Officials open convention center vaccination site amid immense demand

Officials with the Southern Nevada Health District, the Clark County Fire Department and federal agencies gather before a media briefing Tuesday on the opening of the Las Vegas Convention Center mass vaccination site. (Photo: Pashtana Usufzy)

Southern Nevada and federal officials extolled the opening of a new mass site for COVID-19 vaccine second-dose appointments on Tuesday, but celebration of the achievement took place amid high demand that eventually overwhelmed the registration website.

Slots at the Las Vegas Convention Center site are open only to individuals specifically designated to receive their second dose of vaccine at the location, said Jeff Quinn, public health preparedness manager at the Southern Nevada Health District.

That includes people who received their first doses at Western High School, Cashman Center, Jerome Mack Middle School, SNHD headquarters or at an event held by a local city government. Eligible individuals have and will receive notifications with a link to make an appointment when the center is open on Tuesdays through Saturdays, Quinn said.

But by Tuesday evening, a bolded, red note appeared on the SNHD website alongside second dose eligibility and scheduling information.

“Due to high demand for appointments, our registration portal is currently experiencing technical difficulties. Please try again later,” it said.

Remember the before time tho?
Jeff Quinn (left), public health preparedness manager with the Southern Nevada Health District, after a media briefing on the opening of the Las Vegas Convention Center mass vaccination site on Tuesday. (Photo: Pashtana Usufzy)

Quinn asked for the public’s patience at a press briefing Tuesday morning as the district dealt with the onslaught of web traffic.

“We ask the public to constantly go back and even if it says no appointments are there, constantly check there for new appointments,” he said.

Representatives from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, SNHD and the Clark County Fire Department emphasized the importance of their partnership and offered insight into the convention center’s operations at the joint briefing.

Currently, a group of 70-plus staff are manning the site and can provide up to 1,400 shots a day. The location is capable of expanding to 120 staffers offering roughly 3,000 vaccinations per day, but the rate of that expansion will depend on the amount of vaccines available, Quinn said.

HHS sent a team of 40 workers to Nevada to speed up the vaccination process, including 30 who will be stationed at the convention center in support roles like greeters and data entry workers, said FEMA Branch Director Daniel Frazee and Regional Emergency Coordinator Capt. Brad Austin of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

But Austin warned that the vaccines aren’t an instant solution to the pandemic.

“It’s not a perfect fix,” he said. “Everyone should continue to practice the three W’s, and that’s ‘Wash your hands, watch your distance and wear a mask.’”

For weeks, locals have expressed concerns that the vaccination process is moving slowly and that ineligible individuals have been cutting the line to receive their first vaccination doses.

Quinn said individuals who clearly do not qualify will be turned away from the mass vaccination site, but the process isn’t perfect.

“It really is based on the honor system and people’s interpretations of whether they fit in a group or not,” he said.

Additional barriers exist for eligible individuals without access to reliable transportation or fast Internet. Quinn said that as the district is later able to pull away resources from its current efforts, it may then invest more heavily in strike teams to target vulnerable populations. Until then, however, he advised those eligible for the first tier of vaccinations to find an appointment where they can.

Nevada Medicaid is advertising its same-day ride services to vaccination sites and bus fair reimbursement program for eligible Medicaid recipients. Individuals can check their eligibility for the services by calling 1-844-879-7341.

The informational briefing at the site Tuesday was a show of unity among local and federal officials a little more than a week after Gov. Steve Sisolak sent a letter to Acting HHS Secretary Norris Cochran asking why Nevada is “so low on the allocation list” for vaccine doses.

The governor’s office and state COVID-19 Response Director Caleb Cage “continue to have productive conversations with the federal government regarding Nevada’s vaccine allocation,” according to Sisolak spokeswoman Meghin Delaney. A spokesperson for HHS did not respond Tuesday to the Current’s questions on the formula used to allocate vaccinations or Nevada’s distribution amounts.

State and federal health officials released a flurry of additional information Tuesday related to the fight against the virus. 

The White House announced that it would increase vaccine distribution and reimburse states and other jurisdictions for select coronavirus-related expenditures dating back to last January.

Nevada Health Response also issued a guidance that vaccination sites are not bound by the 25 percent indoor capacity limitations constraining certain businesses.

FEMA also provided data showing Nevada has administered 248,748 doses of the 324,275 it has received, a 76.7 percent administration rate. That is the highest in FEMA Region 9, which includes Arizona, California, Hawaii and several U.S. territories.

“The optimism is we have the light at the end of the tunnel,” Quinn said.

Pashtana Usufzy
Pashtana Usufzy is a freelance general features and health reporter based in Las Vegas. She previously worked as a health care reporter at the Las Vegas Review-Journal and prior to that as a local news reporter at the Las Vegas Sun.