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Beyond Covid: Las Vegas Strip Faces Another Health Crisis

While Sin City has largely built back its business to pre-pandemic levels, a new health threat presents a risk to that recovery.

In late 2021, Las Vegas appeared to be well on the road to recovery from the covid pandemic. International travelers and older customers had yet to return in large numbers, but tourists had begun to fill Strip hotels, and January 2022's Consumers Electronics Show (CES) looked like it would mark a huge return for major conventions.

Nobody expected CES to reach 2020 numbers, all the major players were planning on appearing at the show in person which would lead to busy hotels and casinos for Caesars Entertainment (CZR) - Get Free Report, MGM Resorts International (MGM) - Get Free Report, and pretty much every operator both on the Strip and downtown.

It wasn't going to be the madness that the technology convention usually brings, but it was going to be a major step toward a return to normal.

Then, the Omicron variant began spreading and CES fell apart like a house of cards in slow motion. Major companies started pulling out from having an on-site presence or sending people to the show.

Organizers held short of canceling the event, but what actually took place was a hollow shell of a normal year. Many booths were little more than displays and QR codes with no actual people. Hotels and casinos were basically empty as only 25% of the normal crowd attended.

What should have been a much-needed triumph for Caesars, MGM, and the rest of the casino operators turned into a disappointment. The whole affair showed how tenuous the recovery was which taught the city some lessons and gave it a dire warning as to how easily the current recovery could disappear.

Now, with a number of huge Las Vegas events on the horizon, a new health crisis has emerged.

CES Lead

A New Illness Spreads in Las Vegas  

The biggest issue Las Vegas -- or any tourist destination -- struggles with is perception. People don't want to go on a vacation (or a business trip) where they're likely to get sick. They're also very wary of getting stuck away because they catch something that forces them to be hospitalized or quarantined.

Now, Las Vegas has seen a major uptick in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a virus that infects the lungs and breathing passages. So far, the problem has largely impacted children, but the rising numbers are pushing capacities at hospitals, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.

Pediatric units at numerous area hospitals have hit their patient limits.

“We have no more beds,” emergency department pediatrician Dr. Lyndsey van der Laan told the paper. “Wait times in the ER are getting longer. We’re seeing more and more patients.”

Full pediatric units force hospitals to use other areas to treat infected children. That limits their ability to handle adult cases if RSV spreads among the population. Add in the threat of covid numbers rising and an expected difficult flu season and you can see the potential for a perfect storm of problems.

A Tripledemic Could Hit Las Vegas

CES fell apart because companies were worried about exposing employees to the Omicron variant even though that version of covid was not a serious health threat to vaccinated, otherwise healthy adults. The same could happen with RSV and flu -- both of which are generally not life threatening for healthy adults -- and that's a major concern for the busy winter tourist season on the Las Vegas Strip.

“This is a concern about bad timing,” Brian Labus, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UNLV’s School of Public Health told the Review-Journal. “Any one of these things can put a lot of stress on our ERs. All three happening at the same time would very much stress our medical system.”

An actual health crisis could be disastrous for January's CES show, but even a perceived one could be a major problem. If hospitals are full and viruses are spreading, tourists may choose to opt out of a Las Vegas trip and companies may pull out of trade shows.   

But, Omicron showed that this recovery is very tenuous and a rise in illness -- even if it's not serious -- could put a major wrinkle in Sin City's recovery.