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Vaccinated, boosted Nebraskans 46 times less likely to need hospitals than unvaccinated ones
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Vaccinated, boosted Nebraskans 46 times less likely to need hospitals than unvaccinated ones

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Nebraska hospital leaders warned Monday that the state's health systems are getting hammered by rising COVID numbers and staffing shortages.

While the omicron COVID variant is causing more mild breakthrough infections among vaccinated Nebraskans, state health officials on Wednesday stressed the continuing power of vaccines to keep people out of the hospital.

During December, Nebraskans who were fully vaccinated but not yet boosted were 11 times less likely than those who had not been vaccinated to require hospital care, said Dr. Matthew Donahue, the state’s acting epidemiologist.

In addition, those who had been vaccinated and boosted were 46 times less likely to be hospitalized than those who hadn’t gotten any shots.

“There are many important tools to fight COVID-19,” he said, “and our sharpest tool is vaccination.”

State health officials also estimated that vaccination prevented 3,200 hospitalizations in Nebraska during December and staved off 700 deaths.

Donahue acknowledged that some people might think the vaccines work but still are hesitating over concerns about safety.

State officials also compared deaths due to any cause, including heart attacks, strokes and COVID-19, and broke them down according to vaccination status.

The vaccines, he said, are safe. In December, vaccinated people were dying at lower rates from any cause — known as all-cause mortality — than those who were not vaccinated.

The fast-spreading omicron variant now is the dominant variant in Nebraska, Donahue said. Early this week, omicron made up 73% of the positive samples for which genetic sequences were obtained over the past two weeks. Those figures, however, lag true rates in the community because of the time it takes to collect and sequence samples.

While reports so far indicate the variant causes less severe disease, Donahue said, it’s reaching so many more people that hospitalizations are continuing to increase. Many states that are setting record case counts with omicron also are setting new records for hospitalizations.

Nebraska recorded its all-time-high weekly case count during the week ending Friday with 17,382 new cases, according to a World-Herald analysis of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical officer, said the test positivity rate on Sunday stood at 26.5%, the highest figure since tests became more widely available.

Hospitalizations have been on the increase since a brief dip in mid-December after the peak of the delta wave. As of Tuesday, 649 Nebraskans were hospitalized with COVID-19 and 13.6% of staffed hospital beds in the state were occupied by COVID patients, on a seven-day rolling average.

Reaching a 15% rate would trigger health measures, he said, which in the past have limited elective procedures at hospitals. However, Anthone noted that many of the state’s larger hospitals already are limiting such procedures.

Dr. Angela Hewlett, who directs the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s COVID-19 infectious diseases service, said she and her colleagues are seeing increasing numbers of patients, particularly patients who are unvaccinated.

And the surge of infections in the community also is affecting health care workers, she said, leading to an unprecedented number who can’t come to work.

Those in the hospital are tired and overwhelmed. “This is really leading to a situation where we’re unable to provide the care we want to” because so many are sick or burned out. “It’s just really devastating to see on a daily basis.”

Hewlett said health care workers welcomed the news that the Douglas County Health Department had imposed a temporary mask mandate for Omaha.

“It was almost like we were cheering in the hallway, just hearing that we were receiving support from the health department,” she said.

When surges happen, Hewlett said, layered interventions such as vaccinating, masking, distancing and avoiding crowds are important not only to keep hospitals open but also to keep police and fire departments operating.

“If wearing a mask is all we have to do to try to protect our community, then I think that’s a very simple aspect of those layered interventions that can be done,” she said.

Donahue said he is hopeful the omicron wave will peak and decline in four to five weeks in Nebraska, as it has done in South Africa and the United Kingdom.

“I don’t take that as gospel,” he said, “because that isn’t what happened with delta.”


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Julie Anderson is a medical reporter for The World-Herald. She covers health care and health care trends and developments, including hospitals, research and treatments. Follow her on Twitter @JulieAnderson41. Phone: 402-444-1066.

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