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Southern Nevada’s public agencies hit hard by omicron surge

Southern Nevada’s public agencies have not been immune to the latest variant-fueled surge of COVID-19 cases ripping through the region as employees call out sick in levels some say have been unprecedented.

“It hit us just like it hit everybody else — pretty solid,” Clark County Fire Chief John Steinbeck said.

The department recently recorded more workers out sick than at any other point in the pandemic. Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Police Department saw more employees test positive for COVID-19 than in any other single week since the public health crisis began.

Staffing struggles, the worst of the pandemic, have brought North Las Vegas one emergency short of needing to reduce service levels. And Las Vegas, facing unusually high call-out rates, was forced to close a community center for a day.

The pandemic had already strained resources by creating new demands on public agency workforces. Now the omicron variant is stretching them further.

But even amid a particularly turbulent period of a two-year public health emergency, officials say that they have thus far been able to avoid any serious disruptions to operations.

“At this point in time, we are able to provide services uninterrupted, and we’re very hopeful that things don’t deteriorate further, or this could be more challenging for us,” North Las Vegas City Manager Ryann Juden said.

Weathering hits to staffing

Metro reported that, as of Tuesday, more than 300 employees were on home isolation, including 183 who had tested positive for COVID-19. Those numbers include commissioned officers and civilian workers.

“Fortunately, employee absence is spread out enough through the department that it has not significantly affected operational needs,” Metro spokesman Misael Parra said in an email last week.

The county’s Fire Department saw about 20 percent of its roughly 822-member workforce out with positive COVID-19 cases or like symptoms since Dec. 1, according to Steinbeck, leading to its worst crest in vacancies right after the New Year, although the trend has improved this week.

The city of Las Vegas reported that 87 workers in its roughly 2,700-person workforce had called out sick during the week ending Jan. 3, most of whom were from its fire and parks and recreation departments.

Las Vegas spokesman Jace Radke said Thursday that the city has experienced “higher than usual callout rates over the last several weeks,” but like other agencies, the uptick in absences had not translated to scaling back critical functions.

Henderson also saw an uptick of employees calling in sick from what it experienced before the holidays, but those absences have not forced officials to reduce service levels, the city said. Public safety workers in Henderson are using overtime to ensure adequate staffing.

Between Jan. 3 and Jan. 9, the number of Henderson employees who called out ranged from 29 to 159, peaking on Jan. 6. On that day, 39 of those who called out were Henderson Police Department employees and 14 were Fire Department employees.

Unscheduled paid time off is typically due to illness, but may also be used by those who have to unexpectedly leave work for situations such as personal emergencies, the city said.

North Las Vegas residents won’t notice the staffing struggles going on behind the scenes because no services have been reduced, Juden said, although about 15 percent of the city’s staff has been out sick since the end of the holiday season.

New responsibilities

Juden’s staff is strained not just by employees calling out sick, but by being tasked with new demands that fall outside the scope of their normal work, such as helping out at hospitals that are confronting their own staffing challenges.

To cope with the staffing woes, the city is relying on overtime, an expense that will be picked up by federal aid. On a few occasions, the Fire Department had to shut down a unit, but that has not happened in nearly a week.

“The good news is I don’t have many people in the hospital,” Juden said. “The bad news is it’s difficult to manage and get everyone that we need in order to provide critical services.”

Juden said 37 percent of his employees have reported being fully vaccinated.

Far fewer county Fire Department employees are also requiring hospitalization than during the last surge in December 2020 and they are returning to work faster, Steinbeck said. About two-thirds of the staff have been fully vaccinated.

Steinbeck said if his department had been fully staffed, it would have offered on-the-ground help to short-staffed hospitals. But faced with its own setbacks, the department could only assist with testing sites and coordinating getting resources to hospitals.

Doing the basics

The recent surge in cases has pressed the county to adapt elsewhere, with a return to remote work where feasible and limiting in-person meetings, according to spokesman Erik Pappa.

The county’s 10,000 or so employees are also being reminded of the most basic precautions of living in a pandemic: Stay six feet apart. Wash your hands. Don’t come to work if you’re feeling sick. Wear a mask.

“We’ve also asked employees to be conscious of their activities outside the workplace — limiting exposure to large events, indoor gatherings and close contact with those who are known to have or may have COVID-19,” Pappa said.

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter. Contact Blake Apgar at bapgar@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5298. Follow @blakeapgar on Twitter.

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