Nebraska’s count of new COVID-19 cases has taken a definite turn higher, with totals not seen since late May.
While two hospital systems say they are not experiencing a surge in patients, health experts warn that hospitalizations will rise even more in the coming weeks as the new cases progress.
Dr. Kelly Cawcutt, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the associate medical director of infection control and epidemiology, said the Nebraska Medical Center has seen an increase in patients after experiencing a low several weeks ago.
She urged people to take steps now to prevent spread of the coronavirus. She said that includes taking masks and social distancing seriously.
Said Cawcutt, “We could really see things kind of go sideways and see substantial increases in cases if we’re not all cautious.”
On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week, Nebraska saw its highest three-day count of new cases — 971 — since May 27 through 29, when cases were coming down from the state’s initial peak.
Douglas County this week saw its highest three-day run of new cases — 476 — since the end of May.
The case trends caught the attention of Nebraska health experts.
Dr. Ali Khan, a UNMC epidemiologist and dean of the College of Public Health, said on Twitter this week that the data is unequivocal that Nebraska and Douglas County experienced a surge in cases. He said they may be resetting at a higher rate of community transmission.
The increase comes as Nebraska steps up testing over the last two weeks. Nebraska now is typically getting results for 10,000 tests over a three-day period.
But the increase in cases results from more than just a higher number of tests. The rate at which tests are coming back positive is moving higher — a sign of increasing community spread of the virus.
Douglas County’s weekly positivity rate passed 9% for the first time since mid-June. Lancaster County’s rate jumped to 9.4% — a weekly figure the community hadn’t seen since early May.
On Friday, Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird moved the Lincoln-Lancaster County COVID-19 risk dial higher — still in the high risk, orange color range, but higher on the dial.
Officials cited increasing cases overall, increasing cases among young people and the increasing positivity rate.
This week, the mayor and Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department implemented a mask mandate for indoor places.
Gaylor Baird said the choices people make this weekend and next week will affect the trends in the coming weeks.
Said Gaylor Baird, “The actions we are asking you to take are common sense precautions, small steps that make a big difference.”
Pat Lopez, Lincoln-Lancaster County’s health director, said Lincoln is in a great position on hospitalizations now, but she anticipates an increase in patients in the coming two to three weeks.
Even if the hospitalizations aren’t surging, the count is rising in Nebraska.
As recently as last week, Nebraska had fewer than 100 patients hospitalized with COVID-19. But from a week ago Thursday to this Thursday, the number rose from 96 to 126, according to data from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
Hospitalizations are the leading pandemic data point that Gov. Pete Ricketts factors into his reopening plans.
As of Friday, 34% of all Nebraska hospital beds were available, along with 80% of the ventilators, according to the state’s data.
Dr. Cliff Robertson, CEO of CHI Health, said the health system’s Nebraska hospitals are experiencing a slow decline in COVID-19 patients going back to a peak in late April. CHI Health had 50 patients hospitalized locally with confirmed cases as of Friday.
But Robertson said he believes different communities around the country will see rolling waves of cases over the months ahead, and “everybody will take turns.”
Dr. Bill Lydiatt, chief medical officer at Methodist Hospital and Methodist Women’s Hospital, said the Methodist system’s number of COVID-19 patients remains generally stable in the teens.
Lydiatt said he believes the overall rise in positive cases is slight and gradual, which can be seen as good news considering more than a month has passed since the Nebraska economy reopened and the social justice protests occurred.
But with the economy open, Lydiatt said people need to stress wearing a mask, keeping socially distant, washing hands and staying home from work and school when they feel sick.
“If we can continue to hammer at that,” he said, “I think we can continue to see a manageable number.”
Adi Pour, Douglas County’s health director, cited several trends she considered worrisome when she announced this week that she was moving toward a mask mandate: the increase in cases, the increasing positivity rate, increasing cases among young people, a spread into western Douglas County and deaths among people without underlying conditions.
On Monday, the Douglas County Board of Health will consider a mask mandate in both Omaha and Douglas County.
Pour said she also was motivated by the positive response to the City of Lincoln’s mask mandate and her experience visiting Colorado, which has a statewide requirement. “It feels like everyone is in it together, and we are making it through,” she said.
Cawcutt called preventing COVID-19 spread a “team sport” — and as many people as possible need to engage in it.
“None of us are loving having to do all of these things,” she said. “But it’s what we need to do to make sure that our community stays as healthy as possible.”
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