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Nebraska's COVID-related deaths rise — marking dismal record — but case numbers drop slightly
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Nebraska's COVID-related deaths rise — marking dismal record — but case numbers drop slightly

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The COVID-related deaths of 202 Nebraskans marked a dismal new record last week even as the overall number of new coronavirus cases dropped slightly.

It’s almost certain that last week’s total deaths include some death reports delayed by the Thanksgiving holiday. A total of 87 deaths were reported the week before, down from 122 the week before that, based on a World-Herald analysis of data from the COVID Tracking Project. But coronavirus-related deaths in the state have been on an uptick in recent weeks.

The 202 deaths reported last week put Nebraska in third place in the nation in per capita deaths, behind only the Dakotas. Combining deaths over the past two weeks, Nebraska ranks No. 6 nationally on a per capita basis.

Iowa also saw by far its highest weekly death toll of 307. That put the state at No. 5 for per capita deaths last week and over the past two weeks.

New COVID-19 cases in Nebraska for the week that ended Saturday totaled 12,249, down slightly from 12,405 the week before. And cases were down 27% over the past two weeks, indicating a true decrease in cases rather than an artifact from holiday reporting delays.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday that based on what he has seen and what he has heard from business owners, he thinks Nebraskans are being more cautious with regard to the virus. He stressed that it’s not time to let up on such precautions as wearing masks and keeping distance from others.

Nebraska’s decline in overall case numbers appears to be part of a regional trend, Ricketts said. Numbers in states across the Upper Midwest, including the Dakotas and Iowa, reached a peak and now are coming down. Nebraska’s weekly cases peaked at 16,739 three weeks ago. Iowa also continued its three-week downward trend, with new cases down by more than half in that time.

Ricketts said he hopes to see deaths follow a similar decline. “I’m hopeful what we’ll see is a slowdown in the number of fatalities that are being reported as well,” he said.

Unlike the Nebraska COVID case numbers, Douglas County’s numbers have risen of late. After dipping to 3,763 cases during the week that included Thanksgiving, the county’s cases rebounded to 4,414 during the week that ended Saturday. That figure was just below the 4,490 the county tallied the week ending Nov. 21.

Dr. Anne O’Keefe, senior epidemiologist with the Douglas County Health Department, said she’s not sure why the county’s cases were up last week. She said, however, that her team had mentioned that at least one lab offering testing may have had some delayed reporting.

Cases have begun to surge in other parts of the country. The Miami and Los Angeles areas, the New York Times reported, are adding thousands of cases each day. States in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast that managed the virus successfully this summer have been unable to control the spread this fall.

Ricketts also noted that hospitalizations in Nebraska are down. If that trend continues, he said the state could drop into a category that would loosen restrictions on some activities. Ricketts last month announced a framework that ties the percentage of people in Nebraska hospitals with COVID-19 to the level of health measures in effect.

The number of COVID-19 patients in Nebraska hospitals stood at 755 on Sunday, down 24% from a peak of 987 two weeks earlier. Nebraska and Iowa have seen the biggest drops in hospitalizations in the nation over the past two weeks.

Dr. James Lawler, a director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, said he thinks the state is seeing a real decrease in cases and hospitalizations.

But Lawler said the state is still a week or two away from determining whether the Thanksgiving holiday — and related travel and gatherings — have had an effect on virus transmission. And new cases remain well above where health officials would consider the transmission contained.

Lawler, like the governor, said it’s not time to let up on prevention measures.

“There’s a good chance, without more concerted effort, that we stand a chance to go back up,” he said.

Lawler noted that more Nebraska cities have adopted mask mandates. He also has seen fewer people in local restaurants when he has picked up takeout orders.

But he said the state probably still will see large numbers of COVID deaths, which can lag new cases by a month.

“Even if all goes well, and we have passed a peak and are going to continue coming down, we won’t see deaths peak for another week or two,” Lawler said.

Nebraska hospitals have not had to essentially ration health care, as those in some parts of the country have had to do.

“We’ve escaped an overwhelmed health system by the skin of our teeth,” Lawler said.

World-Herald staff writer Jeffrey Robb contributed to this report. {strong style=”font-size: 1.17em;”}Our best staff images from December 2020{/strong}

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Julie Anderson is a medical reporter for The World-Herald. She covers health care and health care trends and developments, including hospitals, research and treatments. Follow her on Twitter @JulieAnderson41. Phone: 402-444-1066.

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