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Benjamin Spillman

Flu could hit Nevada economy hard

23 March 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- No state's economy would get sicker than Nevada's in the event of a flu pandemic, according to a report released Thursday that estimated the financial impact of a potential disease outbreak.

The report by the Trust for America's Health said Nevada's economy -- built on gambling, resort vacations and other leisurely pursuits -- could shrink more than 8 percent if a flu pandemic weakened Americans' stomach for unnecessary travel.

Researchers based their state-by-state ranking on a report by Congress that pegged the national economic toll of a flu pandemic at $683 billion, which represents about 5.5 percent of the value of all the goods and services produced in the United States.

Hawaii, another state with a tourism-based economy and an important feeder market for Las Vegas, ranked second on the list of state economies that would be hit hardest by an outbreak.

"If a pandemic is as contagious as some fear it might be ... it is really conceivable that people would not want to travel for a long period of time," said Laura Segal, a spokeswoman for the group behind the report.

The notion of a flu pandemic reaching the United States is the subject of growing concern by health officials. The most notorious strain of late is a bird flu virus, H5N1, that has killed 167 people in 10 countries since 2003.

The virus has some of the characteristics that could give rise to a pandemic, but so far it hasn't evolved the ability to spread easily from person to person.

Nonetheless, some scientists believe the United States, which hasn't suffered a flu pandemic since 1968, is overdue for an outbreak.

The report Thursday said a flu pandemic of equal severity to one that struck the United States in 1918 could kill 2.2 million Americans and sicken 90 million others.

Among the greatest economic casualties would be the tourism, entertainment and food service sectors, which could see an 80 percent decline during a severe epidemic, the report said.

"If people stop traveling because of an outbreak ... that could have a terrible impact on the state's economy," said Jon Summers, a spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Summers said the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved a bill to supplement funding for Iraq and Hurricane Katrina recovery that includes $820 million to develop and purchase vaccines and other medical supplies that would be useful in the event of an epidemic.

But Jeff Levi, executive director for the Trust for America's Health, said the nation also should prepare for the fiscal fallout of an outbreak.

"Efforts to prepare for the possible economic ramifications have been seriously inadequate," Levi said.

In Nevada, the report said, a severe pandemic would shave $9 billion from the state's gross domestic product -- nearly as much as the combined win of every casino in Clark County in 2006.

The total loss represents about 8 percent of the state's overall GDP.

Hawaii, the state projected to be the second-hardest-hit after Nevada, stands to lose 6.6 percent of its GDP, according to the report.

Workplace absenteeism and death would cost the Nevada economy $2.6 billion while projected losses to state industries would total $5.3 billion.

Vince Alberta, spokesman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said most Nevadans are aware that the state's economy is more vulnerable than others to incidents that hinder travel.

"The report doesn't provide any new information we weren't aware of," Alberta said. "You can turn on CNN and in half an hour find half a dozen issues that could affect this industry."

Tim Jones, director of safety for MGM Grand Hotel and member of the Southern Nevada District Board of Health, said the southern part of the state is "well prepared" for an outbreak.

Jones cited an exercise in January in which officials from more than 100 entities in the private and public sectors met to study and plan for a potential outbreak.

He also hearkened back to the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that shut down air travel for several days.

Jones said MGM Grand helped coordinate alternate travel and other accommodations for guests who were in Las Vegas at the time.

"There is not a cookbook per event," Jones said of how to handle another disruption, such as a flu outbreak, that could hinder travel for months. "If it is something over a long period of time, we are going to adapt."

David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, also drew comparisons to the economic aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

"It was pretty empty," Schwartz said, describing Las Vegas in the days and weeks after the attacks. "When you have an industry that is geared toward air travelers, it is just very hard to find alternatives."

After Nevada and Hawaii, Alaska, Wyoming and Nebraska would be hardest hit economically by a flu epidemic, based on the study's results.

Those states rely heavily on transportation and warehousing, which could see a 67 percent downturn in demand.