Reno Police Jason Soto talks about police stopping citizens who are not wearing masks. Reno Gazette Journal
As Washoe County eyes reopening under Gov. Steve Sisolak’s phased-in approach, it is dealing with increased COVID-19 hospitalizations, an untold need for personal protective equipment and a shortage of contact tracers.
In a report recently sent to Sisolak’s Local Empowerment Advisory Panel, the Washoe County Health District outlined its progress on the key benchmarks the state must hit as it allows businesses to slowly reopen.
Under Sisolak’s plan, counties will have to demonstrate a 14-day downward trajectory in new COVID-19 cases, enough hospital capacity to care for the ill, enough public health workers to identify those who have come in contact with someone with the virus and the ability to protect vulnerable populations in nursing homes and correctional institutions.
As the state begins to assess the progress toward these benchmarks, the panel of local government officials who are advising Sisolak asked each county to fill out a questionnaire detailing its case counts, supply of personal protective equipment and the size of its public health workforce.
According to Washoe County’s report, the daily total of new cases seems to have plateaued, but may increase as the county ramps up testing. The report says hospitalizations and death rates is a more accurate gauge of new cases.
And that metric has yet to stabilize.
“The number of COVID cases occurring in our hospitals is not currently declining in Washoe County,” District Health Officer Kevin Dick said Monday.
According to the report, Washoe County hospitals have at least a 14-day supply of personal protective equipment such as masks, gowns and gloves. The reopening plan suggests a need for a 30-day supply, but the report said PPE data currently isn’t tracked past a 14-day supply.
Dick said the district also doesn’t have a good handle on whether nursing homes, dental offices and other health care providers have the equipment they need.
And as other businesses such as salons and restaurants reopen, the need for protective equipment may grow.
“We don’t fully understand at this point what the requirements are going to be in those businesses and what PPE needs there may be,” Dick said.
Contact tracers in short supply
The district also has a severe shortage of contact tracers, the disease investigators who identify and reach out to each individual who has come in close contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.
The district has only four full-time employees who conduct disease investigation and contact tracing. According to the report, the district needs 42 full-time employees to meet the standard of reaching each case contact within 24 hours of a positive test. That’s based on an average of 20 new cases a day. In the last week, Washoe County has averaged 24 new cases a day.
To keep up with the workload, the district has been relying heavily on staff from other divisions to do contact tracing, shutting down 75 percent of the district’s environmental health division, for example.
That won’t be sustainable when businesses re-open, making it necessary for that staff to resume normal oversight and inspection duties, Dick said.
National Guard personnel also are helping to perform contact tracing. The district has asked Sisolak to keep them in place until June 30, according to the report.
After that, the district plans to hire tracers on a contract basis, which would give it the flexibility to increase and decrease staff based on the number of cases coming in.
The health district also needs Spanish-speaking contact tracers, aiming for an initial goal of 25 percent.
More than 40 percent of Washoe County’s COVID-19 cases are Latino, while 30 percent are white. Latinos make up 25 percent of Washoe County’s population.
Anjeanette Damon is the government watchdog reporter for the RGJ. You can reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @AnjeanetteDamon. If you care about shining a bright light on decisions made by your elected officials, please consider subscribing to the Reno Gazette Journal.
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