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With COVID variants on the rise in Nebraska, Creighton and CHI to begin expanded testing
  • Updated

The coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom is becoming more common in Nebraska, and public health officials said Wednesday they’re concerned it could soon become the state’s leading source of new infections.

“If it’s not the dominant strain yet, it likely will be in a short period of time,” said Dr. Maureen Tierney, assistant dean for clinical research and public health at Creighton University’s School of Medicine.

That’s already the case nationally. Officials at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Wednesday that the variant, also known as B.1.1.7, has become the most common source of new infections in the United States.

The rise of the variant is a concern because studies suggest it is more contagious than the original strain and that it may cause more severe illness. In the United Kingdom, people who have contracted the strain have tended to be younger.

While vaccines are successful in dealing with it, experts worry that the variant is hitting at a time when most of the population has not yet been vaccinated. And they are concerned that the virus could continue to mutate as it spreads.

In the U.S., the variant has been found most often in Michigan, Florida, Colorado, California, Minnesota and Massachusetts. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director, said federal health officials are following increasing cases associated with youth sports and childcare centers and that hospitals are seeing more patients who are younger adults.

To aid in identifying variants, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has contracted with Creighton and clinical partner CHI Health. Creighton researchers will use genetic sequencing to determine whether COVID-19-positive test samples collected at CHI’s hospitals and clinics were caused by variants of the virus.

Current testing systems such as TestNebraska can detect positive cases even when they are caused by variants. But it takes additional testing to determine whether a particular infection is caused by a variant and, if so, which one.

Tierney said the majority of the samples in the last run at Creighton, which covers roughly the last week, were identified as the B.1.1.7 variant.

The Nebraska Public Health Laboratory has been doing advanced testing of targeted samples. It found that at least three quarters of positive samples sequenced recently were B.1.1.7, said Peter Iwen, the lab’s director.

Tierney noted that Creighton and CHI are testing all positive samples at CHI facilities, which “gives a better idea of what’s really out there.”

Once identified, local health departments can prioritize variant-caused cases for contact tracing.

In recent months, genetic sequencing in Nebraska has identified 237 cases involving variants. Of those, 187 were B.1.1.7.

Meanwhile, new cases and hospitalizations related to COVID-19 in Nebraska have ticked up within the past week. According to the state’s data dashboard, hospitalizations have climbed from 102 to 151 in the last eight days.

While it’s not clear who is filling those additional beds, local doctors say their COVID-19 patients are skewing somewhat younger than during last fall’s surge.

Dr. Renuga Vivekanandan, an associate professor at Creighton and chief of infectious diseases at Creighton and CHI Health, said she is seeing more patients under 60 with COVID-19 than she saw before.

Dr. Jessica Jones, an infectious diseases physician with Methodist Health System, said she has observed a shift to a younger patient population, with many in their 40s and 50s. While data isn’t available to explain it, she said she thinks the shift represents younger patients who aren’t yet vaccinated.

The good news, Tierney said, is the vaccines available in the U.S. all are very effective against the variants in the state.

Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska’s chief medical officer, said the state focused first on vaccinating the most vulnerable — specifically, its older residents. With more vaccine available, officials now are working to get more people vaccinated, including those more likely to spread the virus.

The state on Monday opened vaccination to residents 16 and older, with the caveat that health districts can set their own course as they have vaccine and appointments available. Locally, the Douglas County and Sarpy/Cass health departments opened appointments to 16 and older Monday.

Anthone and others pleaded with Nebraskans to sign up and get vaccinated at their earliest opportunity. Vivekanandan also stressed the need for residents to continue to mask in public and maintain distance until more people are vaccinated and spread can be stemmed.

“This is what’s going to stop the spread of those variants,” Anthone said. “Right now, we have these successful vaccines that we didn’t have back in November. It’s our new weapon against this. It’s what gives us hope for the future.

“So please, even though you’re young and you think that you might (not) be vulnerable to being hospitalized or dying, it’s still important to get vaccinated for that purpose, to keep the spread under control.”

Tierney said controlling spread through vaccination also reduces the chances of variant transmitting and possibly allowing worse ones to emerge.

“The longer we let it circulate in larger numbers,” she said of the virus, “the larger chance of a more worrisome variant happening.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.


Our best Omaha staff photos of March 2021

Govt-and-politics
alert
Omaha mayoral election
Jasmine Harris says Omaha mayoral race 'far from over' with more than 12,000 uncounted votes
  • Updated

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert is sure to appear on next month’s general election ballot. But whom she will face remained an officially unsettled question Wednesday, with several thousand primary ballots still uncounted.

In incomplete results released late Tuesday evening, Stothert was the top vote-getter, receiving nearly 59% of the vote. Commercial real estate broker RJ Neary came in second, leading nonprofit leader Jasmine Harris by more than 1,700 votes.

