New cases of COVID-19 in both Douglas County and Nebraska as a whole were down last week to levels seen last summer.
Meanwhile, the push to vaccinate residents continued at a steady pace — but slower than in previous months.
Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour said Monday that the county recorded 572 new cases of COVID-19 last week, 21% fewer than the week before. That takes the county back to a level seen last August as well as earlier this spring, before an uptick the week of March 20.
“We are going in the right direction,” Pour said during a pandemic briefing with Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert.
The downturn comes as Nebraska reported what appeared to be the lowest number of cases and deaths since the first full week of July, almost 10 months ago, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cases dropped to 1,300 for the week ending Saturday, down from 2,435 the week before, according to the CDC. Cases in the U.S. as a whole are also falling, down 15% for the week.
The state’s data dashboard also showed a decrease last week, with a total of 1,166 cases for the seven-day period that ended Saturday. That was down 29% from 1,653 the week before.
Meanwhile, the race to vaccinate and stay ahead of COVID-19 variants continues. The Douglas County Health Department has hit a milestone, administering more than half a million doses of vaccine. While some went into the arms of people who live outside the county, almost 430,000 were given to county residents. Some 46% of residents 16 and older are fully vaccinated, and 58% have received at least one dose.
The county is now shifting some vaccine from larger to smaller clinics, vaccinating in high schools and churches and taking walk-ins.
“We want to break down every barrier there is,” Pour said.
The ZIP codes with the largest percentage of their populations vaccinated are in Elkhorn and Bennington, and the lowest are in North and South Omaha. But Pour said those areas also have larger numbers of young people not yet eligible for vaccination.
She said the county decided to order less vaccine for this week, based on slower demand, and may choose to use up what’s already in stock next week. As of Monday morning, the Health Department potentially had 20,000 doses available. Health officials want to steward vaccine supplies carefully.
Pour said she is pleasantly surprised by how eager residents still are to get vaccinated because they want to get back to normal. “So let’s all get vaccinated, let’s get back to normal,” she said.
That differs from some rural areas where health officials are encountering hesitancy, Pour said. She noted that Douglas County was one of a handful of counties to ask state health officials for additional vaccine.
Pour said she is also looking ahead to the next milestone, noting that she has a bet with her staff about when the county will have vaccinated 50% of eligible residents. She said she is guessing May 12 or 13.
If federal regulators expand vaccination eligibility to children ages 12 to 15, as is expected soon, she said, the department will be ready. Vaccination plans then will include pediatricians’ offices, places where parents will feel more comfortable having their children vaccinated.
When asked how she felt about Omaha’s mask mandate expiring May 25, Pour said she thinks that the City Council made the right decision to not seek renewal. She said she probably would have preferred that the mandate stay in place for another month, until case trends are clearer. But given the level of vaccination, she said, relying on personal responsibility should be enough.
She said she is comfortable that if cases trend upward, the council would adopt an emergency mask ordinance.
She also said she would feel comfortable if everyone in the briefing room went unmasked, as long as all were fully vaccinated.
“I do think we need to start talking (about) what vaccination tells us and allows us to do,” she said.
Pour acknowledged a New York Times report indicating that the U.S. as a whole may never reach “herd immunity” because of hesitancy in some places. But she said another report from Israel showed a dramatic decrease in hospitalizations and deaths once that country vaccinated 50% to 55% of residents.
Douglas County recorded 11 coronavirus-related deaths in April, the lowest number since 14 were reported in April 2020. This April’s deaths tended to be younger than a year ago — more were in their 40s, 50s and 60s.
As of Monday, Nebraska had administered 1,450,275 doses of vaccine, according to the state’s data dashboard, with 44.7% of those 16 and older fully vaccinated.
That total was up more than 80,000 doses from the previous week’s tally. But the shots were coming at a somewhat slower rate than in previous weeks. By comparison, more than 93,000 doses were injected the week before, and more than 211,000 doses were injected the week ending April 18.
World-Herald Staff Writer Henry J. Cordes contributed to this report.