U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, right, responds to a question following a briefing from officials at the Clark County Fire Department Training Facility in Las Vegas on Thursday, July 22, 2021. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak listens at left. (Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
LAS VEGAS — U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra delivered a stark warning Thursday about the coronavirus pandemic, imploring people to get the COVID-19 vaccine as he visited Las Vegas, a hot spot of rising infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
Becerra called it a "pandemic of the unvaccinated" and said 99% of people who are dying of COVID-19 didn't get the immunization.
"If you are dying today in America from COVID, it's because essentially you're unvaccinated," Becerra said. "Why would you want to die? Why would you want to imperil your loved ones and your family and your workplace and your place of worship?"
Becerra joined Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak to tour a vaccine clinic and receive a briefing on the virus at a Las Vegas firefighter training center that has been converted into a hub for the deployment of a White House COVID-19 "surge response" team.
The team includes about 100 Federal Emergency Management Agency workers who are partnering with local officials, AmeriCorps and Peace Corps volunteers, and Health and Human Services workers to staff community vaccine clinics and pop-up sites, distribute pamphlets with information about the vaccine and vaccination sites to people's homes, and offer other support.
Sisolak, a Democrat, requested one of the surge teams the same day the Biden administration announced them, and the team in Nevada is the biggest deployed so far. Federal officials said the teams will only go where they're invited and that staff from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and FEMA are also on the ground or en route to Missouri, Illinois, Colorado and North Carolina.
Nevada has the highest COVID-19 test positivity rate in the U.S. — at 14.7% — and the nation's sixth-highest rate of infections, federal officials say. It's also struggled to overcome stagnant vaccination rates.
As of Thursday, just under 47% of Nevada residents 12 and older were fully vaccinated. Nearly 56% of those who are eligible have had at least their first shot.
For now, officials are concentrating their efforts on promoting vaccines. Local politicians and the governor have resisted imposing capacity limits or closures on businesses again after the pandemic and related restrictions last year hammered the tourist-dependent economy.
Sisolak and Becerra tried to make an economic case for vaccines Thursday, saying that getting the shot was a way to ensure things could stay open and safe for visitors.
"My God, perhaps in no place more than Las Vegas do you have to protect yourself to protect your economy," Becerra said.
Sisolak even made a pitch to potential tourists to include an immunization while vacationing in Sin City.
"Anybody that's from around the country that wants to come to Las Vegas and get a vaccine, come on! We've got vaccines available," he said.
Sisolak thus far has no plans to bring back a statewide mask mandate. He said he supported a move by Las Vegas-area county officials to impose a partial mask mandate on employees who work in indoor public places, regardless of vaccination status.
Clark County officials stopped short of requiring the masks for everyone, a mandate that officials in Los Angeles County announced last week amid surging numbers of infections.
The Clark County mask order did not apply to casinos, but Nevada's Gaming Control Board announced Wednesday that it would follow suit and imposed the rule on workers in Las Vegas-area casinos. Nevada's courts took it a step further, requiring masks for everyone who enters court buildings.