At Robert Taylor’s Las Vegas barbershop, the buzzing sounds of clippers and friendly banter are a welcome return to normalcy after a small Covid-19 outbreak among his staff.
Three of his barbers were out sick with Covid-19 in the last month. Two have been able to return to work, while the third is still awaiting clearance. But the outbreak served as a wake-up call for Taylor and the tight-knit community he’s formed at Fade ‘Em All Barbershops.
“The barbershop is a place of transparency, truth, debates and brotherhood,” Taylor said. The biggest discussion at the shop lately, he said, is whether to get vaccinated, especially as the number of Covid-19 cases have spiked in the Las Vegas area.
Taylor said he was hospitalized with the virus last year – but was still reluctant to get the vaccine once they became widely available this spring.
Now, after doing some research and seeing the virus take hold of his friends and employees this summer, he’s become an unabashed believer in vaccines. He’s even partnered with local health officials to open up his shops as vaccine clinics on the weekends.
Over the past two weeks, 18 people have been vaccinated at his barbershops. The figure may not sound like a lot, but Taylor takes comfort in knowing that each shot makes a difference at a time when the Delta variant is leading to rapid community spread.
“People who are like, ‘Well it’s not 100% (protection),’ and I’m like, well nothing is 100%. It’s not 100% you’ll make it home, but you put a seat belt on,” he said. “And that vaccine is a seat belt.”
Covid-19 has had a disproportionate effect on communities of color. Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black people are both about twice as likely to die of Covid-19 than non-Hispanic White people, according to the latest data from the CDC.
Life expectancy in the United States fell by a year and a half in 2020 primarily due to increases in death due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to early data released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Life expectancy fell by 2.9 years for Black people from 74.7 years to 71.8 years and decreased by 1.2 years for White people, falling from 78.8 years to 77.6 years. Hispanic people experienced the largest decline in life expectancy last year, decreasing by three years from 81.8 years to 78.8 years.
The spread of the virus in Taylor’s barbershop is a snapshot of the troubling reality across Nevada. Cases and hospitalizations are on the rise, but interest in vaccinations is plateauing.
State and federal officials across the country have been partnering with local community leaders, like pastors and barbers, to encourage word-of-mouth evangelism about the vaccine – often viewed as the most powerful way to persuade skeptics.
Nevada a ‘breeding ground for new variants’
In Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, only 39% of the total population is fully vaccinated, according to according to Nevada’s Covid-19 data.
In early June, the county reported about 130 new cases per day in its 14-day moving average. But that number has jumped dramatically, and on Tuesday, the county reported 675 new cases.
Hospitalizations have also jumped from 178 in mid-June to more than 900 this week in Clark County, according to the state’s Covid-19 data. The recent numbers are starting to reach the similar peaks that the county saw during the summer surge of 2020, and county commissioners voted on Tuesday to require employees at businesses to wear masks at public indoor spaces.
The White House has labeled the county a sustained hotspot for new infections, and the Biden administration has sent FEMA surge teams to Nevada to assist with vaccination efforts statewide.
Health officials know it’s an uphill battle. A majority of unvaccinated Americans said that they are not at all likely to get vaccinated, regardless of outreach efforts, according to new poll results published Tuesday by Axios-Ipsos.
A quarter or less of those who are unvaccinated said that they would be likely to get the vaccine under certain circumstances, according to the poll, which was conducted July 16 to 19 and made up of a nationally representative sample of 1,048 general population US adults.
“A vast majority remain unconvinced, showing how these ‘vaccine holdouts’ may not budge anytime soon,” Ipsos said.
Dr. Shadaba Asad, the medical director of infectious disease at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas, said hospitals are better equipped to handle the current surge than they were a year ago. The hardest part this time, she said, is knowing that the increase could have been prevented if more were vaccinated.
She attributes the recent rise in Covid cases to the unvaccinated population, calling them the “breeding ground” for the Delta variant and any other variants that might emerge.
“As long as you have a huge burden of the virus in your community, which is currently being kept alive by unvaccinated people, the virus will mutate and new variants will emerge,” she said. “It’s just a matter of time before you’re going to come across a variant where your vaccines do not provide that degree of protection. So unvaccinated people pose a huge threat to the rest of us who are vaccinated, because they’re literally a breeding ground for new variants.”
Disinterest in vaccines ‘really disheartening,’ district health officer says
Farther north in Nevada, the vaccination rate is higher in Washoe County, which includes Reno, with 48% of the county’s total population being fully vaccinated.
Next to the Reno Rodeo Arena, the county health department has converted a parking lot into a mass vaccination site. But interest in Covid-19 vaccines has dwindled – and so have the lines of cars.
Kevin Dick, the Washoe County District Health Officer, said at its peak, the county vaccination site was delivering 2,800 vaccine doses per day. This week, that number has plunged to about 140 per day. He says other pharmacies in the area account for more vaccine delivery, as well, but that overall the vaccination trend lines are declining.
“It’s really disheartening. It’s frustrating,” Dick said. “We just need people to step up and do the right thing for themselves and for their communities.”
Dick said one of the biggest threats to vaccination rates is the spreading virus of misinformation, especially false information about the vaccine affecting fertility. He said the rumors are causing a significant faction of young people to not get vaccinated.
“People want to believe things that are more sensational, and we know that in social media, misinformation that’s sensational moves more rapidly than a true story,” said Dick.
In recent weeks, the state of Nevada started a weekly lottery awarding money to residents who have initiated the vaccine process. The state will award $5 million in prize money through the end of August, and the grand prize is a $1 million jackpot.
But even this vaccine effort has been hampered by anti-vaccine hecklers. During the first drawing, which Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak hosted, a man with a bullhorn shouted that the vaccines were “destroying people,” despite evidence that the vaccine has been safely administered to tens of millions.
As the man was escorted out of the lottery drawing by security, Sisolak quickly sought to reassure the watching crowd of the vaccine’s safety.
“There’s an individual that doesn’t understand that the vaccines are totally safe,” Sisolak said. “They’ve been tested and we’re helping save lives, which is what we’re doing.”
CNN’s Jacqueline Howard contributed to this report.