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The festive atmosphere made it almost easy to forget the reason they were there: To encourage as many Nevadans as possible to get vaccinated against a still-deadly and once again rapidly spreading virus. The last couple of weeks, however, have brought with them an unwelcome reminder that not only is COVID still among us, but it is also better at infecting us than ever before.

As the highly transmissible Delta variant has taken hold across the United States, Nevada, and, in particular, Clark County, has quickly emerged as an epicenter of the latest surge of the virus. As of Friday, Nevada had the fourth highest case rate in the nation per capita over the last seven days; for many days last week, it was first. The uptick in Clark County, in some ways, comes as no surprise. The county has a low vaccination rate, high population density and an economy built on bringing millions of domestic and international tourists together.

While public health experts say vaccinated Nevadans remain fairly well protected against COVID, including the Delta variant, there is little protecting unvaccinated Nevadans from falling ill. With no more social distancing, capacity restrictions or mask mandates and a highly transmissible variant, state officials are stressing that the risk to unvaccinated Nevadans now is greater than it has ever been during the pandemic.

They have returned to full time pandemic response mode after starting to transition away from it earlier this summer, including dissolving a statewide COVID task force, saying goodbye to its pandemic response director and ending routine press calls. In a marker of the increasing seriousness of the situation, those press calls started back up again this week on Thursday. It's this renewed sense of urgency at the state level. It is a reexamination of how we're approaching vaccinations and the pandemic in general. The state is all-in on the vaccination effort and has requested assistance from federal surge teams Down to Las Vegas Nevada total women looking bear help with the rising COVID cases.

While some public health experts have renewed calls for the federal government and individual states to reinstate mask mandates and other mitigation measures in light of the latest surge, Sisolak told The Nevada Independent on Thursday that no new mask mandate is on the horizon. Public health experts believed it was only a matter of time before the Delta variant became the dominant strain of COVID in Nevada and the rest of the U. The Alpha variant, formerly known as the U.

What has been interesting to those in the public health field, though, is how quickly the Delta variant has taken hold. Two weeks ago, it was 46 percent. This week, it was 60 percent. Those who have been keeping an eye on statewide metrics expected that COVID cases, test positivity and hospitalizations might once again increase after the state fully reopened on June 1, but they have been similarly surprised at how rapidly those metrics have climbed. The of new cases being reported each day on average has doubled over the last three weeks, and test positivity and hospitalizations have doubled in just two weeks.

Hospitalizations, meanwhile, sit atputting the state back to where it was in late February.

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That increased transmission, along with the plateau in vaccinations, is really what is driving this rapid increase in hospitalizations. The Delta variant, however, has been identified in at least seven counties statewide. While Washoe and Carson have less population density than Clark County and slightly cooler weather that allows for more outdoor activities, public health experts point to one key difference as to why the virus has rapidly spread in Clark County while s have remained low in its two northern counterparts: vaccination rates.

Complicating things, the ones who are most likely to be out and about — younger adults — are also the ones who are least likely to be vaccinated. More than three-quarters of Nevadans aged 60 and up have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while only half of those 20 to 59 have received their first shot. Data provided to the Independent by the Nevada Hospital Association show that adults aged 20 to 59 were responsible for 57 percent of new hospitalizations between June 27 and July 7, compared to only 36 percent between Nov.

By comparison, those 70 and up only made up 22 percent of new hospitalizations, compared to 41 percent during the surge. Over the course of this pandemic, for instance, the U. But Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, said Las Vegas will likely always be in a particularly vulnerable position when it comes to the virus because of its tourism industry. Research on the Delta variant is ongoing, but data out of Israel have shown that the Pfizer vaccine is 64 percent effective at preventing symptomatic and asymptomatic infections and 93 percent effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths, which public health experts consider good news for vaccinated individuals.

The picture is less rosy for the unvaccinated, though. Early research out of Scotland suggests the risk of hospital admission related to the Delta variant is twice what it was for the Alpha variant, and about 95 percent of hospital admissions in Clark County over the last three months have been among unvaccinated individuals, Dr. For the unvaccinated, though, they stress that the situation is even worse than it was last year.

So if they get infected, their risk of death is going to be the same as before.

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He received his second shot of the Pfizer vaccine in late March and had started easing back to normal life, including going out to eat and playing video poker at casinos. At first, he was angry at having to cancel a family vacation. But that anger quickly turned to relief, particularly when he thought about the fact that his brother had been hospitalized with COVID back in October for three months. His worst symptoms, by contrast, included fever, fatigue and a loss of taste and smell.

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There has been some understandable angst and frustration among vaccinated individuals who have contracted the virus, though. Vaccination gave them a sense of freedom, invincibility even. While reports of breakthrough cases — those among fully vaccinated individuals — are concerning, public health officials statewide have continued to underscore that breakthrough infections represent just a fraction of the overall cases and hospitalizations they are seeing.

According to Department of Health and Human Services data requested by the Independentthere have been breakthrough cases identified statewide that have resulted in hospitalization or death out of more than 1. Less serious breakthrough cases are not tracked by the state.

Those aged 60 and older make up 78 percent of those breakthrough cases, while men, who have generally been hit harder by the virus throughout the pandemic, were responsible for 61 percent. As the COVID situation continues to worsen in Nevada, state officials have been doubling down on the vaccination effort. A vaccination may not protect someone from catching COVID, but it may turn a serious hospital stay into something resembling no more than sinusitis, as it was for Barnes. But typically, when they do get sick, the disease is more mild, so they won't don't wind up being hospitalized.

It's not going to stop all people from dying in car accidents, but it really reduces the s and just because some people still die in car accidents doesn't mean everybody should stop wearing their seatbelts.

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The problem, public health experts say, is that many unvaccinated individuals are behaving as if they are vaccinated, going out frequently in crowded places, not social distancing and not wearing masks. Nancy Diao, division director of epidemiology and public health preparedness for the Washoe County Health District.

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Even for those unvaccinated individuals who are still trying to be careful, there is a risk. Culliver and her husband had been vigilant since the beginning of the pandemic, staying home as much as possible, hand sanitizing frequently and continuing to wear masks out in public. Her sister and the friend were the first two guests they had invited to their home. They chalked it up to the dry air. Culliver, who is vegan and considers herself very healthy, fell very sick with the virus, as did her husband. Her symptoms included fever, headache, body aches, cough, fatigue, dizziness and lack of appetite.

Like, I can't believe it. Today makes two weeks that we're sick. But she says she plans on being even more cautious now. As of Friday, Nevada ranked 33rd in the nation for percentage of total residents fully vaccinated, with about 5, shots being put into arms on average each day over the prior seven days. Messaging around the vaccine has often focused on individuals: how the vaccine will protect them, how it will protect their families and how it will let them get back to the activities they enjoy.

Each time the virus spre, it has a chance to mutate. Those mutations, over time, add up to become new variants that can evade vaccines, better infect people and possibly make them sicker. Without a critical mass of vaccinated individuals to halt the spread of the virus for good, the virus will only continue to evolve. Even as they continue to push the vaccination message, local health departments are once again making preparations for a surge of cases. State officials have been hesitant in recent days to even answer questions about whether reimposing mitigation measures is on the table, instead emphasizing the importance of the vaccination effort.

It would be a hard political pill to swallow, Mokdad acknowledges, but he also worries about the danger of not doing so. In many countries that didn't rush to do the right things, they paid dearly for it. Events Swag Our Awards. Megan Messerly.

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As the Delta variant surges in Nevada, the young and unvaccinated bear the brunt