Nebraska marked its fourth straight week of a slow decline in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations last week, with the state’s numbers continuing to descend from this summer’s delta plateau.
The state recorded 3,756 new cases for the week ending Thursday, down 9% from 4,144 cases the week before, according to a World-Herald analysis of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. That’s down from the 5,300 weekly cases the state saw this summer.
Total hospitalizations because of COVID were down to 361 from 398 the previous week. The decline caused Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts to announce last week that the state would scale back its release of COVID-19 data, updating the information weekly rather than daily and not including county-specific data.
The Governor’s Office said in a press release at the time that the change was being made because hospitalizations due to the coronavirus have dropped below 10% of the state’s total staffed hospital beds, a threshold Ricketts set in September.
Ricketts also addressed the change at a press conference Monday.
“That really just reflects the needs right now that we have here in the state,” he said. “We are looking to get back to normal, folks, right? And so, all of our (directed health measures), executive orders, and everything — were really tied to what level of hospital capacity we have here in the state of Nebraska.”
The state retired the dashboard entirely June 30, after Ricketts ended the state’s COVID-19 state of emergency. State officials then started reporting a limited amount of data each week.
When hospitalizations were rising in September, Ricketts reinstated a version of the dashboard focused on hospital capacity, prompting praise from health care officials who said it would make it easier for them to plan and manage outbreaks. At the time, an average of nearly 400 hospital beds were occupied by COVID patients on any given day.
“We’re just remaining consistent with what we were doing earlier,” he said Monday, noting that hospitals don’t plan their staffing on a daily basis and therefore don’t need daily information. “So, providing it weekly is sufficient. And, yeah, it just also gets back to the nature of the staffing emergency is decreasing as we have more capacity.”
But Dr. James Lawler, a co-executive director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, said hospitalizations are affected by virus transmission occurring three to four weeks beforehand.
Even with the dashboard up and running, he said, health officials still were missing a lot in understanding the community burden of COVID because testing is less available and less readily obtained in rural areas of the state.
“There is never a right time to blindfold yourself in an emergency,” Lawler said, “and we are far from the end of the pandemic emergency.”
Several health departments outside the Omaha and Lincoln areas already have posted that they no longer will provide county-level data because of the change.
A breakdown of CDC data indicates that an average of just over 500 mostly unvaccinated Nebraskans a day are testing positive for the virus, 40 are landing in hospitals and six are dying.
The state added 41 deaths last week, the second straight week that reported deaths have topped 40. Reported deaths, however, usually come in clusters as health officials confirm them. The state’s confirmed and suspected death toll for the pandemic now is approaching 3,000.
Meanwhile, all but a half-dozen states are seeing declining cases. Nebraska’s current per-capita new case rate is about 25% above the U.S. average and ranks 22nd-highest among states.
Nebraska has reported a total of 279,450 cases of COVID-19 during the pandemic, according to the CDC.
The U.S. as a whole averaged 78,000 new cases a day last week, less than half the average of 162,000 new cases a day on Sept. 1.
Some 37,000 doses of vaccine were administered in Nebraska last week, roughly half of them booster shots. In all, 55.9% of Nebraskans are fully vaccinated, a figure below the 57.4% U.S. rate.
Only 46% of Nebraskans ages 12 to 17 have gotten shots so far, despite being eligible for months. Just under 50% of youths in that age group have gotten the shots nationwide.
That may have implications for the rollout of vaccines to younger children, which is expected to come early next month.
A panel of outside advisers to the Food and Drug Administration is expected to weigh in Tuesday on Pfizer’s application seeking authorization of that two-dose vaccine for kids ages 5 to 11. The FDA typically follows the panel’s advice but is not required to do so.
Advisers to the CDC are slated to provide recommendations at a meeting Nov. 2 and Nov. 3.
Nebraska health officials are making plans to provide the shots.
Dr. Anne O’Keefe, the Douglas County Health Department’s senior epidemiologist, said organizations that already are authorized to give the vaccine will be able to order the child version. It will come with different dosages, dilution requirements and storage conditions than the version given to youths and adults.
The Health Department likely will offer the vaccine at its clinics once it is approved, O’Keefe said. It’s also expected to be available in some pediatricians’ offices and pharmacies.
World-Herald Staff Writer Sara Gentzler contributed to this report.