CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — As the pandemic surges throughout the state, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak announced Monday that the initial supply of COVID-19 vaccines the state receives will go toward frontline medical workers and individuals at high risk of exposure.
Sisolak said he is confident in the Federal Drug Administration’s approval process and the state’s capacity to distribute a vaccine, despite fears about the possible politicization of the vaccine and uncertainty about when it will be made available.
“There’s a lot of speculation, but there’s no definitive timeline for when one may be approved," he said.
The state's plan anticipates there will initially be a limited supply of vaccines and outlines a tiered priority system. The first available dosages will go to health care workers and vulnerable populations, including residents ages 65 or older. The second tier includes retail workers, teachers and some university staff. The third tier includes the incarcerated, individuals experiencing homelessness and people with underlying health conditions.
Nevada ultimately hopes to inoculate 80% of all residents against COVID-19 once a vaccine is available. That could be difficult, though, because of routine struggles to vaccinate its population.
Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that during last year’s flu season the state vaccinated only 44% of residents for influenza — 7% greater than the year prior — but still the lowest in the entire country. By contrast, Rhode Island vaccinated 61% of its residents for influenza during last year's season.
Compounding the difficulty, the state has only received $1.8 million in federal relief dollars — or about 60 cents per resident — as part of the $200 million the CDC has allocated toward vaccine distribution. Dr. Robert Redfield, the agency’s director, estimates it will require from $5.5 to $6 billion to distribute a vaccine nationwide.
“We need to get resources to states now,” Redfield told Congress on Sept. 16.
Sisolak said he hoped Congress would eventually pass another relief package, but in its absence, is still confident in the state's ability to distribute a vaccine. Before one becomes available, he urged residents to get flu shots in order to prevent Nevada's hospitals from reaching capacity as they fill with coronavirus patients. Of the state's hospital beds, 72% are currently occupied, including 77% in Clark County.
The number of individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 has risen as Nevada has experienced a fall surge in new cases. State officials reported 475 new confirmed cases on Monday, bringing the statewide total to 96,178 since the start of the pandemic. Officials flagged eight of the state's 17 counties as “high risk” on Monday due to rising case counts and infection rates.
Sisolak said he hopes to lift limits and allow conventions to return at 50% capacity by Jan. 2021, but said he couldn't do so unless the pandemic reversed course. Bringing conventions back to Las Vegas, he said, will help businesses, laid-off workers and replenish the tax revenue lost from closures. Despite current trends, he added it was important to signal to convention organizers that Nevada intended to contain the virus enough to allow large events to return.
“Whether or not we get there is not about luck. It’s not a matter of chance. It’s not a matter of ‘We’ll see what happens,'” he said. “It’s a matter of each and every one of you. We need the public’s help and cooperation to make this possible.”
The governor said he was not prepared to roll back recent reopening measures, which raised the capacity on public gatherings from 50 to 250 people and allowed bars to reopen. He implored residents to follow prevention measures but said gatherings of up to 250 people allowed by the state were safe.
“You have to make a choice today, this week and in the months ahead of us: Do you care more about your child returning to in-person learning than you do attending that Halloween party?"
Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.