Viral Vegas: Deaths jump, tourism slumps amid long pandemic

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A man walks in front of the Circus Circus hotel and casino in Las Vegas, Feb. 4, 2021. The toll of the coronavirus is reshaping Las Vegas almost a year after the pandemic took hold. The tourist destination known for bright lights, big crowds, indulgent meals and headline shows is a much quieter place these days. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS – Six weeks ago, thousands of New Year’s revelers gathered beneath the neon-lit marquees on the Las Vegas Strip — even though the big annual fireworks show was called off due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The sight of the big crowd, including many people without masks, spurred fears that COVID-19 infections would skyrocket, followed by hospitalizations and then deaths. That's exactly what happened. January was Nevada's deadliest month since the pandemic began, with 1,132 deaths. December was second.

Now the virus is reshaping a tourist destination built for excess and known for bright lights, big crowds, indulgent meals and headline shows. Visitors arrive to find some freedoms curtailed and some familiar attractions closed, but parking and bargain prices are abundant. Big performances and conventions are still on hold.

“We have an industry that invites people from all over the world to come here, and unfortunately when they come here, they can bring disease with them,” said Brian Labus, a longtime epidemiologist at the regional Southern Nevada Health District who now teaches public health at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “The concern is that it spreads within our local population.”

In mid-January, more than half of the hospitals in and around Las Vegas reported being at least 90% full. One suburban medical center declared a capacity crisis, with more patients than beds. Nearly half of its 147 beds were occupied by coronavirus patients.

Deaths in Nevada hit a single-day record of 71 on Jan. 21. On Thursday, the statewide death total from COVID-19 was 4,637 since the pandemic began.

As in other cities, some overwhelmed funeral homes have used refrigerated trailers to hold the dead, interim Coroner Michael Murphy said.

“It’s nothing like I ever experienced in my nursing career,” said Dina Armstrong, a nurse at MountainView Hospital in northwest Las Vegas. “Dealing with this disease is mind-blowing — the stress and the environment.”