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Las Vegas Strip workers want mandated testing — but it may not help

Las Vegas’ resort workers want to see more companies mandate coronavirus testing.

But even at hotel-casinos where testing is required, employees are still contracting the virus.

Testing employees before their return to work has come into question as the state’s testing system becomes overwhelmed by a spike in cases, causing test results to come back after a week or more and hindering the effectiveness of testing.

“In the weeks between (employees) getting the test taken and getting the results, (they) could be exposed to a lot of things,” said Brian Labus, a UNLV epidemiologist and member of the governor’s medical advisory team. Testing all casino employees before their return to work “really doesn’t do much to protect anybody and would put a huge burden on our overwhelmed testing system. It would do more harm than good at this point.”

Harmful or helpful?

Culinary Local 226 and Bartenders Local 165 had proposed state legislation that would mandate free testing for all workers before their return to work and free testing for those who have been exposed to the virus, in addition to a number of other policies. The Adolfo Fernandez bill was named after a Caesars Palace employee who died June 24 from COVID-19.

The bill is expected to be presented at the state’s second special session of 2020 as part of liability protection legislation.

“Workers who make this city run deserve to be protected,” Culinary union secretary-treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline said in a July 20 news release.

Culinary union spokeswoman Bethany Khan said issues with the state’s testing system haven’t changed the union’s position on employee testing.

“COVID-19 testing protects workers, their families, our community, and visitors to Nevada,” she said via email. “(President Donald) Trump had said in early March that anyone who needs a COVID-19 test would be able get a test … what’s happening with that?”

She also pointed to a July letter from travel leaders stating that the travel industry’s recovery relies on more COVID-19 testing.

Greg Chase, founder and CEO of Las Vegas-based Experience Strategy Associates, said testing employees before their return to work, offering continuous testing and transparency from company leaders are all important steps in keeping employees and guests safe.

“It’s good to have a baseline of knowing workers coming back to work aren’t ill,” he said.

No guarantee

But mandated testing doesn’t guarantee workers won’t get sick.

Station Casinos, for instance, tested all staffers for COVID-19 before properties’ June 4 reopening and now tests them regularly. As of July 9, the company had tested and retested more than 2,200 staff members and employees of partners and vendors since reopening.

One Station Casino employee, who was granted anonymity in order to avoid retaliation, received positive COVID-19 test results and shared them with the Review-Journal.

In between ragged breaths over the phone, the employee explained that the reason behind sending an email warning to co-workers was that is where the worker thinks the virus was contracted.

“I don’t want anyone to experience what I experienced,” the employee said.

The Southern Nevada Health District, which has been overwhelmed with cases in Nevada in recent weeks, left a voicemail a few weeks ago instructing the employee to begin contact tracing, but the employee has yet to follow up.

A Station Casinos spokesman declined to provide additional comments.

Not enough tests

A high level of testing is good in theory, but Labus said there simply aren’t enough tests in Nevada anymore for this to be done efficiently.

In early May, tests were available for anyone in Nevada who wanted one, with results often coming back within a day or two.

That is no longer the case because of a significant uptick in COVID-19 cases in Nevada. Now, test results can take up to a week or longer to return.

Late last month, University Medical Center updated its testing guidance, asking members of the public without COVID-19 symptoms or exposure to a confirmed case of the disease not to make an appointment at its drive-thru testing sites.

UMC’s guidance shift is meant to allow high-risk patients to obtain access to testing and results faster.

The Southern Nevada Health District also updated its guidance recently and no longer recommends that employees who tested positive for COVID-19 be tested again. Instead, infected workers who had symptoms can discontinue self-isolation after at least 10 days have passed since the symptoms began and at least 24 hours since their fever broke without the help of fever-reducing medication, and as long as there has been improvement in other symptoms.

The new guidance is in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s instructions, which are based on research that shows that infected people are often no longer infectious after 10 to 20 days, depending on the severity of their illness.

Labus doesn’t recommend that all businesses test employees before they return to work, since they could get exposed in the time between taking the test and seeing the results.

“It doesn’t stop them from being exposed,” he said. With weeklong delays, “it more provides the illusion of safety than a measure of safety.”

Worker safety

A number of hotel workers have told the Review-Journal they would like to see more testing among staff members.

One MGM employee, who works at a pool on the Strip and was granted anonymity for job security, said staffers were surprised when they learned employees wouldn’t need to be tested for COVID-19 before returning to work.

The company has offered free testing since before casinos reopened but does not mandate it for the majority of its workforce.

“It was pretty shaky going in,” the employee said. “We were all kind of on edge at the beginning.”

Testing is required for MGM employees who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms or have been in close contact — 6 feet or closer for at least 15 minutes — with someone who has tested positive. Tests are available both on site at properties and at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The largest private employer in the state, MGM says it is not opposed to return-to-work testing if the system can support it, but the company is trying to maintain a careful balance of not overwhelming the country’s testing resources. It asks employees who don’t have reason to believe they have been exposed to the virus to be considerate about getting tested.

MGM spokesman Brian Ahern said the company’s decisions, policies and operations have been based on expert guidance and the company continuously evaluates and updates its policies “as new information is known, situations change and the needs of the community evolve.”

The pool worker voluntarily gets tested about once a week and said results usually take anywhere from one to three days to receive.

MGM’s employee testing is made available through a partnership with Community Ambulance and UMC, which allows results in less than 24 hours in many cases, according to the company.

As of Wednesday, the worker said they could confirm four COVID-19 cases among co-workers. MGM Resorts has confirmed that at least one employee has tested positive since casinos’ reopening.

Policies across the valley

Caesars Entertainment Inc. spokeswoman Chelsea Ryder said the company tested all its active employees in Clark County this month and provides ongoing testing. The company is also following contact tracing protocols, she said.

“Testing remains an important component of our health and safety plan,” she said. “Our safety and testing plans will continue to evolve as the situation with coronavirus changes.”

Wynn Resorts Ltd. tested all employees before their return to work and now has a program that randomly tests workers “to ensure no department or work area experiences an outbreak,” according spokesman Michael Weaver.

“We believe our consistent testing program is important to continue to build guests’ confidence in visiting the resort, as well as support community health safety,” he said.

Boyd Gaming Corp. also tested all its staff members before they returned to work. Spokesman David Strow said the company continues to offer no-cost testing as needed.

Las Vegas Sands Corp. spokesman Keith Salwoski said the company tested all employees for COVID-19 before its Las Vegas resorts reopened June 4 and offered complimentary testing to employees’ household members. Testing was also offered to many third parties, including gondoliers and partner restaurant employees.

The Venetian and Palazzo are also providing ongoing monthly COVID-19 tests for its employees in front-line positions and many third-party employees, and it is “the only large resort in Las Vegas” to do so, according to Salwoski.

All staff members are offered testing if they report having COVID-19 symptoms or are suspected of having exposure to the virus through contact tracing.

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 Bailey Schulz at bschulz@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0233. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter.

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