For the seventh week in a row, Nebraska and Douglas County set records last week for COVID-19 cases. The state also recorded a new weekly high for deaths related to the novel coronavirus.
The deaths of 74 Nebraskans were reported during the seven-day period that ended Saturday. That was up from 55 deaths reported in each of the previous two weeks.
The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Nebraska peaked at 918 on Friday, then dipped to 889 Saturday before rising to 914 on Sunday.
That dip was enough, however, to leave the state with roughly 15 days, based on the current growth in hospitalizations, before COVID-19 patients will occupy 25%, or 1,170, of the state’s hospital beds. That figure is Gov. Pete Ricketts’ trigger for the next round of restrictions on elective surgeries and other activities.
When Ricketts laid out his plan Friday, 20% of the state’s hospital beds were occupied by patients with COVID-19.
Ricketts reiterated in a briefing Monday that maintaining hospital capacity, both for COVID-19 patients and those with other ailments, remains his guiding criteria.
“We want to make sure we keep those hospitalizations down so we can protect our hospital capacity,” he said.
He repeated that he would not institute a mask mandate for the state beyond the limited one for businesses he previously announced. That rule applies when patrons and staff are within 6 feet of each other for at least 15 minutes.
Instead, he said, he wants to reengage Nebraskans in the need for such measures and educate them in how to use them.
The Nebraska Hospital Association announced Monday that it was launching a statewide awareness effort with the Nebraska Healthcare Marketers to aid in the fight against the spread of COVID-19 in the state.
The campaign, “We’re in This Together, Nebraska,” will feature health care professionals and messaging on how wearing masks and washing hands, and avoiding crowded places, close contacts and confined spaces can slow the virus’s spread.
Health officials and front-line health care workers repeatedly have called for stronger measures to slow the spread of the virus and avoid overwhelming the state’s hospitals.
On Monday, educators joined in those calls, aiming not only to slow transmission but also keep schools open.
The Nebraska state teachers union urged Ricketts to mandate masks statewide, limit indoor and outdoor gatherings to 10 people, suspend indoor dining and suspend youth and high school sports until January.
Health officials have raised concerns that without stricter measures, cases, hospitalizations and deaths could continue to rise.
The state added 14,279 COVID-19 cases during the week that wrapped up Saturday, averaging more than 2,000 cases a day. The weekly total is just shy of double the weekly tally of two weeks ago.
Nebraska’s weekly case count also ranked it sixth highest in the nation per capita, behind North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Wyoming and Wisconsin. Iowa last week added a record 26,500 cases.
The spike in the Midwest and West is part of a broader surge in the United States, which last week averaged more than 150,000 new cases and more than 1,000 deaths a day, according to the New York Times.
Nebraska health officials have expressed concern that the state’s rapid increase in cases eventually could translate into even higher hospitalizations and deaths, unless slowed by public health measures. Both hospitalizations and deaths lag new infections by several weeks.
Nebraska on Sunday ranked No. 3 for its hospitalization rate, behind only South Dakota and North Dakota and up a spot from last week, according to a World-Herald analysis. Iowa was sixth.
Locally, COVID-19 patients on Friday already made up about 25% of the patients being treated by Nebraska Medicine, CHI Health and Methodist Health System.
Omaha-area hospitals on Friday were treating 393 COVID-19 patients, a figure that was more than double the number from about a week and a half ago.
Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour said Friday that the number could double again within two weeks — and then double again.
By Monday, metro area hospitals were treating 428 patients with COVID-19, including 127 who were in intensive care units.
Douglas County tallied 4,069 new cases for the week that ended Saturday. That was up 32% from the week before and more than double the total two weeks ago. Some 32.5% of tests reported last week were positive for COVID-19.
Dr. Daniel Johnson, a critical care anesthesiologist with Nebraska Medicine, told MSNBC on Monday that health care workers from other parts of the country probably would not be available to come help here because COVID-19 rates are surging and spiking in every part of the country. That’s different from the spring peak, when health care workers from more lightly affected states traveled to help overburdened hospitals in New York.
“Imagine one of your family members needs medical care and can’t get into the hospital because we’ve filled all the beds with COVID-19 patients,” Johnson said.
“What we’re mostly worried about,” he said, “is a situation where we wouldn’t be able to deliver medical care because we didn’t have the facilities or staff.”
On a positive note, drugmaker Moderna announced that its coronavirus vaccine was 94.5% effective, based on early results. Pfizer announced similar results for its vaccine last week.
Johnson said an effective vaccine is good news. But he cautioned that both of the vaccines still are months from the majority of Americans’ arms. And to be effective, people have to be willing to take it. Some Americans are saying they won’t.
“If a vaccine makes it through the rigorous FDA approval process and the FDA says that it’s safe and that it works, people need to take it,” he told the news network. “If people want to put COVID-19 in the rearview mirror anytime soon, a vaccine is going to be a critical component of that.
“Again, that’s months away, so we need people to take action right now and stop gathering. We need masks to be worn, and we need people to stop gathering.”
That means avoiding being indoors with anyone who isn’t in our household, he said. Earlier, people could establish social bubbles that included friends and relatives who were taking similar steps to be safe.
“That time has passed,” Johnson said. “We need everyone to stay home with their own household and not be gathering in any capacity.”
World-Herald staff writer Henry J. Cordes contributed to this report.