Nebraska’s tally of new COVID-19 cases increased last week for the third straight week, although the rate of growth that led the nation for two weeks is leveling off.
The state recorded 489 cases for the week ending Thursday, the last time Nebraska figures were updated in state case data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That was up from 456 the preceding week and 253 the week before that.
Nebraska’s two-week percentage growth in cases still ranks the state high in the nation, at No. 4, according to a World-Herald analysis of CDC data. Neighboring Kansas now leads the nation in two-week case growth at 137%, followed by Arkansas with 110%, Louisiana at 109% and Nebraska with 93%.
Because Nebraska’s recent rise in cases followed a period where it had among the nation’s lowest per capita case rates, the state’s actual case count remains relatively low — No. 26 — among states and below the U.S. rate.
Deaths related to COVID-19 also remain low, with two added last week. But the number of Nebraskans hospitalized with COVID-19 has increased. According to CDC data, 57 residents were hospitalized as of Saturday, based on a seven-day rolling average.
While still far from the peak of 987 hospitalized in the state on Nov. 20, the latest figure is twice as many as were hospitalized on June 30, when Gov. Pete Ricketts ended the state’s coronavirus state of emergency. That’s also when the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services discontinued its at-a-glance data dashboard that detailed cases, hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations.
At the time, Ricketts said the state needed to “get back to normal.” He urged Nebraskans to get vaccinated against the virus but also to keep the coronavirus risk in perspective, saying that young people are more likely to die in vehicle crashes than from COVID-19.
Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s infectious diseases division, said he and other health experts are pleased that the state’s cases are at much lower levels than last fall.
But he said the recent increase in cases is disconcerting because Nebraskans don’t have to look far to see states that are now experiencing surges of cases caused by the more-transmissible delta variant. Among them are Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana, which like Nebraska have areas with low vaccination rates. Nebraska has a significant gap in vaccination rates between urban and rural counties.
“It’s very clear if you are lagging behind in vaccination, this delta variant is going to make you pay for it,” Rupp said.
Rupp said he doesn’t believe that Nebraska will see a big upswing in cases like the state saw last fall and winter because about half of its population is now protected from the coronavirus by vaccines.
But that leaves a sizable number, particularly in rural areas, “who are very much in jeopardy and may pay a very high price for their vaccine hesitancy,” Rupp said.
Some 65.6% of Nebraskans 18 or older have received at least one shot of vaccine, according to CDC data. But the pace of vaccination has slowed significantly. The state ranks about average nationally based on its one-shot rate.
In Douglas County, 51.1% of all residents are fully vaccinated, and 64.7% of those 18 and older are fully immunized. Almost 47.3% of residents in the Sarpy/Cass Health Department’s jurisdiction are fully vaccinated.
Rupp said all the data he’s seen indicate that the vaccines do a good job of protecting against infection with the delta variant and are very effective at preventing hospitalization and death.
For those who have been hesitant in the past, Rupp said, now is a good time to reconsider.
“You are up against a virus now that is faster and fitter, and it’s going to find those pockets in our population that have forgone vaccine,” he said.
That includes those who are young and healthy. While they’re still less likely to have severe disease, he said, any hospitalizations that do occur among that group now are essentially preventable, he said.
The delta variant is on the rise in the U.S., with CDC estimates indicating that it now accounts for 51.7% of infections. It makes up an estimated 80.7% of infections in Health and Human Services Region 7, which is made up of Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. Almost all of the genetic sequences entered into the GISAID international database from Nebraska are now the delta variant.
Rupp also said the decision to end the state’s data dashboard was “ill-timed, ill-considered and somewhat reckless.” While much of the data can be found elsewhere, the pandemic has not gone away, and people still need to be aware of the trends.
A spokeswoman for Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services said in an email that the agency has been working to determine what information it can release under state law, now that the state of emergency has ended, and a federal privacy law. The agency plans to report such data on a weekly basis starting this week.
The agency was able to publish the COVID-19 dashboard, despite state limitations on releasing confidential information, because Ricketts declared the state of emergency and signed an executive order suspending part of the law.
Nebraska’s neighboring states — Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota — all maintain dashboards of some type with COVID-19 data. South Dakota’s site notes that it would be updated weekly after July 5.
The Douglas County Health Department plans to continue its data dashboard. Said Phil Rooney, a department spokesman, “We know that there are a lot of people and businesses that use it in their planning.”