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Las Vegas gets look at some hotel COVID data, but what does it mean?

Updated September 17, 2020 - 8:31 pm

More than 1 in 4 Clark County residents who tested positive for COVID-19 over the past month told disease investigators they had visited a resort, hotel or motel, the state revealed Thursday.

The disclosure came the same day Strip operators Wynn Resorts Ltd. and Las Vegas Sands Corp. released employee infection data. The announcements provided the most information Nevadans have received to date about the pandemic’s intersection with the state’s dominant industry. But experts say the state and company figures don’t go far enough to provide insight into what role megaresorts are playing in the spread of the coronavirus.

The data “does not mean the business is associated with the exposure,” Nevada Department of Health and Human Deputy Administrator Julia Peek said.

New information

Wynn Resorts Ltd. announced Thursday that 548 of 15,051 tests administered to its Las Vegas employees returned positive, for a positivity rate of 3.6 percent.

The company said 497 of the 548 positive tests came after its two Strip properties, Wynn Las Vegas and Encore, reopened in June.

“Our goal … is to make Wynn Las Vegas the safest place our guests and employees can go outside of their own homes,” Wynn Resorts CEO Matt Maddox said in a statement.

Las Vegas Sands Corp. had 424 total employees test positive, 399 of whom have tested positive since The Venetian and Palazzo reopened in June, spokesman Ron Reese said. The company has administered 42,637 tests, Reese said, adding that not all of the 424 positive employees were tested at The Venetian or Palazzo. The company did not provide a positivity rate.

“Las Vegas Sands has been focused on the health, safety and well-being of its team members from the very beginning of the pandemic,” said Reese, adding that the company’s testing program has been a significant part of its overall response.

Other gaming companies have shared information on testing but have not disclosed how many of those tests came back positive.

An MGM Resorts International spokesman didn’t provide specifics Thursday on how many employees have tested positive but said the positivity rate among employees “has almost consistently been below the positivity rate” for Nevada since casinos could reopen on June 4. The state’s cumulative test positivity rate was 11.4 percent as of Wednesday, and Nevada’s seven-day average was 9.2 percent as of Wednesday, according to data maintained by the Review-Journal.

“The nature of this pandemic is that it is not possible to determine where or when an individual contracts the virus, but we have been consistently reporting known cases involving an employee or guest to the state health department,” a company statement said.

Hotel-casinos are not required to disclose the number of employees who have tested positive for COVID-19, but they must contact the Southern Nevada Health District when they discover a positive case among staff. The district is not obligated to confirm or share further information about positive cases.

Representatives of the state’s other top six casino operators — Caesars Entertainment Inc., Boyd Gaming Corp. and Station Casinos — didn’t respond to a request for comment.

‘How big is that role?’

Brian Labus, an epidemiologist at UNLV who also serves on the governor’s COVID-19 task force, said the data doesn’t say much.

Wynn’s 3.6 percent positivity rate among employees is a “good sign” compared to spread in the community, he said.

But it’s important to put statistics into context, he said, which is lacking among the state and resort data released Thursday.

For example, he said, the fact that 26 percent of recently infected county residents reported visiting a hotel, resort or motel should be compared to a baseline rate of county residents who visited a hotel, resort or motel. Otherwise, there’s little to glean.

Hotel-casinos “absolutely could play a role” in the spread of the virus, he said.

“But the question is how big is that role? And I don’t think we can say anything about that from the data that they’re presenting here,” he said.

A lack of additional information identifying COVID-19 hot spots is troubling for casino employees and members of the public who want to make informed decisions about where to visit, said Wesley Juhl, secretary with the Nevada Open Government Coalition. He said the state has struggled to be transparent with COVID-19 data since the pandemic reached Nevada in March. “Broad statements like 1 in 4” people visiting a hotel or motel “isn’t gonna cut it,” Juhl said.

Economic devastation

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the tourism and travel sectors and waylayed Nevada’s economy. Resorts were shut down for more than two months to limit the spread of the highly contagious virus, which has killed more than 1,500 people in the state. Nevada’s jobless rate for August was 13.2 percent, down from a high of 30.1 percent in April.

The state’s transmission rate and numbers of new cases and deaths are declining, and hospital and intensive care unit capacity remain unstressed.

However, disease transmission experts have warned that international tourism destinations like the Las Vegas Strip still pose a risk, because any visitor could contract COVID-19 while traveling and later reintroduce it into their community.

Parts of the Strip and downtown Las Vegas were teeming with tourists Labor Day weekend, many of them not wearing masks, sparking concerns that Nevada’s COVID-19 safety protocols were being ignored and that a jump in cases could result.

“Given what has occurred in the last few weeks with Labor Day and other large gatherings, the Governor (Steve Sisolak) remains cautious and will make sure the State is not moving too fast in loosening more restrictions — he does not want to see another spike,” a statement Wednesday from the state’s health department said.

The Department of Health and Human services reported that as of Aug. 15 at least 530 visitors had tested positive for the novel coronavirus either while in the state or soon after returning home. The data dates back to June 1; casinos reopened June 4.

The vast majority of the visitors tested positive while they were in Nevada. The state knows of only 11 who have tested positive after they returned home.

Nevada health officials have said they only find out about visitor cases discovered outside the state if the visitor’s home state notifies them. So far, Nevada has been notified of such cases in Arizona, California and Ohio.

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Las Vegas Sands operates The Venetian and Palazzo.

Contact Mike Shoro at mshoro@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5290. Follow @mike_shoro on Twitter. Contact Michael Scott Davidson at sdavidson@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Follow @davidsonlvrj on Twitter.

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