Prelude to a disaster: From ‘no confirmed cases’ to unprecedented shutdown

go home stay home
A casino company's sign displays “Stay Home for Nevada” along Ogden Avenue in March after the industry closed. (Nevada Current file photo)

Note: This is the second of two stories tracking Nevada’s early response to the coronavirus. Both stories draw heavily on email correspondence among state, federal and local officials in the first three months of the year. The first story can be read here

The federal government “is increasingly directing attention from the federal level to the state level, so I expect the number of questions that have started now to come in will increase,” wrote Gov. Steve Sisolak’s senior policy adviser, Allison Combs, on Feb 25 to Sisolak’s Chief of Staff Michelle White, legal counsel Kyle George and policy advisor Scott Giles. Combs provided the senior staff with two documents from DHHS — one on “state, local, and federal authority” and another called “State Planning” and said she’d “received a request today from Senator Cortez Masto’s Office for a brief by tomorrow.” 

“Earlier, we discussed revisiting whether a meeting of state agencies (DHHS, DEM, at a minimum) would be necessary after we get some answers to related questions on existing authority – the 2 documents provide a good foundational discussion and could be combined,” Combs wrote. “Could we discuss next steps? One option is now holding a meeting of relevant agencies followed by a release to the public affirming the preparation is in place.” 

The following day, the National Governors’ Association held a call on “legal considerations” and the government’s responsibility in times of crises to balance public health considerations with civil liberties. The discussion focused on balancing individual rights such as privacy and religious freedom with communal protections such as surveillance, vaccination, isolation, quarantine, curfews and closures. 

The same day, the Washoe County Health Department announced preparations for the spread of the virus, including a quarantine and isolation plan. 

‘Don’t panic’ 

On Feb. 27, White reached out to the Governor’s Cabinet about the virus for the first time.

“The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has dominated the news cycle over the past few days,” she wrote. “We are taking this situation very seriously, but we must also balance the urgent nature of our preparations with moderate reactions and responses so as to not to create public panic. As the Governor says, “Prepare, don’t panic — coordination, not chaos.” 

The same day, California reported the first case of person-to-person transmission. 

On Feb. 28, Brigadier Gen. Berry Ondra of the Nevada National Guard, provided “a brief overview “ to Combs of “NNG Preparedness for COVID-19 Pandemic.” The document was not provided to the Current. 

Later that day, Gov. Sisolak held a briefing in Las Vegas “to provide information about monitoring and preparedness efforts related to COVID-19, also known as the 2019 novel coronavirus.” 

Sisolak noted “significant collaboration taking place all across the State to prepare and protect the health and safety of Nevadans.” 

“Number one: as of right now, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the State of Nevada,” he said. 

Sisolak noted that according to the CDC, “for the general American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus at this time, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low.” 

Finally, he said, “at this time, there hasn’t been a single COVID-19-related death in the United States. 

“There’s no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Nevada, and sustained transmission of the virus is not occurring in the general public,” said state epidemiologist Melissa Peek-Bullock in Las Vegas. 

The next day, Las Vegas suffered one of its first event cancellations. Ironically, it was from the White House

On March 2, Sisolak took part in a briefing with Vice-President Mike Pence, who promised states would receive help from the federal government in the event the virus spread, an eventuality Pence called “unlikely.” 

On March 3, Sisolak chaired the meeting of the Nevada Homeland Security meeting. The minutes make no mention of COVID-19. 

The same day, Sisolak tweeted, “I had a productive call this morning with @VP Mike Pence and our Nation’s Governors regarding updates on #COVID19. Collaboration is key in this evolving situation, and we will continue our work to ensure Nevada is prepared.”

On March 3, Washoe Health District Chief Kevin Dick wrote an email to the administration protesting its request to “de-obligate federal funds to return to the State for use in the DHHS COVID-19 response. Quite frankly I think it’s shameful. We had already made DHHS aware of our projected six month resource need of about $900,000 which has just grown since then as we have had to expand our view and scope. We would expect to receive support from the State vs. returning limited funds.” 

“We haven’t seen any direct impact from what’s going on,” Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick told News 3 in Las Vegas on March 3, noting people were still traveling to conventions and booking pleasure trips. “In Clark County, we train for these things all the time. We’ve been training. It’s how we were able to handle the West Nile Virus, so this is just another one.’” 