Harris on Wednesday said the race isn’t decided until all the ballots have been counted. Neary’s communications director said the campaign is focused on connecting with voters over the next five weeks, even as they await the final vote count.

Election workers Wednesday were in the process of verifying and tabulating more than 12,000 absentee ballots. Those were the mail-in ballots that people turned in on Election Day, rather than mailing them in or dropping them in a drop box prior to the election.

Those results won’t be known until Friday afternoon. Depending on how the votes shake out among the five candidates who ran for mayor, Harris still has a path to pull ahead of Neary to face Stothert in the general election.

Harris

“This race is far from over,” Harris’ campaign tweeted Wednesday.

The math may not be on her side. For Harris to leapfrog Neary, she would need to win a significantly higher share of those 12,000 uncounted absentee votes than she did of the 52,500 early votes that were cast in the lead-up to Election Day.

Those 52,500 ballots represented the first batch of votes released at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Harris won 9.6% of them compared to Neary’s 17%.

If that percentage split holds true for the 12,000 remaining ballots, Neary’s margin would only increase. And Stothert is sure to get many of those votes — she took 60% of the 8 p.m. vote haul — and Kimara Snipes and Mark Gudgel, the other Democrats who ran, will also receive some.

In an interview, Harris noted that no one knows which pockets of Omaha the 12,000 ballots will represent, or to whom they’ll go. She said one of her campaign’s strategies leading up to Tuesday was to talk to as many voters as possible to ensure that early ballots were returned.

And, Harris said, the people who turned those ballots in waited until the last possible day to do so.

“They very well could have seen something or heard something that could have changed their minds,” she said.

“I’m real hopeful,” Harris said.

Wellesley Michael, Neary’s campaign communications director, said Wednesday the campaign will focus on connecting with voters in the coming weeks.

“We’re excited looking at the votes that have come in so far, which have RJ advancing to the general,” she said. “We’ll continue to await the final results Friday as the last 12,000 votes are counted. We look forward to engaging more voters in the next five weeks and sharing RJ’s path forward.”

In a celebratory speech Tuesday night, Stothert congratulated Neary for moving on to the May election.

Regardless of the outcome Friday, Harris said she’s proud that everyday people were the focus on her campaign.

“It’s been really overwhelming,” Harris said. “People are saying I’m inspiring, but I’m inspired by the people because they are actually showing up and want to be engaged and involved in how we’re shaping our city.”

Why won’t the results of the 12,000 ballots be released until Friday?

An election official must look at each ballot envelope to ensure that the voter signed it, and that the signature is correct. That process is labor-intensive and could take until midday Thursday, Kruse said.

Workers must then open each envelope and prepare the ballots to be machine-counted. That process should conclude Friday, with the results then released sometime in the afternoon, Kruse said.

“We do not sacrifice accuracy for speed,” Kruse said.

Neary

The process is the same as has been used for previous elections, Kruse said. But higher participation in absentee voting left more uncounted votes than in previous city primaries.

Another 300 provisional ballots also still must be counted, Kruse said. Those are the ballots people fill out at polling locations when there are questions about a voter’s eligibility.

“We want to provide the voters a fair and accurate count,” Kruse said.

The uncounted ballots also have the potential to change the outcome of multiple Omaha City Council races.

Unofficially, turnout in the primary appears to have reached nearly 28.5%. Kruse had predicted turnout as high as 30%. Turnout in city primaries typically hovers near 20%.


Omaha mayors, from the beginning to now

Govt-and-politics
Nebraska legislators advance bill to require postcards when local tax hike proposed
  • Updated

LINCOLN — Could a postcard prevent further property tax increases, or at least better inform taxpayers when taxes might be going up?

That was the question before the Nebraska Legislature in a two-day debate over what was called a “truth in taxation” measure, or simply “the postcard bill.”

State Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair said his proposed Legislative Bill 644 was patterned after a Utah law that requires taxing entities to inform taxpayers, via a postcard and on a website, when an increase in property taxes was being proposed.

All too often, Hansen said, government boards enact their annual budgets and increase taxes with little or no input from taxpayers.

He passed out a brightly colored example of a “Notice of Proposed Tax Increase” postcard to fellow senators. It explained the size of the increase and invited the taxpayer to a public hearing over the increase. LB 644, as amended on Wednesday, would apply to cities, counties, school districts and community colleges.

While Hansen called it an “informed consent” bill that would increase transparency and give elected officials pause before raising taxes, several senators questioned the added cost and bureaucracy.

Bellevue Sen. Carol Blood called LB 644 an “unfunded mandate” on local governments. The cost of sending out a postcard and setting up software was estimated at $26,000 in Sarpy County, she said. In Douglas County, one estimate was $560,000.

