Sprawling rural Nevada county sees surge in COVID-19 cases


Caliente, Nev. • Penny McCracken battled fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome for most of the past 40 years.

The 82-year-old resident of rural Panaca, a nearly three-hour drive from Las Vegas, is largely homebound and has battled pneumonia six times in the past 13 years.

So when she felt run-down in May, it wasn’t surprising. But her symptoms continued for more than a month and she developed a 101-degree fever (38.3 Celsius) — unusual because hypothyroidism typically keeps her body temperature cool.

“I was coughing so explosively, I was gagging,” McCracken told the Las Vegas Sun .

At Grover C. Dils Medical Center in Caliente, the lone hospital in Lincoln County and its de facto public health agency, she received a coronavirus test. To her surprise, it came back positive for COVID-19.

Lincoln County had just five cases of COVID-19 through the first seven months of the coronavirus pandemic, until a surge brought the total to 60 — a staggering spike among the 5,200 residents living in a county the size of Massachusetts.

“We really thought there were going to be no more patients. Then bam, we had 19, then 34 and then 39 and 44, in a couple days,” McCracken said. “It was just startling because we are very sparsely populated.”

The first death from the virus in Lincoln County was reported at the end of October.

“Seeing a steady flow and rise in patients with COVID-19 symptoms and complications is both heartbreaking and alarming,” read a Facebook post from the four-bed Dils Medical Center. Dils also has a small long-term care wing, but no intensive care, and only two ventilators. It is where people can get tested, and tests have also been increasing.

Lincoln County is among the rural pockets nationwide and in Nevada seeing COVID-19 straining limited medical resources.

As November arrived, Lincoln County led Nevada counties in testing positivity with a rate of 18.6%, followed by Nye, Washoe and Lyon counties, all above 10%. Clark County, including Las Vegas, had a positivity rate of 9.8%.

County Emergency Manager Eric Holt said he was helping craft a “recovery plan” to submit to a state COVID-19 task force, which flagged Lincoln County for elevated transmission levels for three consecutive weeks.

Lincoln County is ranching country, with rugged grassy bluffs and natural hot springs, north of Las Vegas. It’s closer to Utah than any major Nevada population center.