Sprawling rural Nevada county sees surge in COVID-19 cases

Signs indicate that COVID-19 preventive measures are required before entering are posted on the main office door of City Hall in Caliente, Nev., Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. (Wade Vandervort/Las Vegas Sun via AP)

Caliente, Nev. • Penny McCracken battled fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome for most of the past 40 years.

The 82-year-old resident of rural Panaca, a nearly three-hour drive from Las Vegas, is largely homebound and has battled pneumonia six times in the past 13 years.

So when she felt run-down in May, it wasn’t surprising. But her symptoms continued for more than a month and she developed a 101-degree fever (38.3 Celsius) — unusual because hypothyroidism typically keeps her body temperature cool.

“I was coughing so explosively, I was gagging,” McCracken told the Las Vegas Sun .

At Grover C. Dils Medical Center in Caliente, the lone hospital in Lincoln County and its de facto public health agency, she received a coronavirus test. To her surprise, it came back positive for COVID-19.

Lincoln County had just five cases of COVID-19 through the first seven months of the coronavirus pandemic, until a surge brought the total to 60 — a staggering spike among the 5,200 residents living in a county the size of Massachusetts.

“We really thought there were going to be no more patients. Then bam, we had 19, then 34 and then 39 and 44, in a couple days,” McCracken said. “It was just startling because we are very sparsely populated.”

The first death from the virus in Lincoln County was reported at the end of October.

“Seeing a steady flow and rise in patients with COVID-19 symptoms and complications is both heartbreaking and alarming,” read a Facebook post from the four-bed Dils Medical Center. Dils also has a small long-term care wing, but no intensive care, and only two ventilators. It is where people can get tested, and tests have also been increasing.

Lincoln County is among the rural pockets nationwide and in Nevada seeing COVID-19 straining limited medical resources.

As November arrived, Lincoln County led Nevada counties in testing positivity with a rate of 18.6%, followed by Nye, Washoe and Lyon counties, all above 10%. Clark County, including Las Vegas, had a positivity rate of 9.8%.

County Emergency Manager Eric Holt said he was helping craft a “recovery plan” to submit to a state COVID-19 task force, which flagged Lincoln County for elevated transmission levels for three consecutive weeks.

Lincoln County is ranching country, with rugged grassy bluffs and natural hot springs, north of Las Vegas. It’s closer to Utah than any major Nevada population center.

In Caliente, the largest and only incorporated town, an automatic hand sanitizer dispenser sits outside the entrance of the 97-year-old train depot, squirting alcohol against the old adobe walls that now hold Caliente’s City Hall.

Most of its towns, also including Panaca and Pioche, grew up near mines and the old San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad line, now the Union Pacific. Tiny Rachel, with about 50 residents, is a remote desert outpost famous among UFO and alien hunters as the gateway to the formerly secret Area 51 military base.

At Dils, chief executive Missie Rowe said some residents are anxious about the virus, but most are not. As of Nov. 11, 45 of 60 total cases were considered recovered.

Linda Larson-Butler, Caliente’s deputy city clerk, said more people have been wearing masks since the current surge began.

The virus seemed to miss the region during what would have been an earlier opportune time, when Lincoln County hosted off-highway vehicle races in late spring.

“Honestly, that’s when I thought it would happen,” Larson-Butler told the Sun. “It didn’t.”

Holt said the county recovery plan includes increased testing and acquiring test kits that can be processed locally within 24 hours, rather than sending them to an out-of-county lab. Leaders will also continue to encourage physical distancing and limited travel.

Lincoln County hosted two drive-thru testing events earlier this year with help from the Nevada National Guard. None of the roughly 150 tests turned up a positive result. The virus had barely hit the area then.

Holt said motivating more people to get tested will be a challenge, but he hopes the recent surge will drive people, especially those without symptoms, to take the opportunity.

Holt also serves as Lincoln County’s fire district chief and ambulance administrator. He said he thinks residents have been responsive to guidance, including staying home if they’re sick. Local investigators have effectively traced contacts and connected cases in groups, he added.

In severe cases, coronavirus patients are transferred to a medical facility in St. George, Utah, about 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) away.

Fortunately for McCracken, she was able to self-isolate at home and beat the virus.

“I never really panicked about it,” she said, “although I did update my will.”

Because of her bout with COVID-19, McCracken has isolated herself even more. She doesn’t want to be reinfected, especially with deer season bringing in out-of-town hunters. She stays inside and reads. Neighbors bring her groceries and fetch her mail.

If she ventures out of her cozy duplex, it’s to the market or post office a few blocks away. A major outing means the 80-mile (129-kilometer) drive to Cedar City, Utah, where she can take a scooter around the Walmart and still be exhausted for a week afterward.

McCracken doesn’t want people to panic over COVID-19, either. But she wants them to take the disease seriously.

She recalled giving her mother her case of measles as a girl, and even the woman she described as a pugnacious “human steamroller” self-quarantined because it was the sensible thing to do when stricken with a potentially devastating illness for which there was no vaccine at the time.

“All these idiots going to the beach and cocktail bars and standing shoulder to shoulder and not wearing masks — they’re going to be sorry when it gets them,” she said.