New cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations because of the virus continued to fall in Nebraska last week, marking a second week of declining cases in the state.
But those numbers are dropping slowly. In some parts of the state, both new cases and transmission levels are still so high — and vaccination rates are so low — that new surges are possible.
Nebraska posted 3,980 new cases in the week ending Friday, down 12% from the previous week and 25% from a month ago, according to a World-Herald analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. The continued decline is a sign that the delta variant may have peaked in Nebraska.
As of Monday, the state has reported a pandemic total of 276,817 COVID-19 cases.
Nationally, all but half a dozen states saw declining cases last week. Case counts are now running about 86,000 a week, down about 50% since delta numbers peaked in early September.
Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s infectious diseases division, said declining case counts are exactly what health officials want to see, although he would prefer to see a steeper decline.
“We could speed that up by having higher vaccination rates,” he said. “But it’s way too early for us to declare the game won and the pandemic over.”
It’s still possible to see a resurgence in cases, Rupp said. It’s also possible to see a new variant of the coronavirus emerge that could cause a new wave.
What health officials are worried about is a variant that can evade current defenses.
“Then, unfortunately, we’re kind of back to square one,” he said.
Hospitalizations related to COVID-19 are also falling in Nebraska. The average of 381 Nebraskans hospitalized with the virus last week was down 7% from the previous week.
Rupp said hospitalizations are a better indicator of virus trends than case counts. He has some concerns that testing may not be as widely employed as it should be, meaning that some COVID-19 cases may be missed.
Nebraska also recorded 43 deaths last week, giving the state its deadliest week since mid-February, before vaccines were widely available. The tally also pushed the state’s pandemic death count to almost 2,900.
Deaths are often reported in clusters as they’re verified by health officials. But that doesn’t negate the fact that most of the state’s coronavirus-related deaths and hospitalizations are occurring among those who aren’t fully vaccinated. CDC data indicates that unvaccinated people are about 18 times more likely to end up in a hospital than those who have been fully vaccinated.
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services reported in late September that 92% of infections since Jan. 1 had occurred in people who weren’t fully vaccinated. Similarly, 94% of hospitalizations and 95% of deaths were in people not fully vaccinated.
From Jan. 1 to Oct. 13, the agency reported, 301 fully vaccinated people had been hospitalized in the state, compared with 3,403 who were not fully vaccinated. Similarly, 83 deaths occurred among fully vaccinated people, compared with 922 among those who were not fully vaccinated.
In addition, some of those hospitalizations and deaths involved vaccinated people who are elderly, have an underlying health condition or take medications that suppress their immune systems.
Colin Powell, the nation’s first Black secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, died Monday of complications of COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated. But Powell, who was 84, had also recently been treated for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that impairs the body’s ability to fight infections and to respond well to vaccines.
Rupp said the fact that some people don’t respond as well to the vaccines is the reason that the Food and Drug Administration has approved booster doses for people at greater risk from the virus — those over 65, those with compromised immune systems and those who have occupational risks.
Some, even with that third dose, may not get a protective antibody response if their immune systems aren’t primed to respond, he said.
But for most people, the vaccines continue to offer a good level of protection from hospitalization and death.
“This is an example of why it is that we want everyone else in society to get vaccinated, so we can provide a cocoon of protection around people who are vulnerable and may not respond to the vaccine,” Rupp said. “That’s why everybody has to do their part to protect one another.”
Only 55.6% of Nebraskans are fully vaccinated, a figure below the 57% national rate. Vaccination rates continue to inch up very slowly in the state. In the past two weeks, 15,000 Nebraskans have joined the 1,075,000 who have been fully vaccinated.
Rupp said health officials are hopeful that the state can win out over the virus by giving more vaccine shots and continuing to reduce the amount of virus circulating.
Case counts continue to fall in the state’s three most populous counties — Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster.
Douglas County health officials noted Monday that the transmission rate in the area is at its lowest since early to mid-August. While it is falling, that rate remains high. Most Nebraska counties remain in the CDC’s high transmission category.