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Indy Q&A: Sisolak weighs in on private sector donations, plans for makeshift hospitals, stopping evictions and releasing prisoners

Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels
CoronavirusState Government
Steve Sisolak at press conference

Gov. Steve Sisolak said the federal government has failed to provide Nevada the testing equipment, masks and gloves it needs to fight the pandemic — a decision he says he hopes is not political.

But in an interview Friday with The Nevada Independent, he said the private sector, including casino magnates such as Sheldon Adelson who have resorts in Macau where the virus hit earlier, have been supplying many of the needs for the scarce supplies.

Sisolak did not make commitments on requests lodged this week that he release prisoners earlier or enact a moratorium on evictions. He did say he has consulted with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to explore how hotels, dorms and warehouses could be repurposed as hospitals if circumstances became dire.

Read on for highlights of the interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

The ACLU is asking that you would commute the sentences of a lot of folks that are near the end of their terms as a way to decrease the numbers in the prison. I'm wondering if you've made any decision on those requests at this point? 

It's something that I'll take under advisement of my staff and get back to you when we reach a decision but I haven't read their request yet.

There's a lot of considerations that come with this. I think some folks have said maybe letting people out could increase homelessness.

Not having read it yet, I don't know exactly what they're asking for, but there are a lot of things you have to look at in terms of a mass relief like this.

You've got to look at the housing situation, if it turns into homelessness. You have medical care, which they get now, they wouldn't get once they get released. You have to look at employment opportunities, which there's not a lot of right now. 

All that has to be weighed, and I'll do that in concert with my staff and any advice I can get from folks along the way and make a decision that I feel is in the best interests of Nevada.

In light of a correctional officer testing positive for COVID-19, do you think that people working in prisons have what they need in terms of personal protective equipment to avoid getting sick, which could be pretty catastrophic for those prisons? 

We are short of PPEs all over the state for every department, whether it's for hospitals and for our first responders, it's for our health care workers, it's for our chefs that are working, the folks that are in these homeless centers that are working. 

We need more face masks. We need more gloves. We've put out pleas all over to try to get that stuff. They don't have a lot, but we're doing everything we can to protect everybody as best we possibly can with what we have.

I've put in two large orders to the federal government, to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and to FEMA. The first order, we got a little less than 25 percent of what we asked for. The second order, I got zero. Now they said they're going to send some more, but we haven't gotten any since. We've made four requests for COVID testing. I've got zero. That's Z-E-R-O. Zero testing kits.

The only testing kits we're getting are through the generosity of the private sector, whether they be the hospitals buying them … Sheldon Adelson donated I think 2,000 or 4,000 testing kits to me. He flew them in — they had them in Macau, at his casino there … That helped us for a long time. 

We're down to, you know, 119 testing kits. 119. I don't know what we do on Sunday when we're down to none. 

You talk about the federal government not fulfilling these requests. What efforts have you made? Have you been able to get in touch directly with the president or with Mike Pence? 

We had a conference call all hands down with our delegation this morning ... They're trying, they're doing everything we can. I probably have four calls at least a week with the vice president's task force and all the governors as it relates to this. 

I've spoken to them. I reiterated what we needed. I've begged, I've pleaded, but understand, every governor on the call is doing the same thing I'm doing.

They're asking for the same stuff I'm asking for. And you know, the president kind of told us do what you can for yourselves, everybody. And that's what we've tried to do.

You've seen what's happened in the community. My wife and her friend Jia Mei Wang, they've raised money and brought in tens of thousands of masks … they've got a source. She's sourced them in China ...

That's where we’re getting them from — from people who own a beauty salon or own a construction company or own a restaurant, and they have some masks and gloves they haven't used.

They're donating. I've got a box in my office that somebody dropped off that we're going to get out as quickly as we possibly can …

We're cobbling it together. We're not a big state. I'm a fighter and I don't take no for an answer but it's pretty tough for me to go up against California and New York. And they're getting more, and they need a lot, don't get me wrong. They need everything they're asking for, but we're fighting to get just a little crumb off the table. 

We see a big surge in the private labs doing a lot of these tests. What is the disconnect here that we're seeing the public labs run out, but the private labs are somehow able to really ramp up?

Well, the private labs have resources. They buy theirs on the open market. They've sourced them in China. The public side doesn't move quite that fast … They've done a great job.

