Even though Omaha and Northern California are much different places, the two fall into the same risk category for COVID-19, a University of Nebraska Medical Center epidemiologist noted Thursday.
Dr. David Brett-Major, a UNMC professor, said Dr. Deborah Birx has a point in listing Omaha among the 10 areas of the country exhibiting troubling coronavirus numbers, including mentioning it alongside California’s Central Valley, a large agricultural region.
A key advantage for Douglas County, Brett-Major said, is that it has enough intensive care unit capacity for COVID-19 patients.
Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, mentioned Omaha on Wednesday in a private call with state and local officials.
“We are seeing encouraging signs across the South,” Birx said on a recording of the call obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. “We are concerned that both Baltimore and Atlanta remain at a very high level — (also) Kansas City, Portland, Omaha (and) of course what we talked about in the Central Valley (of California).”
Birx also said on the private call that California and Nebraska had recently recorded a high percentage of coronavirus cases or positive tests. Experts have said test positivity rates can indicate whether an outbreak is under control.
On Wednesday’s call, Birx said residents in areas with high COVID-19 activity should stop family gatherings. She said bringing together family members in those areas “will create, potentially, particularly if indoors, superspreader events. We’re finding that across the South and moving up into the Midwest.”
Nebraska’s case counts overall began increasing in mid-July and now consistently reflect more than 200 new cases a day.
For the seven days ending Wednesday, the state averaged 295 new cases a day. On July 31, the state reported 445 new cases, the highest single-day number since it reported 448 on May 16.
Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska’s chief medical officer, said public health experts are closely monitoring the increase in cases and the impact of COVID-19 on the state.
The question of whether to implement a mask requirement in Omaha has become a flashpoint, with local public health officials calling for one and the state pushing back.
“There is no doubt that masks matter in our fight against the virus,” Anthone said in a statement released Thursday evening. “DHHS, Governor Ricketts, local health departments and other partners across the state continue to stress the importance of masks and ask people to wear them along with taking other actions like watching their distance and washing hands frequently.”
Wednesday, the state stood at 152.6 new cases per million people per day. Douglas County’s number was 218 cases per million per day.
Last week, Douglas County has its second-worst week for new cases since the pandemic began, with 945 new cases.
The positivity rate for the week in Douglas County was about 11%, up from about 7% in July.
Douglas County has reported 135 deaths from COVID-19. Since reporting six COVID-19 deaths last Friday, the county has reported one additional death. The official count can lag from the actual number, however, because it sometimes takes weeks for health officials to receive confirmation of a COVID-19 death.
Birx pointed to four additional cities that are doing relatively well — Boston, Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C. — and yet are seeing small increases in the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests, according to White House data. Those areas need to “get on top of it,” she said.
Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia also are “concerning,” Birx said. She continued to emphasize that the current outbreaks differed from those in the spring because they have penetrated more rural areas. She said similar things over the weekend, telling CNN that the pandemic had entered a “new phase.” President Donald Trump later criticized her on Twitter, calling her “pathetic.”
Birx did not comment on schools, which the president has insisted must reopen.
In a similar briefing two weeks ago, Birx warned 11 cities that they should take “aggressive” action to combat rising coronavirus cases.
Thousands of state and local officials are invited to take part in the calls, which are hosted by the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, according to White House official William Crozer, who introduced Birx on the call Wednesday. But it’s not clear which local leaders are hearing Birx’s warnings.
Leaders in several cities were not on the call two weeks ago when Birx pinpointed them, or did not know about it.
On Wednesday, President Trump announced that Birx would visit Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas, according to a report by Fox News.
Birx, the president said at a daily briefing, would bring “aggressive, tailored and targeted guidance” for state and local leaders.
A staff member in Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office said Thursday that Nebraska officials did not have any information about a visit by Birx.
“The Governor’s Office and the Department of Health and Human Services have been working closely with local health officials to slow the spread of coronavirus in Omaha and across the state,” Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said in an email.
“Omaha and the State of Nebraska continue to maintain solid hospital capacity, and overall hospital bed occupation in Douglas County has been on a downward trend the last couple weeks.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
World-Herald staff writers Julie Anderson, Jeffrey Robb and Nancy Gaarder contributed to this report.
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