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An outbreak of Covid-19 among vaccinated staff at a Las Vegas hospital has highlighted the risks posed by the Delta variant in the US, as Nevada struggles with rising Covid cases and stagnating vaccination rates.
Eleven workers at the Sunrise hospital and medical center, only one of whom was unvaccinated, tested positive for coronavirus after attending a party in early June, hospital officials confirmed to the Guardian.
None of the workers infected were hospitalized, nor were there any fatalities.
“The Centers for Disease Control has confirmed that 11 of our colleagues at Sunrise Hospital tested positive for the Covid-19 Delta variant,” Sunrise’s CEO, Todd P Sklamberg, said in a statement. “All who tested positive are doing well and have returned to work.”
Sklamberg added: “We want to acknowledge our colleagues recognized their own symptoms (similar to allergies or the common cold) and chose to get tested. There were no exposures to our patients as our staff complies with all PPE guidelines, masking at all times and wearing face shields with all patient encounters.”
The outbreak, first reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, emerged amid growing concern in the US about the Delta variant, which is now the dominant variant in this country. Because the Delta variant is highly transmissible, authorities have said it’s all the more important for unvaccinated people to get their shots, both for personal immunity and to prevent spreading Covid-19 to others.
The variant is now being blamed for surges in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, now the largest US outbreak of new Covid cases. Authorities have warned that it will only worsen if vaccination rates continue to languish in these areas, according to NPR.
While there have been breakthrough cases, health officials have repeatedly said that vaccinations provide strong protection, including against the Delta variant. Covid-19 vaccines – which data have repeatedly shown are safe and effective – reduce the severity of the virus and prevent hospitalizations in the rare breakthrough cases, authorities say.
Mark Pandori, the Nevada state public health laboratory director, has said that one factor in this breakthrough incident might be the Delta variant’s heightened ability to avert immunity. “The viruses that are circulating in July aren’t the viruses that were circulating in February. These are the Olympians now,” Pandori told the Review-Journal. “The ones that are circulating now have a better ability to get around vaccination.”
Concerns about the Delta variant affecting people who have been fully vaccinated come as Nevada struggles to contain a rise in cases. On Tuesday, Nevada health officials reported 855 new cases, with the state’s two-week positivity rate hitting 10% – a surge from the 9 June low of 3.3%, the Las Vegas Review-Journal noted.
Brian Labus, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, School of Public Health, said that 60% of Nevada cases sequenced were now the Delta variant. Several weeks ago, the Delta variant comprised just 16% of sequenced cases.
“Delta is clearly the dominant strain in Nevada,” said Labus. “Over the past month, our numbers have been continually trending upward, and the Delta variant is obviously contributing to that.
“When you couple that with low immunization rates and our community being open 100%, you have the right conditions for that kind of Covid spread.”
State health officials say that 46.01% of Nevadans age 12 and older have completed vaccinations, and 54.46% have “initiated” vaccination. (This refers to the number of first doses given, according to health officials.) Across the US, 65% of those 12 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while 56.3% are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The rates we’re seeing right now of vaccination are nowhere where we need to be to stop transmission,” Labus said.
These percentages are also far lower than what is probably required for herd immunity, a metric that has shifted upward with the pandemic’s continuation and Delta variant’s ascent. “That variant is probably pushing that number higher because it spreads so much more easily,” Labus said.
Meanwhile, younger Nevadans are the least likely to receive vaccines, presenting a challenge as they are “most likely to be out and about”, the Nevada Independent reports. Only half of Nevadans from age 20 to 59 have received their first jab, compared with more than 75% of residents age 60 and older, the website says.
In response, Nevada’s governor, Steve Sisolak, announced on 1 July that the state would seek help from the federal government. A statement from Sisolak’s office, noting that the White House has announced its intention to send “surge teams” to hard hit areas, says that Nevada is working with federal agencies to ramp up its initiatives to vaccinate more people.
There are a few positive signs – the increase seems to be contained to southern Nevada, which has the most medical resources in the state, and PPE supply flow is “not in a state of chaos”, according to a report by the Nevada Hospital Association (NHA).
“Patients are less sick, seem to be spending less time in the hospital, and are not requiring intensive care or mechanical ventilation as frequently as in past encounters,” the organization says. Hospitals have enough capacity and staff, while vaccinations and treatments are more readily accessible.
“The bad news is there is no current signal that indicates this increase is slowing down,” NHA says, noting that “the majority of the hospitalized patients are reportedly unvaccinated people.”