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Las Vegas Casinos Are Open At 50% Capacity. What About Las Vegas Hospitals?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Back to this country now. This spring, Las Vegas saw a 90% decline in tourism, so the governor of Nevada allowed casinos to reopen on June 4. At the time, the state was seeing 1- to 200 new COVID-19 cases a day. By July, that number shot up to more than a thousand a day. A new NPR analysis shows this spike could lead to a shortage of available hospital beds in Las Vegas. When Gov. Steve Sisolak spoke with NPR last week, he remained optimistic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STEVE SISOLAK: We have room in our hospitals. We have room in our ICUs. And we just need to do everything we can to educate people, hopefully get them to understand that if they practice social distancing, if they wear a mask, if they avoid large groups, we can get a handle on this.

SHAPIRO: Still, as Will Stone reports, doctors there are worried.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: With testing still turning up lots of infections, Las Vegas is on shaky footing. Nevada's rate of new cases relative to its population rivals hard-hit Southern states. Brian Labus, a professor of public health at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says the city is more vulnerable than other places in part because of its isolation.

BRIAN LABUS: Vegas is essentially an island, so that is a huge challenge if we need to think about transferring patients.

STONE: And because the region has grown quickly, some sectors - health care included - haven't kept pace. Plus, it's at the mercy of visitors, who may not practice good behavior.

LABUS: We can take out all the chairs we want at blackjack tables. If people still crowd around one player, it kind of defeats the whole purpose of that. You know, they're on vacation. They don't want to think about those kind of things.

STONE: Las Vegas hospitals are not near capacity yet, but some individual facilities are getting close. Mason Van Houweling is the CEO of the large public hospital University Medical Center of Southern Nevada. He says they're prepared for a surge and can add hundreds of beds, even use the convention center.

MASON VAN HOUWELING: We do have those plans available, ready to go, the equipment ordered, the supplies ready to go. But we just have not had a need to do that.

STONE: In June, Nevada's Democratic governor paused some reopening and put in a mask requirement as cases went up. Van Houweling says he isn't worried about too many visitors.

VAN HOUWELING: It's a great time to come. There's great bargains. And I know from an infectious disease standpoint, they've done a great job at all of our resorts and casinos.

STONE: That includes reducing capacity by 50% and requiring people to distance and wear face masks. Jim Murren, the former CEO of MGM Resorts International, now leads a task force helping Nevada with its pandemic response.

JIM MURREN: There's no chance, in my opinion, that a community like southern Florida or New York could possibly be as coordinated, integrated as Las Vegas is.

STONE: He says the gaming industry is already highly regulated now also for its public health practices.

MURREN: And so the fact that the resorts are open at the levels that they're open, I think, is appropriate.

STONE: There are some signs of progress. Hospitalizations aren't rising as rapidly in the last two weeks. But Dr. Joe Corcoran says that can change quickly.

JOE CORCORAN: Coronavirus is not really showing any signs of sustained abatement.

STONE: Corcoran is the chief medical officer for hospitals in southern Nevada run by HCA and says they're now treating more than twice as many COVID patients as they were in the spring.

CORCORAN: There's so many components of this city where you're congregating together. But my gut tells me that there's parts of Las Vegas that are just going to make it harder for us to get to a true low level of concern about it.

STONE: But so far, Corcoran says his hospitals haven't resorted to extreme measures like transferring patients far away. Dr. Rod Buzzas, the chief medical officer of a hospital run by Dignity Health in Nevada, says they've had time to prepare. But the biggest challenge is staffing.

ROD BUZZAS: We're continuing to look for additional nurses and support staff to help, as is the rest of the country, I'm afraid.

STONE: Before COVID, Nevada already had a shortage of health care workers. Yarleny Roa-Dugan is a labor and delivery nurse in Las Vegas who's being asked to help out with COVID patients.

YARLENY ROA-DUGAN: The nurses are getting sick not just from COVID. It's also the stress, overworked. We're not resting. It's just everything that comes with it.

STONE: And with Las Vegas still in the red, that may be the reality for quite some time.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOVES SONG, "LIFELINES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.