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Summer COVID cases concentrated in wealthier suburbs

Updated July 2, 2021 - 5:41 pm

COVID-19 is spreading fastest in wealthy suburbs in the west and south Las Vegas Valley, as a highly contagious strain establishes a growing foothold.

Health data shows the trend occurs as Nevada reports the nation’s highest rate of new cases per capita, more of which are being attributed to the delta variant first identified in India. Overall, the state’s current increase in cases remains relatively low compared with 2020 surges.

Locally, ZIP codes containing neighborhoods like Rhodes Ranch, Southern Highlands and areas of Henderson have seen the most spread, according to a Review-Journal analysis of Southern Nevada Health District data.

The delta strain now accounts for nearly half of Nevada’s cases genetically analyzed by the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory in the past two weeks, indicating it is now the most widespread strain in the state.

The suburban case increases this summer have bucked trends experienced in winter.

At that time, COVID-19 had its strongest grip in North Las Vegas and eastern Las Vegas, home to many low-wage essential workers. Those same communities saw relatively few new cases this June despite having lower vaccination rates, data shows.

UNLV epidemiologist Brian Labus said the shift is likely because of residents having fewer options to seek free COVID-19 testing.

As mass testing sites have closed, Labus said more people are getting tested at their doctor’s office. It’s a resource that often is not available to lower-income neighborhoods.

“Often the places that see the highest disease rates are just the places with best access to (medical) care, and that can hide disparities in our community,” he said.

The health district is closely monitoring data tracking disease spread, health district spokeswoman Stephanie Bethel wrote in a statement Friday.

“We are seeing pockets of lower vaccination rates in ZIP codes throughout the community, and we know that unvaccinated people are driving the increase in cases,” she wrote. “We want to remind Southern Nevadans that vaccination is the best way to reduce the risk of infection.”

Henderson resident Peter Gerali found out he was COVID-positive on Saturday after receiving a rapid test at a local urgent care clinic. The clinic charges $145 for the procedure, but Gerali, who is vaccinated, said he only paid $36 out-of-pocket because he is insured.

The 63-year-old said he developed a sore throat and fever a few days after attending a sold-out Vegas Golden Knights playoff game. The outing put him in close proximity with thousands of other cheering fans.

“It was pre-pandemic levels of interactions with people,” Gerali said. “None of the fans were wearing masks.”

Gerali said he and his wife didn’t leave their house for much more than groceries during most of the pandemic. The couple began to feel more at ease after they were vaccinated in March, and they stopped wearing masks after the government no longer required them.

“We pretty much thought we were home-free,” he said.

Stories like Gerali’s serve as a reminder that vaccinated people can still catch COVID-19 and become symptomatic.

In rare cases, some breakthrough cases have had severe outcomes. In Clark County, 70 vaccinated people have been hospitalized with COVID-19, and 11 of those have died. The majority had underlying health conditions, according to data released Thursday.

Meanwhile, health officials said this week they are not returning to mask mandates and restrictions on large gatherings, even as new vaccinations have largely stagnated.

Gov. Steve Sisolak on Thursday announced he would seek more federal aid to increase immunization efforts across the state.

Risk to unvaccinated

Public health officials say the greatest risk remains to those who haven’t received their inoculation.

In the past three months, approximately 95 percent of hospitalizations and deaths here caused by COVID-19 have been among the unvaccinated, Southern Nevada Health District district health officer Dr. Fermin Leguen said this week.

Only about half of county residents eligible for vaccination have begun the process.

“Our community vaccination rate is low compared to the rest of the nation, and that increases our risk for having increased transmission of COVID in our community,” Leguen said.

He and other public health officials have stressed that the best way to slow the spread of COVID-19 is for more people to get vaccinated. If the virus continues to proliferate, it could mutate into an even more dangerous strain.

Service providers are working to bring medical care directly to residents of under-vaccinated communities in North Las Vegas and east Las Vegas, said Guy Girardin, president of the Las Vegas nonprofit Puentes.

Puentes volunteers are going door-to-door at apartment complexes in the area, offering free vaccinations, Girardin said. They plan to add testing this month.

“People want to receive care in an environment they feel safe and comfortable with,” he said.

Contact Michael Scott Davidson at sdavidson@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Follow @davidsonlvrj on Twitter.

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