they repeated their primary message that vaccination is the best way to avoid serious complications if you do get infected.
‘Surge … did not catch us by surprise’
“While we are disheartened by this current surge, it did not catch us by surprise,” said DuAne Young, policy adviser to Gov. Steve Sisolak. “We’ve been prepared for this.”
He said the fact that the state kept the face mask mandate for crowded indoor spaces in place while other states were lifting theirs and other mitigation measures have kept the surge from hitting Nevada as hard as some other states.
But additional evidence that the surge is accelerating was provided by Thursday’s update of COVID-19 statistics for Clark County by the Southern Nevada Health District.
In addition to the large number of new cases, the update showed 10 additional fatalities, pushing totals for the county to 366,051 COVID-19 cases and 6,461 deaths.
New cases were nearly triple the county’s two-week moving average of 875 per day, which was 221 cases higher than Wednesday’s average of 664, according to state data.
New case numbers have been increasing for nearly two months, but the trend has accelerated sharply over the past week, shortly after Nevada’s first case of the omicron variant was first detected in the county. The metric is now at the level of last winter’s surge, the biggest of the pandemic.
It’s not yet clear how the surge will translate to other metrics for the disease first detected in China in late 2019.
Preliminary data suggests that omicron doesn’t cause as many serious health complications as did its predecessor delta variant, and so far the new wave of COVID-19 in the county hasn’t triggered a spike in hospitalizations or deaths. The former have been increasing over the past month, while fatalities have remained relatively flat.
But because both hospitalizations and deaths tend to lag behind new cases and test positivity rate, public health officials remain concerned that a continued rise in cases could still trigger sharp increases in those metrics as well.
Another view of the situation
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gives another view of how quickly cases have been growing locally in recent days.
Clark County’s case rate per 100,000 people, measured as a seven-day moving average by the CDC, stood at 345.30 on Thursday evening. That was more than 140 cases a day higher than a week ago.
The county’s seven-day test positivity rate, meanwhile, stood at 21.31 percent, up eight percentage points from this time last week, according to CDC data.
Most of the county’s other COVID-19 metrics have also been rising in recent weeks, though not to the same degree as new cases.
Thursday’s updated state data showed the number of people hospitalized with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 in the county decreasing by 21 from Wednesday, to 753. That’s more than 200 more than the 530 hospitalizations reported at the beginning of December, however.
The county’s 14-day test positivity rate, which tracks the percentage of people tested for COVID-19 who are found to be infected, increased 1.0 percentage point to 11.1 percent for the day. The rate has been rising steadily for months.
The surge of the disease across the U.S. is already affecting the economy in Southern Nevada. Numerous major tech companies have announced that they will not send employees to next month’s CES conference, citing concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
State metrics also climbing
The state, meanwhile, on Thursday reported 2,927 new COVID-19 cases and 13 deaths during the preceding day. Updated figures posted by the Department of Health and Human Services raised Nevada’s totals to 484,641 cases and 8,407 deaths.
Nevada’s 14-day moving average of new cases increased to 1,010 per day from 783 on Wednesday. The two-week average for fatalities held steady at five per day.
State and county health agencies often redistribute daily data after it is reported to better reflect the date of death or onset of symptoms, which is why the moving-average trend lines frequently differ from daily reports and are considered better indicators of the direction of the outbreak.
As of Thursday’s report, state data show that 54.39 percent of eligible Nevadans 5 and older had been fully vaccinated, compared with 53.70 percent in Clark County. ^
— 5+ population: 3 million.
— Doses administered: 3.95 million.
— Vaccinations initiated: 1.94 million.
— Vaccinations completed: 1.64 million.
— Eligible fully vaccinated: 54.39 percent.
Sources: Department of Health and Human Services; U.S. Census Bureau