National Guard activated to help fight COVID-19 in Nevada

Surveying sites for emergency hospitals

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TV screen shot showing National Guard Adjutant General Ondar Berry and Gov. Steve Sisolak.

Gov. Steve Sisolak joined governors throughout the country in activating the state’s National Guard Wednesday. 

“This activation means we have the best of the best running the state’s response,” Sisolak said at a news conference from Carson City, where he was joined by Ondra Berry, adjutant general of the Nevada National Guard. 

Berry is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to identify sites for potential emergency hospitals.  Four sites have been identified in Northern Nevada, Berry said, but declined to identify them. He added he’ll be surveying Southern Nevada for sites as well. 

“We certainly hope that we don’t need those sites, and hopefully we won’t need those sites,” Sisolak said, if Nevadans follow mitigating measures such as social distancing and handwashing.

Activating the guard also allows the state to apply for federal funds to pay personnel and cover other expenses, such as personal protective equipment.

Sisolak says the state is waiting for President Trump to approve a request for $5 million in federal funds. 

“It will provide more resources and flexibility to use the guard and other federal funding,” he said. 

“This is the exact right time for the governor to activate our National Guard,” Berry said. “This is what we train for.” 

Berry said no Nevadan who is a first responder or works in a critical position will be taken away from their job. 

“What we have seen so far across the country has been in logistics, transportation, communication, whatever the need may be, the governor has the ability to say ‘Do you have the personnel? Are they qualified to take on this task?’” Berry said of the Guard’s role. 

Berry said members of the Guard will be notified of their deployment and then trained. 

“We are more than ready to go,” he said.

The move comes the same day Sisolak ordered Nevadans to stay home for the month of April. 

He says sanctions imposed by other governors are hard to enforce. 

“We are asking our citizens to cooperate,” he said. “You’ve seen it before.  I’ve had to ask and then I’ve had to direct.”

Despite promises from the federal government, testing Nevadans for COVID-19 remains a challenge. 

“I want to be clear. Every Nevadan who needs a test should have access to a test,” Sisolak said. “Unfortunately, access to testing is a problem plaguing our entire nation, not just Nevada.”

Sisolak praised the efforts of Dr. Mark Pandori at the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory for “aggressively pursuing new FDA approvals to expand lab testing capabilities for Nevada” and noted Pandori is “also using FEMA materials to build test kits for Nevada.” We know that more testing of more Nevadans is a critical step. Of 12,798 individuals tested, 1,279 — exactly ten percent — have tested positive.  Of those, 32 have died.

Sisolak says between six and 20 percent of COVID-19 patients in Nevada require hospitalization.  Of those, 44 percent require a ventilator. 

“When you go on a ventilator, it’s a rough slide,” Sisolak said. 

In an effort to give health care workers a break, the governor is loosening regulations for medical licensing. 

“This directive will allow certain doctors, nurses, EMTs and even medical students to go to work right now caring for COVID-19 patients,” Sisolak said, noting even one additional doctor “will make a difference.” 

“They’re working 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. They’re isolated from their families. I’m going to do everything in my power to assist them.” he said of health care workers, noting some are “sleeping in the garage,” self-isolating to protect their families. “That’s how dedicated these folks on the front line are.”

Sisolak noted that PPE is desperately needed for hospital workers, first responders, child care workers and others.

“I’m not here to point fingers because it doesn’t get us anywhere,” Sisolak said in an oblique reference to inaction on the part of the federal government, which has failed to adequately respond to the state’s requests. 

Sisolak says he’s doing everything in his power to get what’s needed in the state, noting an expenditure of $6.25 million awaiting approval from a legislative interim committee will pay for the cost of battling the pandemic and allow the state to leverage $5 million in FEMA funds “right away.” 

The governor praised Nevada’s school districts, which he says have served nearly half a million meals in the weeks since schools closed. 

Food banks in the state have delivered nearly 2 million meals to 140,000 elderly Nevadans, he said. 

Sisolak said 100,000 Nevadans a week are filing for unemployment insurance, creating a backlog for the state’s small staff. 

“DETR (Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation) is working around the clock, non-stop,” he said, noting the department is not well-staffed. 

The governor said people who didn’t know their passwords from previous filings were unable to access the system, helping to create the backlog. 

Sisolak noted his efforts to obtain PPE, not just for first responders, but for those who never anticipated their work would place them in peril, such as grocery store workers.

“They never thought they’d be putting themselves in the line of danger when they got a job as a grocery store stocker,” he said. “My mother worked for Piggly Wiggly as a checker.  She could never imagine that grocery store clerks would be under this kind of pressure.” 

Sisolak bemoaned driving at both ends of the state and seeing groups of young people congregating.

“This isn’t summer vacation.  They might feel invincible but they’re not.  And their parents and grandparents are certainly not.”

Dana Gentry
Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana is the mother of four adult children, three cats, three dogs and a cockatoo.