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COVID-19 Cases Going Up As Wildfire Smoke Chokes Northern Nevada

A screenshot of a hazy, gray view of a business park. Ash is clearly seen on the lens of the camera.
Wildfire Alert
The view from a wildfire camera east of the Truckee Meadows, looking toward downtown Reno, Nev.

Over the past two weeks, Nevada has averaged more than 900 new cases of COVID-19 a day. Health officials say the newest wave of infections is the result of the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus. And as if that wasn’t enough, one of the largest wildfires in California history is also dumping smoke and ash across Northern Nevada. KUNR Morning Edition host Noah Glick checked in with senior reporter Paul Boger to discuss the top stories from the week.

Noah Glick: So before we dive into talking about the latest COVID news, can we chat about the Dixie Fire first? Fire crews say they’ve seen explosive growth over the last few days. Can we just chat about that a little bit first? Where are we?

Paul Boger: The Dixie Fire, you know, we’ve heard plenty of updates. I think it was just on NPR just a moment ago. ... It’s now the third-largest fire in California history at 433,000 acres. More than a hundred structures, including homes, have been destroyed. And while there haven’t been any fatalities, there are some people unaccounted for, so we’ll see in the coming weeks.

But I think mostly what I want to talk about is the air quality because I think that’s our biggest issue. First off, I want to point out the Dixie Fire is not in KUNR’s listening area. It’s, kind of, right butting up against the edge of it. So we’re not trying to do as much of the in-depth coverage on the evacuations as I think you normally would hear if there was a fire burning within our listening area, but it is very close to Susanville now, which is kind of that northern edge of what we broadcast to.

It’s about, what looks like, 20 miles away from Susanville, and it’s dumping a lot of ash, a lot of smoke. According to the air quality index, it’s about at an 801, and of course, for a little bit of scale, like 250, I think, is unhealthy.

Glick: Technically, 150 is unhealthy, so it’s even more so...

Boger: And here in Reno, it’s really, really bad. I mean, I got in my car this morning and there was a little ash all over it. So I mean, that’s what we’re going to keep our eye on right now with the Dixie Fire, but it’s big.

Glick: Yeah, and for anyone who’s interested in the latest air quality, you can go to airnow.gov to check the latest. For example, in Reno, it’s very unhealthy right now.

But let’s shift, though, real quick. Governor Steve Sisolak held a press conference yesterday to talk about the latest surge in COVID-19 cases. So what did we learn from that presser?

Boger: All metrics have gone up. More than 900 new cases a day. The test positivity rate is nearly 16%. The World Health Organization suggests a rate of 5% or less. So it’s way more than what it was in early May when all of those mask restrictions were being loosened. Part of that is the Delta variant. More than nine in ten cases are caused by the Delta variant now. Hospitalizations and deaths are almost exclusively among the unvaccinated. There’s likely going to be a new set of mask rules in Storey County because they are likely going to join the 12 other counties with mask mandates.

And now we’re talking about vaccine requirements for college students. If they want to show up to school on day one, they may have to get the vaccine. Governor Sisolak says he’s working with his health advisors to try to see if they can put a plan together. That is something NSHE talked about last week, but I guess NSHE decided in their infinite wisdom that they don’t have the authority to do that, even though, I mean, there’s vaccines mandated. You have to get shots for tuberculosis and other things to go to college...

We’re getting right back to where we were last summer. A lot of those metrics are starting to peak again. Wear your mask, get a vaccine, let’s be done with this. That’s the message.

Glick: I do want to switch gears real quick, though. We’ve seen, at least here locally, bus drivers and other transit workers have been on strike since Tuesday. What led to that strike, and what impact is that having here?

Boger: So in my reporting and from what I’ve seen, the big issue here is health insurance. Teamsters say the company Keolis, which is the contractor for RTC, the transit system, they’re saying that [Keolis is] trying to pull benefits. Keolis [is] saying that Teamsters are not negotiating in good faith. All of this is going on during Hot August Nights, one of the busiest times in Reno when it would be nice to have a little bit of transit going on. And they actually, you know, Keolis says that was the plan, that Teamsters have been threatening this for over a year now, and that where we are in this strike.

Glick: Well, you know, we’ve talked about all these, well let’s just say, not the cheeriest of news here. But real quick, we’ve got a few seconds left. Let’s turn it around a little bit; let’s end on a little bit lighter note. Nevada alumnus and Carson City native Krysta Palmer is the first American in roughly 20 years to bring home a medal in diving, and from what I understand, her hometown is planning a bit of a celebration.

Boger: The Carson Valley Swim Center in Minden is going to have a celebration of her and her accomplishment on Sunday, replaying part of her performance and serving refreshments. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.

Paul Boger is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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