COVID-19 upended just about everything in 2020. KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck talks to Brian Labus, an epidemiologist with Nevada’s COVID-19 medical advisory team, to learn more about the past 10 months in Nevada and what is expected for the start of the new year.
Lucia Starbuck: We ended 2020 with the news that there’s this new strain of COVID-19, which originated from the United Kingdom, and has now been identified in Colorado and California. Can you tell me about this new strain?
Brian Labus: The strain that was identified had a number of mutations in it. We know that COVID mutates normally anyway, but this one had a large number of mutations, and some of those were in proteins [and] that could mean that the virus can spread more easily. We don’t know exactly what it means yet, but we have not seen any increase in serious disease or hospitalization from it. It may just spread a little more easily from person to person.
Starbuck: With these multiple mutations, will the COVID-19 vaccines that are out, will they still be effective?
Labus: There’s no reason to think this will affect the vaccines. We know that these mutations occur when we start to put the vaccines together, so we don’t set them up in a way that a single mutation or something like that is going to make the vaccines not work. We know vaccines have to deal with this all the time. Vaccines that we’ve had for every disease always have this issue. We still have the same measles vaccines and mumps vaccines as we’ve had for decades. So even though mutations occur in those viruses, they don’t make it so that the vaccine doesn’t work, and we’d expect the same thing here.
Starbuck: While we’re on the topic of vaccines, over 29,000 have been administered here in Nevada. Is that a good pace that we’re going at right now?
Labus: I think, right now, we are trying to get things figured out. We’ve had some issues with the vaccine getting to the state, and so we’ve not had as much of the vaccine arrive as we would like. We want to give out as much as we can. I think that pace will pick up as more and more vaccines start to arrive and we start to open things to more and more of our priority groups.
Starbuck: The vaccine is coming at a really crucial time. We’re experiencing a high number of mortality rates in the state, especially here locally in Washoe County. About 43% of the total deaths occurred in December. Are you seeing anything that’s concerning you lately?
Labus: Just the increase that we’ve seen over the past three months of the year has been a major concern. I think the holidays that happen from Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year’s increased travel and increased the amount of time that people are spending with others. So if we’re already at a high point, that could just exacerbate all the problems that we’re seeing already.
Starbuck: Are you seeing an issue where there’s a low number of new daily cases, with people not getting tested over the holidays [and] operations being kind of slowed down during the holidays? Is that concerning to you?
Labus: We know the cases are going to rise because of the holidays, and we also know that people are less likely to go to the doctor, less likely to get tested over the holidays, and we’ve had some of the testing operations close down on the holidays as well. So there’s kind of a difference between what’s actually going on and how we view it. But you have to remember that it takes two to three weeks for us to see any of the new cases reflected in the data, so anything that happens over Christmas and New Year’s, we’ll see that when we actually start to have those numbers roll in, in the middle of January. What we're talking about right now on our numbers are things that are from the early parts of December, before the Christmas holiday.
Starbuck: Are we expecting an ugly January as of right now?
Labus: The numbers are still high. It doesn’t seem like we’ve continued to climb, but our numbers have plateaued at a very high level, basically the highest we’ve seen in this pandemic. The tourists from out of state will not count against our numbers, they’ll get sick once they return home, and they’ll be identified there, and they’ll count in their home state, but they could potentially spread that to all the people working on the Strip. So with all of the gatherings and all of these things happening at once, there’s that potential that we’ll see spikes in January of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, unfortunately.
Starbuck: We’ll continue to check in with you to see how January unfolds in Nevada. And now that you’re joining me for these discussions on a regular basis, can you share a little bit about yourself and your experience? When did you first get into epidemiology?
Labus: My first epidemiology class would have been in 1997, so over 20 years ago I started my interest in this. I have a background in biology and microbiology, and so I’ve always been interested in infectious diseases. Then I went on and got my master’s in infectious diseases and started working at the health district. So it’s pretty much been my entire career.
Starbuck: Did you imagine something like this before through your studies?
Labus: Of course, I think everybody that works in infectious disease epidemiology knows that this is possible. We look at past pandemics, like we talk about the plague outbreaks in Europe in the middle ages, and we look at the flu pandemic a century ago, and we know that these things can happen. You know, even if these are once in a lifetime events, you expect them to happen once during your lifetime then. So, unfortunately, these are things that we know can happen. That’s why we’re always tracking these things and looking for the next disease that has that potential.
Brian Labus is an epidemiologist with Nevada’s COVID-19 medical advisory team.
We need your support to ensure this vital reporting continues. Show your support by making a gift today.