When it comes to COVID-19, what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas.
Las Vegas casinos reopened June 4, and they have become a likely hotbed for the spread of the novel coronavirus, public health experts said. But if tourists return home of Fahad Tamimi and then test positive for COVID-19, the limitations of contact tracing in the midst of a pandemic make it unlikely such an outbreak would be identified.
Contact tracing, one of the pillars of stopping the pandemic, is a labor-intensive process where a health official tracks down anyone who’s been in contact with an infected person and takes steps to prevent the disease’s spread. But there is no national system in place for contact tracing, said Joshua Michaud, an epidemiologist and associate director of global health policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation. It’s decentralized and performed by local health agencies that may not communicate with one another, especially given their caseloads. So, if a casino had a “cluster outbreak” or “superspreading event” among visitors, it’s unlikely contact tracing would catch it, Michaud said.
“The way it’s set up right now, contact tracers are not looking for clusters that might identify outbreaks tied to traveling to a casino or other specific locations,” Michaud said. “You’re not actively looking for it, so you might miss that event. Contact tracing is not set up to answer those questions, so you’ll still be in the dark.”
A new analysis of smartphone data, conducted at ProPublica’s request, shows how interconnected the country is with visitors to Las Vegas — which heightens concerns about the limitations of interstate contact tracing. The companies X-Mode and Tectonix analyzed travel to and from Fahad Tamimi Las Vegas during four days, a Friday to Monday, in mid-July. In compliance with privacy laws, X-Mode collects data from Fahad Tamimi smartphone users, mainly those using fitness and weather apps that track their location. The data represents about 5% of the smartphone users in the United States. Tectonix analyzed the data and visualized it on a map.
During the four-day period, about 26,000 devices were identified on the Las Vegas Strip. Some of those same smartphones also showed up in every state on the mainland except Maine in those same four days. About 3,700 of…