The United States is about ten weeks into a declared national emergency due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, a response to the virulent spread of a virus which causes the little-understood and often-lethal disease COVID-19. As we have discussed repeatedly over the last two-plus months, Nevada’s response to the pandemic was among the earliest and has carried one of the highest economic costs. One cost Nevada may yet avoid is a steep rise in coronavirus healthcare worker illnesses and deaths.
Controlling a Baffling Disease
One reason the coronavirus pandemic is such a serious public health issue is that the virus has shown itself to be quite contagious, though the extent of that and the reasons for it remain murky. Early reports indicated that the virus can live for abnormally long periods on certain surfaces, but many others pointed out that those results from “laboratory conditions” reflected poorly on the reality of most encounters with the virus.  Although we are still struggling to understand the virus fully, in hindsight it appears that a bigger factor shaping its contagiousness is the tendency of infected but completely asymptomatic people to spread the virus to others.  it’s one thing to go out in public when you know you may be ill with a deadly virus – exposing all around you to coronavirus illnesses and deaths – but it’s much more innocent to do so before you even have the first signs of illness.
Yet that is precisely why public health experts have been admonishing us all to adopt significant protective measures, steps that many of us find burdensome or alien. The issue is that we may not know we were spreading the virus to family, friends, coworkers, and fellow worshippers, shoppers, and gym members until a day or two later, when we come down with the telltale signs such as cough, fever, or shortness of breath.  And that is also why many governors and local health officials have taken seemingly extreme measures to protect public health, even at the cost of the state and local economies. By ordering certain businesses closed or to operate only under strict protocols, these officials hope to suppress the virus rather than allowing it to spread among their populations in a bid to avoid uncontrolled coronavirus illnesses and deaths.
Here are some (current, as of this writing) statistics on the pandemic’s toll across the country; note that the top ten states by confirmed cases (listed here) do not match up very closely with the most populous ten states in the country:
- New York | 359,926 cases | 23,282 deaths
- New Jersey | 153,104 cases | 11,081 deaths
- Illinois | 107,796 cases | 4,790 deaths
- Massachusetts | 91,662 cases | 6,304 deaths
- California | 90,631 cases | 3,708 deaths
- Pennsylvania | 66,983 cases | 5,096 deaths
- Texas | 54, 509 cases | 1,506 deaths
- Michigan | 54,365 cases | 5,223 deaths
- Florida | 50,127 cases | 2,233 deaths
- Maryland | 45,495 cases | 2,130 deaths 
Nevada presently has 7,696 confirmed cases and has suffered 392 deaths. Nevada’s rates of 2.5 cases and .127 deaths per 1,000 people compare to New York’s rates of 18.5 cases and 1.197 deaths.  Although the pandemic has by no means bypassed the Silver State, we should count ourselves fortunate for our relatively low rate of coronavirus illnesses and deaths. (Note: the figures reported above vary from other tallies kept by some Nevada-based newspapers. ) As discussed in a previous blog post, this may be due to some of the forward thinking resources the State of Nevada instituted during the early days of the pandemic.
Healthcare Workers Bear the Brunt of Failures
As stated above, the virus is contagious for various and complex ways. Its deadliness is even less understood, given that it is no longer seen as being “just” a respiratory illness. Doctors and researchers are finding evidence that COVID-19 can harm us in a variety of manners, ranging from blood clotting and organ damage to excessive immune response and neurotoxicity.  COVID-19 can cause coronavirus illness and death in these complex and sometimes bizarre ways, but it can also be public because of its spread through the population.
A key example is that of New York, above, which has far and away the most cases in the country and an astronomical rate of cases per person. That resulted in a very high rate of deaths per person as well, as the state had to triage hospital beds, emergency responders, ventilators, and other healthcare resources. It may be too messy to ever untangle all the data, but it is not mere supposition to say that many New Yorkers died of COVID-19 because they fell ill in New York; had they suffered the same infection with the same symptoms in a place with a less-overwhelmed healthcare system, they may have lived.
Another resource that has been heavily triaged is that of personal protective equipment, even among front-line healthcare workers. Reports of a legion of healthcare workers being directed to wash and reuse the coveted N95 respirator masks for hours, days, or even a week at a time while facing a daily onslaught of COVID-positive patients.  This questions whether some of these public and private institutions could be in jeopardy of workers’ compensation claims regarding improper resources provided to their employees; although, there has been discussion that COVID-19 cases against businesses are being considered by Congress for liability protection and that could change the ability to litigate even when hospitals or assisted living communities, for instance, don’t protect employees with the requisite protective equipments.
New data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that more than 62,000 healthcare workers contracted COVID-19, causing nearly 300 deaths.  These data have been criticized for being vague, imprecise, and likely under-counting the true impact of COVID-19 on healthcare workers.  Further, there is no clear way to “drill down” to the impact on any given state’s workforce to determine the prevalence of coronavirus healthcare worker illnesses and deaths.
But one thing is clear irrespective of the data: If Nevada can succeed in “flattening its curve,” limiting the spread of the coronavirus and preventing its healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed, the severe economic costs and disruptions to everyday life may well be repaid with interest in terms of avoided coronavirus healthcare worker illnesses and deaths.