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January 19, 2022

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Nevada health, tourism officials monitoring new coronavirus variant

Tourists Return to Vegas

Steve Marcus

Tourists are shown at the Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas Saturday, April 17, 2021.

Nevada health and tourism officials are tracking developments with the omicron variant of the deadly coronavirus, including its potential impact on travel to Las Vegas.

But the unknowns outweigh the knowns for now, chiefly the transmissibility and severity of the new strain, which was first identified in Africa and has been popping up across the globe. Health officials are also still evaluating how effective existing vaccines are against the new variant.

No U.S. cases have been identified so far, but federal health officials say it is only a matter of time.

"It’s something we are closely monitoring,” said Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association. But, she added, “We do not speculate on the future.”

“The best protection remains vaccination,” said Valentine, echoing the position of Nevada health officials and Gov. Steve Sisolak. “We implore any eligible individuals who haven't been fully vaccinated and boostered to please do so as soon as possible.”

In a Twitter post, Sisolak said state officials were monitoring for cases of the variant and called the vaccines “an incredibly effective tool.”

About 54.4% of Nevadans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

A spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said “it’s too early to tell” what the effects of the variant will be “until there’s more known and understood by medical experts.”

Brian Labus, a UNLV epidemiologist and medical adviser to the governor, said the omicron variant "has a bunch of mutations in it, and that's why we're concerned. There’s that potential that this could mean something bad, but we don’t know if it actually does mean something bad or not."

He warned against jumping to any conclusions and for people to keep taking steps to protect themselves, such as wearing masks and social distancing. 

Mark Pandori, director of the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory in Reno, said this strain of the virus has shown significant evolutionary progress compared even to the delta variant — “not a crawl, but a leap in the virus’ evolution.”

Pandori said the omicron variant’s genetic “blueprints” tell him that not only are there a lot of mutations in the virus, but more than 30 are on the spike protein, which is the virus' main mechanism into human cells — and what the vaccines prime the body to guard against. This makes epidemiologists worry that the omicron variant could reduce, if not eliminate, vaccine efficacy.

Based on previous variants, the Omicron blueprint also shows there’s a chance the newest strain could be more aggressive, though the data to support that fear isn’t in hand, Pandori said.

“We can make predictions based on genetics but we can't seal the deal until we see phenomenological data,” he said. “That would be data like a lot of cases spreading quickly, increased viral load measurements in infected individuals or lots and lots of vaccinated individuals getting infected and getting sick.”

The omicron variant is also on the radar of Las Vegas event organizers.

Jamie Kaplan, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Technology Association, which puts on the annual CES gadget show in January, said organizers were “actively tracking the emerging news and science around the new omicron variant.”

“While it’s too early to determine the impact of this latest variant, we will continue to monitor and adjust our plans and health protocols as necessary,” Kaplan said.

Any disruption from the new variant would come at a time Las Vegas is roaring back from a complete shutdown last year. The virus decimated the tourist economy and sent Las Vegas unemployment rates to record levels.

In recent months, Nevada casinos have been setting records, just today announcing a record-matching streak of eight straight months of $1 billion or more in house winnings.

Casinos statewide won a little more than $1.2 billion in October, matching a mark set before the Great Recession in 2007, the Nevada Gaming Control Board reported. The monthly tally was up 19.5% from pre-pandemic October 2019.

In October, Las Vegas welcomed about 3.4 million visitors, up 16% from September, according to a new LVCVA report. Compared to October 2019 — before the onset of the pandemic — last month’s total was only off about 8%, the report said.

Room rates last month averaged nearly $174 a night, up 12% from the previous month and 28% from October 2019.

At McCarran International Airport, just under 4.2 million arrivals and departures were recorded in October, just 9% off the pre-pandemic figure recorded for the same month in 2019.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.