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Healthcare

How A CDC 'Strike Team' Is Trying To Stamp Out Las Vegas' COVID-19 Surge

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Last week, the Biden administration offered to send surge response teams to help stamp out COVID-19 hot spots across the country. Nevada's governor requested one for the Las Vegas area. Infections and hospitalizations there are on the rise, as the number of people getting vaccinated has dropped sharply. Nevada Public Radio's Nate Hegyi reports.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: It's been a busy morning for Las Vegas Lyft driver Guadalupe Serna. There's a volleyball tournament in town.

GUADALUPE SERNA: We have a lot of concerns. We have already of them for conventions.

HEGYI: Not to mention the thousands of tourists flying into Las Vegas every day to gamble.

SERNA: It's a busy week right now.

HEGYI: But all those tourists are bringing more than just their money with them. Some are also carrying COVID-19 and it's rippling through the state. Nevada currently has one of the highest per capita infection rates in the country but is at the bottom half of states for vaccination rates. Serna takes the virus seriously and is wearing a mask, but she also isn't vaccinated. She feels stuck between a rock and a hard place. She's afraid of the virus, but she's also afraid the vaccine might kill her.

SERNA: Honestly, I'm really scared. Something happens after the vaccine, and that's one of the reasons I'm not vaccinated. I'm not doing it yet.

HEGYI: Health experts say the risk of a COVID infection far outweighs any from getting vaccinated. The new White House search teams are trying to reach people like Serna by kicking off advertising campaigns, opening more vaccine clinics and pumping in federal dollars and personnel. It's unclear when a team will begin work in Las Vegas. Brian Labus, a public health professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says the feds face an uphill battle.

BRIAN LABUS: But that's really nothing new. We struggle quite a bit with our vaccination rates. Every single year, we see the same issues with influenza and we have not been able to solve it.

HEGYI: Labus says some minority communities' vaccine fears are rooted in historical mistreatment by medical professionals. Other folks think that COVID just isn't that big of a deal.

LABUS: And if the federal government has some ideas that we haven't thought of or some ways to approach things and funding that can help us with that, it's definitely welcome, to help us get our vaccination numbers to where we want them to be.

GEOCONDA ARGUELLO-KLINE: When they hear directly from doctors, that helps so much.

HEGYI: That's Geoconda Arguello-Kline with Las Vegas's local Culinary Union. It represents about 60,000 frontline workers in Nevada's hospitality industry. Arguello-Kline says they've been trying to combat misinformation about the vaccine and welcomes more help from the federal government. The union hosts virtual town halls featuring doctors debunking myths and answering questions in both English and Spanish.

ARGUELLO-KLINE: We have people in their language. They can make their questions. They can say, hey, I have this condition. Do you think I can take it? And they receive the right information. They can make the right choices.

HEGYI: Nevada's Democratic governor Steve Sisolak has also tried a novel and very Las Vegas way of getting people vaccinated. In June, he launched a raffle giving out nearly 150 cash prizes to folks who get a first dose. But CDC numbers show it hasn't had a huge impact. Back in her car in Las Vegas, Guadalupe Serna says those big bucks won't convince her to get the shot.

SERNA: It's not tempting enough for my health. I don't want to die. And to say you're now pouring a thousand dollars or 10,000 or even a million - it's not going to wake you up if you die.

HEGYI: For Serna, the money just won't help. But maybe a conversation with a doctor will. The Southern Nevada Health District says about 95% of those hospitalized for COVID-19 currently are unvaccinated. For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi in Las Vegas.

KELLY: And that story comes to us from the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of member stations in the region.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.