In these unprecedented times, what happens in Vegas, doesn't stay in Vegas.
A cellphone data revealed that casinos in Las Vegas are a major hotbed for the spread of COVID-19. Contact tracing has proved to be futile as tourists return to their homes across the nation.
Las Vegas casinos reopened on June 4, and have become a possible major hotbed for the transmission of the novel coronavirus, according to public health experts. If tourists get to return home and tests positive for COVID-19, then the act of contact tracing amid a pandemic is practically rendered useless in the event a huge outbreak arises.
ProPublica, "a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power", published a report last week describing how the popular tourist and gambling destination is making it difficult for health officials to monitor and make contact tracing effective.
The media outlet looked at cellphone travel patterns that were gathered in a specific place, which were analyzed by two companies that specialize in location data. The focus was on travel patterns of mobile devices that traveled at "pedestrian speeds" on the Las Vegas strip during the weekends in May, June and July.
In the month of May when Las Vegas casinos were not yet allowed to open, cellphone data revealed that most of those devices remained concentrated in the southwest region of the country.
However, when Nevada casinos were allowed to reopen on June 4, the device count on the Strip significantly doubled. Also, there was increased travel activity to and from major east coast and midwest cities.
By July, data showed that there was significant travel in and out of Las Vegas in every U.S. state.
Contact tracing, one of the pillars of stopping the pandemic, is a process where government officials keep track those who may have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus. Then those people would have to get themselves tested as well, and take necessary measures to prevent it from spreading any further.
The process is done on a state level, which means it is impossible for officials to contact all those who may have been exposed to a positive case that made a trip to Las Vegas. In hypothesis, an outbreak in a Las Vegas casino would be really impossible to trace, given the traffic patterns seen in the study.
On the maps shown above, around 26,000 cellphones showed up on the Las Vegas Strip in a 4-day period in mid-July. Thousands of the same devices detected on the Strip were also located in the Southwestern United States and cities across the nation in the same four days, including every mainland state except Maine. Areas in orange show where devices were tracked. A deeper glow means more devices were concentrated in that area.
Clearly, casinos are high-risk areas for the spread of the virus, but in the re-opening process, these gambling properties have been adhering to the safety regulations imposed by government officials. Las Vegas casinos are operating at reduced capacity and have implemented stricter sanitation procedures in order to reduce the spread. For example, Wisconsin casinos have recently started using ultra-violet light systems in their ventilation systems to sanitize recirculated air.