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Biden's 'Surge Response Teams' Aim To Tackle COVID–19 Hotspots Across The West

Guadalupe Serna is an unvaccinated Lyft driver in Las Vegas, Nevada where cases of COVID-19 are surging.
Nate Hegyi
Mountain West News Bureau
Guadalupe Serna is an unvaccinated Lyft driver in Las Vegas, Nevada where cases of COVID-19 are surging.

It’s been a hectic morning for Guadalupe Serna. She drives for Lyft in Las Vegas, Nevada and the city is almost fully reopened for tourism. There’s a volleyball tournament in town, concerts, and thousands of visitors flying here every day to gamble.

“It’s a busy week right now,” she says.

But all those tourists are bringing more than just their money with them. Some are also carrying COVID-19 and its rippling through the state. Nevada currently has one of the highest per capita infection rates in the country but is in the bottom half of states for vaccination rates. It’s a problem that’s also facing areas of Colorado and Utah.

That spurred Gov. Steve Sisolak last week to request assistance from one of the Biden administration’s new “surge response” teams, which were created to stamp out hotspots across the country and to get more shots in people like Serna’s arms.

She is wearing a mask but isn’t vaccinated. She feels stuck between a rock and a hard place. She’s afraid of the virus but she’s also afraid the vaccine might kill her.

“Honestly, I’m really scared that something might happen after the vaccine. That’s one of the reasons why I’m not vaccinated and that’s why I’m not doing it yet,” she says.

Health experts say the risk of a COVID-19 infection far outweighs any from getting vaccinated. The new White House surge response teams are trying to reach people like Serna by kicking off advertising campaigns, opening more vaccine clinics and pumping in federal dollars and personnel. They’ve already sent teams to Missouri and Colorado but it's unclear when they will begin work in Las Vegas.

When they do, they will face an uphill battle, according to Brian Labus, a public health professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“This has been quite a challenge for us in Nevada but it’s really nothing new,” he says. “We struggle quite a bit with our vaccination rates every single year. We have the same issues with influenza and we have not been able to solve it.”

Some minority communities’ vaccine fears are rooted in historical mistreatment by medical professionals, according to Labus. Other folks think that COVID-19 just isn’t that big of a deal. But he hopes the response team can make a dent.

“If the federal government has some ideas that we haven’t thought of — or some ways to approach things and funding that can help us with that — it’s definitely welcome to help us get our vaccination numbers to where we want them to be,” he says.

The Las Vegas’ Culinary Union has also been trying to combat misinformation about the vaccine and it welcomes help from the federal government. The union represents about 60,000 frontline workers in Nevada’s hospitality industry and has been hosting virtual town halls featuring doctors debunking myths and answering questions in both English and Spanish.

“When they hear directly from doctors that helps so much,” says union secretary-treasurer Geocanda Argüello-Kline. “We have people [speaking] in their language so they can ask questions. They can say, ‘I have this condition, do you think I can take [the vaccine]?’ They receive the right information and they can make the right choices.”

Gov. Sisolak has also tried a novel — and very Las Vegas — way of getting more people vaccinated. In June, he launched a raffle giving out nearly 150 cash prizes to folks who get a first dose. But data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show it hasn’t had a huge impact.

Back in her sedan, Serna, the Lyft driver, says those big bucks won’t convince her to get the shot.

“It’s not tempting enough for my health,” she says. “I don’t want to die. Even a million dollars is not going to wake you up if you die.”

For Serna, the money just won’t help. But maybe a conservation with a doctor will. The Southern Nevada Health District says about 95% of those hospitalized for COVID-19 currently are unvaccinated.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Nevada Public Radio and KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 KUER 90.1. To see more, visit KUER 90.1.

Nate is UM School of Journalism reporter. He reads the news on Montana Public Radio three nights a week.
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