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Medical surgery floor at University Medical Center of Southern Nevada as seen on Thursday, July 26, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Nevada’s chief medical officer said at a meeting of the Patient Protection Commission on Monday that a coronavirus outbreak in Nevada is “not a question of if, it’s when” but added that the state is prepared. 

Dr. Ihsan Azzam addressed the commission during a public comment period, before members turned to other business and identified their top three priorities for the year.

“It is no longer an outbreak,” Azzam said of the virus, pointing out that there have been more than 90,000 confirmed cases in 67 countries. “It is more appropriate to use the words 'global pandemic.'”

Azzam described the extensive preparation that the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health has undertaken in the face of a potential outbreak.

“In Nevada, although we did have numbers of people which were rated as high risk … we are closely monitoring every high risk individual,” he said. “Certainly that would not be possible if we had a community spread, as we saw in Washington (State).”

“We are ready to be able to early identify every single case, to immediately isolate cases,” he added.

The typical time between identification of a potential case of the virus to receiving test results is less than six hours, according to Azzam, who also noted that the process in the lab takes about an hour and a half. 

“I don’t want to be negative, but it’s a question of time,” said Azzam. “We are going to do our best to ensure the safety of our community, and we wish that everybody would be safer. It’s not a question of if, it’s when.”

In the face of this reality, however, Azzam is confident in Nevada’s ability to contain an outbreak.

“We want to make sure that whatever tools we have, we are applying that to slow the spread of the virus,” he said.

Azzam’s remarks come just days after Gov. Steve Sisolak held a press conference in Las Vegas urging Nevadans not to panic and to practice basic hygiene. 

The Patient Protection Commission was promised by Sisolak during his 2018 campaign. The commission met for the first time in February, when members discussed the status of Nevada health care and heard from several experts who gave them context on provider rates and medical costs. 

On Monday, after Azzam’s address, the commission went on to discuss the three major issues members plan to tackle in the coming year, which include examining the causes of health care costs, reviewing the geographic availability of different types of providers and looking into the effect changes to Medicaid would have on the cost and availability of health care. 

The commission voted to establish three subcommittees devoted to the three topics. The chairs and each subcommittee’s precise initiative will be determined in future meetings.

Additionally, members of the commission discussed which experts they would like to hear from going forward, and what data they felt they needed in order to make effective policy decisions. Multiple members highlighted the importance of drawing data from states with similar demographics to Nevada to ensure that their models apply.

Member Theresa Bohannan emphasized the need to consider not just data but also patients affected by health care situations.

“I think it’s important to hear from actual patients of what their barriers are, why they may avoid going to see a general practitioner versus ending up in an emergency room,” Bohannan said, “to learn from them what those gaps are in services for them, and what may keep them from seeking primary care.”

During public comment, the commission heard from Shirley Gaw, a mother who spoke about the difficulty she has had finding a physical therapy provider for her child that is both covered by her insurance and accessible without a long commute or long waiting list. 

The commission intends to submit a report at the end of the year recommending legislative action for the 2021 cycle. 

This story and all others about the Patient Protection Commission are edited by Managing Editor Elizabeth Thompson and/or Assistant Editor Michelle Rindels. Sara Cholhagian, the commission’s executive director, is in a relationship with Editor Jon Ralston.

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