Even with limited data available for last week, it’s clear that cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in Nebraska, although not at the blistering pace seen in some Southern states.
For the seven days ending Aug. 10, the most recent period for which data was available, Nebraska recorded 2,575 new cases, up 30% from the previous seven-day period, according to a World-Herald analysis of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Nebraska’s case growth now exceeds the U.S. average, though the per-capita case rate remains well below national figures and ranks 36th among states.
Southern states continue to have case rates as much as five times higher than Nebraska’s.
Why CDC data on new cases of COVID-19 for Nebraska was available only through Aug. 10 was not immediately clear. Daily case counts through Friday were available for 45 other states. Tallies were posted through Thursday for four others.
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The World-Herald has used CDC data to tally cases through Thursday or Friday of each week since the state retired its COVID data dashboard on June 30, when Gov. Pete Ricketts ended the coronavirus state of emergency.
Olga Dack, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, said the state has continued to automatically report all of the same data to the CDC each day that it reported before the dashboard shut down.
The agency’s data and epidemiology teams have been in contact with the CDC since last month to try to determine what has changed since the dashboard was retired and why some of Nebraska’s data is not represented in the same way as the state provides it, Dack said. The data the agency is providing to the CDC is largely the same as the data that used to be available to the public on the state’s dashboard.
“We’re still reporting the same data,” Dack said. “Our teams are monitoring it. It’s still available to both us and the CDC. If they’re not showing it, they (CDC) would be the best folks to answer that question.”
CDC officials could not be immediately reached for comment Monday.
The downside, Dack said, is that the situation creates a perception that the state is hiding data. “It is not what is happening,” she said. “The intent is not to hide information, the intent is to balance our sharing of information with the public with the legal limitations of protecting Nebraskans’ privacy.”
The pandemic emergency had suspended some restrictions in state law on the release of communicable disease data, state officials have said, allowing the state to release more information than would otherwise be allowed. The state now posts data updates on a weekly basis.
According to agency officials, the recent expiration of an executive order also prevents Nebraska’s health districts from publicly reporting COVID-19 statistics, such as case numbers and vaccinations, for counties with fewer than 20,000 people.
Last week, 11 state senators requested that Ricketts reinstate the dashboard, saying the data is crucial for schools and businesses making operational decisions.
Dack said the agency is tracking the data daily and reporting to the Governor’s Office. Any data pertinent to schools is shared with local public health districts.
Meanwhile, she said, agency teams are trying to determine what additional data they can share with the public.
Hospitalization figures in Nebraska are up to date. They provide another indication that COVID-19 cases are on the rise. An average of 214 Nebraskans were hospitalized with COVID-19 last week, up 34% from 160 the previous week.
That’s a significant jump from the 27 hospitalized at the end of June but falls far short of the 987 who were hospitalized Nov. 20 at the height of the last peak.
Taylor Gage, a Ricketts spokesman, said the state’s goal has always been to protect hospital capacity. Officials remain focused on that goal.
“Working together, Nebraskans have successfully protected hospital capacity over the last year and a half,” he said in a written statement.
One advantage for the state in addressing that goal is its solid vaccination rate among people 65 and older, which now tops 86%, the 14th-highest rate in the country. That demographic proved most vulnerable to hospitalization and death during previous waves.
Nebraska’s recent death toll has remained relatively flat, growing by only five since Aug. 1. The total currently stands at 2,285.
However, anecdotal reports from local doctors indicate that patients now hospitalized with COVID-19 are mostly unvaccinated and skew younger than in earlier waves.
In Douglas County, 130 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Monday, including two pediatric patients. The county recorded 953 cases for the week ending Saturday, up from 850 the week before.
More than 1 million Nebraska adults now are at least partially vaccinated, a 69.1% rate that ranks 24th in the nation. That includes 63% of adults who are fully vaccinated. Some 50.4% of the state’s total population is fully vaccinated.
The state recorded 26,800 new vaccinations last week. That marked the second straight week that vaccinations topped 26,000, which represents a recent uptick from previous weeks in which 20,000 shots were given.
The Greek alphabet of COVID-19 virus mutations
First identified in the United Kingdom, and later found in the U.S. in December 2020, alpha is considered a variant of concern by the CDC, which noted it might have increased severity based on hospitalization and fatality rates.
First identified in South Africa, this was detected in the U.S. at the end of January 2021. This is also considered a variant of concern by the CDC.
First noted in India before being detected in the U.S. in March 2021, the CDC notes this variant of concern’s increased transmissibility. Researchers are watching the delta variant carefully as it continues to spread.
Dr. Emily Landon, chief health care epidemiologist at the University of Chicago, said recently that the delta variant is “even more contagious than the alpha variant.”
What’s been referred to as “delta plus” is getting buzz. This has been reportedly detected in South Korea, India and the United States, and some believe it may be more transmissible than the original delta variant. Experts are watching and waiting, but some note it hasn’t yet gained momentum here. Also known as AY.1, it is included under the World Health Organization’s list of variants of concern.
Brazil was the first place this was detected, and it’s also been recorded in Japan. The CDC considers gamma a variant of concern; it was first detected in the U.S. in January 2021.
Although the Epsilon variant is included on the Illinois health department’s website, a spokeswoman said it would be soon taken off the “variants of concern” list as it is not considered one by the CDC. The CDC lists the Epsilon variant, which includes multiple mutations, as a variant of interest.
The World Health Organization and CDC defines this as a variant of interest and noted it has been documented in multiple countries.
The WHO and CDC consider this a variant of interest. It was documented earliest in the U.S.; according to the CDC, the first detection was in New York.
This is also a variant of interest according to the WHO and CDC, with its earliest documentation in India in October 2020.
Initially spreading in Peru in December 2020, the lambda variant has so far been found in states including Texas and South Carolina. It is considered a variant of interest by the World Health Organization.