A day earlier on March 2, the state’s top medical officer, Dr. Ihsan Azzam, briefed members of the Patient Protection Commission. The Las Vegas Sun reports Azzam said the possibility of the disease spreading to Nevada was “not a question of if. It’s when.” 

On March 4, the governor’s office invited agency directors and constitutional officers to a meeting the following day to “provide state workforce guidance” regarding the virus. 

“We understand that you all are likely receiving questions from your staff in regards to the COVID-19 situation in NV. At this time, the State of Nevada has no confirmed cases of COVID-19,” the missive read. 

The state also announced it would hold weekly briefings and put out a directive of preventive measures. 

The next day, March 5, the state confirmed its first two cases of COVID-19 in Nevada. Sisolak issued a directive aimed at preventing price gouging for COVID-related drugs and medical services. 

“While the first presumptive case of novel coronavirus is concerning, it is important to remember that most Nevada residents are at low risk of contracting COVID-19 at this time,” said Melissa Peek-Bullock, the state’s epidemiologist. 

The same day, California registered its first death from COVID-19 — a person who was likely exposed to the virus while on the Grand Princess cruise, according to the Placer County Health Department. 

Thousands of passengers, including 40 Nevadans, remained aboard the ship after potentially being exposed. Sisolak arranged for the asymptomatic Nevadans to be released and quarantined in their homes. 

On March 6 the LVRJ warned of congestion near the Convention Center the next week as 130,000 “flock” to the CONEXPO show.

The same day, the Southern Nevada Health District confirmed a tourist from Toronto tested positive upon returning from Las Vegas, where he attended an international conference. 

Clark County put out a release, detailing disinfecting procedures at McCarran International Airport. The Nevada Resort Association announced precautions being taken at hotels. And the Clark County School District said it was cancelling all out-of-state student travel “out of an abundance of caution.” 

Two additional positive cases surfaced on March 8 — one in Washoe County and the other in Clark.

A mix of new cases and cancelled events

On March 10, MGM Resorts announced it would temporarily close buffets at seven resorts. 

“These changes are temporary and will be evaluated on a weekly basis,” the company said in a statement to USA TODAY. 

On March 11, Clark County added three new cases, including a New York woman who, along with 1,000 others, attended the Women in Power Summit at the Mirage. 

The days became a mix of new cases and cancelled events and conventions. 

On March 13, the Mountain West Conference Board of Directors canceled all competitions and conference championships. 

The University of Reno announced it would move to on-line classes after spring break. The same day, Sisolak announced the formation of his three-member Medical Advisory Team. 

“He announced the team in a press release on March 13th, and he asked me either a day or two before that,” says Dr. Brian Labus, a member of the MAT. 

The next day, Lake Tahoe ski resorts announced they would close for the season. On March 14, Sisolak mandated that all schools close, at least until April 6. 

On the 16th, Wynn Las Vegas and MGM Resorts International announced they would close their resorts. 

Sisolak followed their lead and ordered all casinos closed. 

“This is not the time for casinos to remain open,” Sisolak announced at a news conference. “All gaming machines will be shut down effective midnight tonight.” 

In response, the NFL canceled plans to hold the Draft in Las Vegas.

In Reno, mayor Hillary Schieve announced all “non-essential businesses” would have to close. The City clarified later only “bars, nightclubs, gyms and restaurants” must close, the Reno Gazette Journal reported

Sisolak followed suit statewide. 

The Southern Nevada Health District reported the first death in Nevada from COVID-19 on March 16. The man in his 60s had underlying medical conditions, according to SNHD. 

Since then, more than 2,000 Nevadans have died as a result of COVID-19. 

As of the first week in December, 761,732 unemployment claims have been filed since the week ending March 14, when the economy shuttered. Some Nevadans have waited weeks, even months, to receive benefits. 

The state’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation has been found in contempt and ordered by a federal judge to pay some $90 to $120 million to claimants who stopped receiving payments without explanation. 

Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft’s district includes the Las Vegas Strip. He was appointed to fill the seat when Sisolak became governor, and was elected to retain it in November. 

He says he doesn’t remember when he was first briefed about COVID. 

“No doubt there were conversations. But we’ve had routine briefings since the first case,” he says. 

“I guess formal briefings, I’d have to look,” he said. “But we’re all well-informed individuals. I don’t think it was a shock to anybody that it would come to Nevada.”

Dana Gentry
Senior 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 has four adult children, a grandson, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.