The summer COVID-19 surge continues in Nebraska, with the state last week posting its fifth straight week of increased cases.
The state recorded 978 new cases in the week ending Thursday, up from 690 the previous week and 489 two weeks earlier.
But Nebraska’s increase has not been as steep as that of some harder-hit states. While the state’s cases were up 100% over the past two weeks, that percentage ranks only 41st nationally, as cases are surging across the country.
Every state had an increase in cases last week, with Southern states with the lowest vaccination rates seeing steeper increases. Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina, Louisiana and Alabama all saw cases double in a single week. Louisiana now leads the nation in per capita cases.
Missouri, which for weeks led the country in COVID cases, has seen growth slow and now ranks fourth. Iowa’s two-week growth in cases is 14th-highest in the U.S. Both Iowa and Nebraska continue to have per capita case rates that are about half the U.S. average.
Nebraska’s five weeks of increases follow an eight-week streak of decreasing cases.
The increase in cases has resulted in a slow but steady increase in the number of Nebraskans, most of whom are unvaccinated, hospitalized with COVID-19. An average of 101 Nebraskans a day were hospitalized with the virus last week, up 24% from the previous week. The state recorded nine coronavirus-related deaths last week.
Dr. Angela Hewlett, who directs the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s COVID-19 infectious diseases service, said the 25 beds in the Nebraska Medical Center’s main COVID-19 unit are now full. Hospital officials, she said, are considering opening additional beds.
At the end of June, the number of COVID patients in the hospital had dwindled to only three or four.
“This delta variant has really come in and taken hold, just like we’re seeing in other places in the U.S. and the world,” Hewlett said.
Health care workers across the state have dealt with surges before, including a spike last fall that saw almost 1,000 Nebraskans hospitalized in November. But that was before the rollout of the vaccines, which provide protection against hospitalization and death.
Health care workers are frustrated, Hewlett said, because they were hoping that enough people would get vaccinated that they wouldn’t see another surge. The vast majority of the hospital’s COVID patients now are unvaccinated and younger — previously healthy 20-, 30- and 40-year-olds — than those they saw during the previous waves.
The few who are vaccinated have suppressed immune systems, which can keep them from getting full protection from the vaccine.
“This is now changing to a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” said Hewlett, who tweeted about the uptick over the weekend.
Two of her colleagues, Drs. Mark Rupp and James Lawler, wrote about the need to bolster vaccination in Sunday’s World-Herald.
Dr. Cary Ward, CHI Health’s chief medical officer, said Monday that the health system had 32 COVID-19 patients spread among its 14 hospitals, most of them unvaccinated and young.
That’s far fewer than the health system’s peak of about 200 last fall. But it’s higher than the 14 the health system tallied a few weeks ago.
“I think we’re all very anxious what these numbers could become,” Ward said.
Hewlett doesn’t think that the state will see the same high hospitalization numbers it saw last fall, given good vaccination rates among older Nebraskans.
But she agreed that the situation could worsen.
“If we’re following the same trend as our surrounding states, this will get worse before it gets better,” she said.
Two-thirds of Nebraskans 18 and older have now received at least one shot. That figure, 66.7%, was up six-tenths of 1% from last week and ranks 25th among states. Iowa is 27th at 65.5%.
The 23,000 shots administered in Nebraska last week was up 20% over the previous week and 86% over two weeks ago.
U.S. COVID shots have also trended upward over the last two weeks after a long period of decline.
It’s possible that the recent surge in cases is prompting more previously reluctant people to take the shots. Some of the biggest increases in shots administered last week were in recently hard-hit states that also have low vaccination rates, including Louisiana, Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama.
Kansas (No. 1) and Iowa (9th) also ranked in the top 10 in vaccination increases last week. Nebraska ranked 13th.