- Associated Press - Friday, March 27, 2020

LAS VEGAS (AP) - A record-setting wave of jobless applicants overwhelmed Nevada’s unemployment system following casino closures because of the coronavirus pandemic, state officials acknowledged Friday.

Officials promised that people having trouble submitting claims will not lose benefits regardless of when they are able to file.

The 93,036 applications received last week was “unprecedented,” the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation said, and the total vastly eclipsed the previous high of nearly 9,000 weekly claims filed during the first week of January 2009, amid the Great Recession.

“We are actively … researching ways to expand our system and staffing levels to meet a monumental need for unemployment insurance support,” agency chief Tiffany Tyler-Garner said in a statement. “We understand the frustration many are feeling, and we hear you. Please know that you are not in this alone.”

Responding to reports that claim-seekers waited hours on telephone hold or were disconnected, the department said call center employees have been added; others were being trained to assist with a backlog of email and phone requests; and an online portal was set up for people having trouble resetting account usernames, passwords or both. Online claimants will receive instructions from state staff members, it said.

The stunning increase in claims followed layoffs and furloughs related to the closure of casinos, stores, restaurants and bars, liquor stores, entertainment venues and exercise gyms in response to the worldwide spread of new coronavirus. It was made more dramatic after the state unemployment rate hit a record low in January of 3.6%.

The Nevada Resort Association published an economic analysis last week saying 320,000 employees relying on $1.3 billion in monthly wages and salaries each month were at immediate risk.

Gov. Steve Sisolak on March 17 ordered a monthlong freeze on gambling, including even slot machines in convenience stores, in a bid to prevent people from person-to-person spread of the virus. Many offices also are closed, police are enforcing the governor’s order shuttering non-essential businesses, and eateries are only allowed to offer takeout or delivery. Restaurants with liquor licenses can provide alcohol with curbside meal pickups.

The death total in Nevada remained Friday at 10, but health officials reported the number of people diagnosed with the COVID-19 respiratory illness increased by 115 since Thursday, to 535. More than 6,100 people have tested negative, the state Department of Health and Human Services said.

Most people with the virus experience mild or moderate fever and coughing that clear up in two to three weeks. Some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, can face severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

The governor’s Nevada Health Response Center reported late Thursday the availability of hospital beds for coronavirus patients had increased from a week earlier.

Sisolak said last week that Nevada has fewer than 5,000 acute care beds statewide, including fewer than 700 in intensive care units best equipped to handle severe cases of COVID-19.

But the Nevada Hospital Association reported improvements from March 17-26. It said intensive care unit room occupancy statewide fell from 76% to 72%, and the percentage of licensed hospital beds used by patients dropped from 84% to 67%.

Meanwhile, the percentage of ventilators in use statewide rose from 31% to 40% during the same time period, and the number of occupied negative air pressure rooms increased from 42% to 51%. So-called “airborne infection isolation rooms” are designed to prevent virus particles from escaping that room.

Health Response Center spokeswoman Meghin Delaney didn’t immediately say whether Sisolak thinks Nevada hospitals will be able to handle a possible surge in coronavirus patients.

In other Nevada coronavirus news:

- Las Vegas police reported Friday that a jail guard who had been vacationing and had not returned to work tested positive for COVID-19. The department said tests for 16 other police employees were pending, and 14 of them tested negative. Sheriff Joe Lombardo said this week there have been no confirmed cases among his police department’s 6,000 employees, including more than 3,100 sworn officers.

- Pop music star and frequent Las Vegas performer Bruno Mars announced Thursday he’ll donate $1 million to an MGM Resorts Foundation fund set up to support casino employees and family members facing emergencies due to the coronavirus outbreak. The pledge matched $1 million given by MGM Resorts International to launch the foundation.


Associated Press writer Scott Sonner in Reno contributed to this report.

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