LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts on Friday warned that Nebraska may hit the red zone for COVID-19 hospitalizations before Thanksgiving, triggering tighter state health restrictions.
He also acknowledged that Nebraska’s contact tracing efforts had not kept up as the number of COVID-19 cases soared, allowing a backlog of cases to build up.
“The simple answer is we didn’t do our job,” the governor said at an afternoon press briefing. “We at the state had not been keeping up with the surge.”
Contact tracing, which Ricketts has described as the “blocking and tackling” of epidemiology, aims to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Tracers reach out to people who have tested positive for the virus, find out who they might have exposed and then contact those people to ask them to quarantine.
The governor said he learned of the problem at a press briefing last week, when he was asked about a person who had tested positive for COVID-19 but did not hear from a contact tracer for eight days.
He discovered that the state had accumulated a backlog of 2,600 cases awaiting contract tracing. In half of those cases, tracers have not even made an initial attempt to reach the person who tested positive for COVID-19.
Ashley Newmyer, chief data strategist at the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, said the state is taking several steps to address the problem and hopes to get through the backlog by the end of next week.
The first step is beefing up the number of tracers. According to HHS officials, the state had the equivalent of 637 full-time tracers working as of Nov. 5, when the backlog started. This week, the number was up to 846 full-time tracers.
It is expected to top 1,000 by next week, as state employees who had been pulled from their regular jobs to help out with tracing earlier in the year are once again being put to work as tracers. HHS is also expanding its contracts with private companies to supply contact tracing staff.
Next, Newmyer said the state is asking tracers to make two attempts to reach people, instead of five, so cases can be closed more quickly. They are also trying to speed up contact tracing calls by reducing the number of questions asked.
In addition, she said tracers will not do the final step of calling people who had close contact with an infected person. Instead, people with positive tests will be asked to notify anyone who was within 6 feet of them for 15 minutes and urge them to quarantine.
Newmyer acknowledged that it is not ideal to rely on people to make those contacts, but she said the measure is temporary.
The number of people testing positive for the coronavirus has risen dramatically in recent weeks, along with the number of people needing hospitalization. The doubling time for both new cases and hospitalizations is between two and three weeks. The state ranks fifth nationally in the number of daily new cases per capita.
As of Friday, COVID-19 patients filled almost 22% of staffed hospital beds statewide. Ricketts previously announced that state health measures would tighten when such patients occupied 25% of staffed hospital beds, or about 1,130 beds.
When the state crosses that 25% threshold, indoor gatherings will be limited to 10 people and outdoor gatherings to 25 people. Bars will have to close except for carryout service and delivery, and more elective surgeries will have to be postponed.
More from the press briefing:
Thanksgiving. With an eye to the rising numbers, Ricketts urged Nebraskans to limit the size of their Thanksgiving gatherings. Most of the recent spread of cases has been traced to informal gatherings. The governor himself is finishing a 14-day quarantine after having dinner with a person who turned out to be infected.
He said getting tested is one way to reduce the risk of holiday get-togethers, but it does not eliminate the risk. People can test negative if they are tested too soon after exposure. They can also be exposed after getting tested.
Hospital plans. Ricketts said officials from several hospitals are working out a crisis standard of care, which would guide them in deciding which patients should get priority if the hospitals become overwhelmed. He said the state has no authority to endorse a particular standard.