Sheldon donated a bunch of masks as did [Wynn Resorts CEO] Matt Maddox (Wynn Resorts announced Friday afternoon that it had procured and will donate 840,000 masks) that they had in Macau that they flew over there and now they're flying them back for us to use for people. And that's extremely generous, and I've been pleading, imploring the generosity of our other casino operators and these folks to do more. 

I keep asking and they probably hate to see my call show up on their phone, because I have to call and ask them for something. 

About a week ago you announced that former MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren was in charge of a task force whose job was to get some equipment needs met. What has Jim Murren been up to, and are you adding more people to that task force? 

He's kind of taken the lead on that one. I'm dealing with a lot of other stuff. That task force is a private entity. It's on the private side.

Jim obviously has a … Rolodex that I don't have. He can contact people that I can't contact, and they'll take his phone call immediately. He's got cell numbers and home numbers. He's got access to suppliers in Japan and Hong Kong and China and Macau that make this stuff. They can acquire this stuff. I don't have access to these. The state of Nevada does not have access. 

He has been working. I've checked in with him a few times and he says he's making a lot of progress, but there's so much work to be done. I know he's going to have some other people on his task force. I don't know whom. I don't know when they're going to make an announcement about what they've done.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan suggested President Donald Trump is being political and is not providing Michigan what it needs. Do you think there's any politics involved in Nevada not being able to get what it needs?

I know Gretchen very, very well and I'll leave her opinions to her. She feels the way she does … 

I want to hope that there's no politics involved. I mean, I've asked for what I could ask for. I pleaded for what I could plea for, and the president, the president made it clear … you guys go out and take care of yourself. Find the stuff that you need. Don't come to me for these things, and we're trying to do that. We're trying to do that as best we possibly can. 

I'm not California. I'm not New York. I don't have that kind of influence. We're a little state out here, a little bit more than 3 million people. They've got more than that living in New York City — four times that amount …

So I'm just trying to cobble together with [baling] wire and bubblegum … and it's only through the generosity of Nevadans that we've gotten this far.

We've heard speculation that maybe resorts and hotels that are closed now would be able to be hospitals or even homeless shelters to help in this crisis. Is there any truth to that?

We've worked with the Army Corps …  we have identified certain areas in the state that we could possibly expand if we need more hospital rooms, if we need more isolation rooms, if we need more [intensive care unit] rooms. Hopefully we're not going to get there.

We’'ve got some capacity left in our hospitals, and I look at those figures every single day and see those occupancy rates and capacities that are available. I look at how many ventilators we haven't used that are still left available. 

We have explored that. We've explored it with hotels, we've explored it with dormitories.

We've explored it with vacant buildings and warehouses that could be retrofitted. We've got a plan for that and I hope it never has to be implemented. 

Are we flattening the curve? Are measures you have taken working?

We don't know if it's working. A lot of what we've implemented, you've got to understand has been in the last 14 days. Today is the second week of school closures. Then we eliminated, you know, nonessential businesses, then we had the distance separation. 

So all of this has come and hopefully you're going to see a reduction, but what the experts are telling me and what the medical and scientific [community] and so forth — you're not going to understand that the curve is flattening until it starts to flatten.

You can't just pick something there. The way it's graphed … will show you as it flattens and when we've reached that apex and I can tell you as of today, we haven't reached it. I don't think it's going to be tomorrow or Sunday, but hopefully it won't be too far down the line and we're just doing the best we can with what we have.

Is the school year over? 

Nope. They're going to school. They're all being taught distance education or given packets. I had calls this week, I talked to the superintendents and the various districts.

We're working incredibly hard. Not only are they educating our kids right now, they're providing food and nutritional needs. Hundreds of thousands of meals are being delivered to these students. 

I don't know the status of if they will go back into the formal school setting or not. I think the date was April 16. It's certainly not going to be before that.

And will it be then? I don't know at this point ... I'll have to talk to the medical folks, the scientists to tell me what the best course of action would be for us. I'm trying to make all the decisions I make, whether it's closing the Strip, the social distancing, closing  restaurants, based on facts and information and medicine and science, not on politics or egos.

I get criticized whether I do A or I do B, I get that. That's part of my job, but I do what I feel is best based on the information that is provided to me by experts. 

Finally, governor: California Gov. Gavin Newson issued a moratorium on evictions. There's been a call for you to do something similar. Are you going to do that? 

We're working with legal aid and the attorney general's office here. I'd like to do a lot of things, but I have to do what is legally defensible and in the best interest. I know (Attorney) General (Aaron) Ford ...  is pursuing options that we have here and he'll bring them forward to me and we'll make that decision.


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