She and other senators argued that postcards should not be required when taxes were rising simply because of inflation or growth in an area. They said that if the state felt the postcards were essential, then it should pay for them. Others called it a bad example of government overreach by taking away local control and disrespecting the decision-making of local elected officials.

“It’s not lowering taxes, it’s increasing the cost of doing business at our counties,” said Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt.

But there was plenty of support for the idea, which was backed by several conservative and business groups, including Americans for Prosperity.

Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, who heads the Legislature’s Revenue Committee, said she was tired of “getting hoodwinked” by local officials who aren’t being clear about whether they’re raising taxes.

“They never say ‘we’re raising your taxes,’” Linehan said. Instead, she said, they say they “didn’t raise the (tax) levy,” which can still translate into a tax increase when property valuations have risen.

Two years ago, the Legislature passed a bill introduced by Linehan that required a separate public hearing when property taxes were rising because of a valuation increase. But the Platte Institute, a free-market think tank in Omaha that backs LB 644, said its polling indicated that a majority of taxpayers didn’t see the newspaper notifications of the separate tax increase meeting.

Omaha Sen. John McCollister, who used to work for the Platte Institute, supported the bill, saying that it would provide “a little friction” for local officials who might be considering a tax hike.

LB 644 was ultimately amended and advanced from first-round debate on a 36-1 vote, with Hunt the lone “no” vote. But Hansen pledged to work with senators who criticized the measure on amendments to the bill prior to second-round consideration.


Meet the Nebraska state senators

State-and-regional
AP
Iowa City quarantines 660 students
  • Updated

JOHNSTON, Iowa — The Iowa City school district said Wednesday that 127 students and five staff members tested positive for the coronavirus or are presumed positive, prompting the district to close 11 classrooms and quarantine more than 660 students and 16 staff members because of exposure.

The district was dealing with the infections as Gov. Kim Reynolds maintained Wednesday at a press conference that the virus is not transmitted in schools. Reynolds noted that she wasn’t familiar with the Iowa City situation.

Speaking generally about infections at schools, Reynolds said, “Most of the teachers and the kids were being exposed outside of the classroom. We weren’t seeing the transmission inside the classroom.”

A school district spokeswoman said that over the past few weeks contact tracing for confirmed virus cases in school buildings has revealed an increase in the number of students identified as close contacts to confirmed cases.

“This increase is, in part, due to the influx of students in our buildings since returning to 100% on-site learning and the inability to no longer maintain proper social distancing measures,” said Kristin Pedersen.

She said the contact tracing and quarantine protocols are based on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Reynolds has been a strong advocate of classroom learning and has promoted state policies that pushed schools back into classrooms even as some local administrators and school boards resisted.

Federal public health officials voiced increased concern about new coronavirus variants infecting youth as outbreak clusters have been reported among participants in youth sports and in day care centers.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that some states with high transmission rates should consider suspending youth sports activities to slow the transmission and keep schools open.

Walensky said that by the end of March, 80% of all teachers, school staff and child care workers in the U.S. had received at least one vaccine dose — about 8 million people. She said that level of vaccination helps reach President Joe Biden’s goal of broadly opening classrooms safely.

Walensky also said that a coronavirus variant first identified in Europe is now the dominant version of the virus in the country. It is more infectious, especially for younger people, and can cause more severe illness.

“Across the country we’re hearing reports of clusters of cases associated with day care centers and youth sports. Hospitals are seeing more and more younger adults — those in their 30s and 40s — admitted with severe disease,” she said.

The trend is reflected in Iowa’s results. The state reported 797 new confirmed cases on Wednesday and 13 additional deaths for a total of 5,835 deaths.

Among the positive cases in the past seven days, 25% were among the 18-29 age group and 49% of the positive cases were in people ages 30-59. Reynolds said 61% of people hospitalized with the virus are now in their 40s, 50s and 60s, a shift from earlier trends in which hospitalized people were older.

In Iowa, 87% of the 65-and-older population has had at least one dose of vaccine, she said.

Hospitalizations in Iowa have increased nearly 30% from a month ago to 216. More than 40 virus patients were in intensive care.

Positive cases among those under age 17 were 4% of the total. State data shows more than 41,000 children in Iowa under age 17 have tested positive for the virus in the past year.

Reynolds also announced that she would either sign an executive order or work with lawmakers to pass a law to prohibit the practice of requiring proof of vaccination to participate in an event or activity in Iowa. She said she opposes the use of so-called vaccine passports because she believes vaccination is a personal choice and shouldn’t be required. The Biden administration has said it has no plans to support such a requirement.


Our best Omaha staff photos of March 2021

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