LINCOLN — The giant bottle of hand sanitizer was gone, as was the sign language interpreter and the charts tracking COVID-19 numbers.
Nor did anyone wipe down the podium Monday before Gov. Pete Ricketts announced that he would end the COVID-19 state of emergency declared well over a year ago — on March 13, 2020 — as of 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.
He noted that hospitalizations for COVID-19 statewide are low and stressed the need to “get back to normal.” But as he has throughout the pandemic, Ricketts urged people to get a vaccine.
“It’s important for everyone to know the coronavirus is going to be with us,” he said. “… That’s why it’s important to get a vaccine. Vaccines work. We have proof of it in Nebraska.”
Twenty-seven Nebraskans are hospitalized with COVID-19, Ricketts said. That number, which peaked Nov. 20 at 987, has been below 100 since mid-May and below 40 since mid-June.
The announcement, however, comes as Nebraska ended its eight-week stretch of falling cases.
A total of 266 new cases were reported for the week ending Friday, up sharply from 168 the week before, according to a World-Herald analysis of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. That’s a one-week increase of 58%.
But the governor urged Nebraskans to keep the coronavirus risk in perspective, saying that young people are more likely to die in vehicle accidents than from COVID.
In that regard, Ricketts said his expectation is that kids will be in classrooms across the state this fall with no masks or vaccines required.
Schools, he said, should make case-by-case accommodations for children at special risk from the coronavirus or who have at-risk family members.
He also encouraged private institutions to get back to normal with no mask or vaccine mandates.
In seeing cases increase, Nebraska follows a national trend. Cases across the country also were up 41% last week after falling for eight weeks in a row.
All but 10 states saw rising numbers for the week, including four that saw cases more than double. Four weeks ago, almost all states had falling numbers.
Cases in Nebraska, however, remain half of what they were five weeks ago and a quarter of what they were eight weeks ago. The state’s per-capita case rate, which was the nation’s fourth-lowest a week ago, still ranks 11th-lowest now and is half the national rate.
The increase in cases comes as the nation increasingly returns to normal, with sporting events and travel as well as restaurant and bar business continuing to pick up.
Nationally, concerns have arisen about the growing proportion of cases caused by coronavirus variants. The delta variant has been gaining in pockets with low vaccination rates in such states as Missouri.
Ricketts said 90% of Nebraska’s current cases are caused by variants, according to the DNA sequencing that’s been done. Of those, 90% still are the alpha variant that originated in the United Kingdom.
Dr. James Lawler, an executive director with the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, said the country is likely to see an increasing divergence in cases between areas with low vaccination rates and those with high vaccination rates. Experts have been anticipating the split as variants have risen.
“As a country, we really stopped dropping overall since the beginning of June,” he said. “And we’re slightly creeping up over the last week or two. I think we’ll see that trend continue as we’ve essentially abandoned all non-pharmaceutical interventions (precautions such as mask-wearing and avoiding indoor crowds) and attempted to go back to normal.”
The U.S., Lawler said, should take a lesson from the United Kingdom, where variants have caught on hard and cases have gone up six- or sevenfold a day and still are climbing. Most of those cases are in kids, young people and the unvaccinated.
In Nebraska, 64.8% of the 18-and-over population has received at least one dose of vaccine. While the state continues to inch closer to the Biden administration goal of having 70% of that demographic partially vaccinated by July 4, it won’t hit that mark. Nor will the U.S. as a whole, with its rate as of Friday at 65.5%.
Nebraska also continues to slip on vaccination relative to the country. The state’s percentage of adults with at least one shot now trails the national average and ranks 23rd among states.
However, Nebraska’s rate of fully vaccinated individuals — 47.9% as of Monday — continues to exceed the nation’s 46%. The state still ranks highly in vaccinating the vulnerable 65-and-over population. Its 84.4% vaccination rate is 12th-best in the U.S.
Ricketts also announced Monday that the state’s contract with TestNebraska, the company that provided COVID testing for the state, will end July 31. The last day to get a test through a TestNebraska site is July 18.
TestNebraska has done 772,000 tests so far, Ricketts said. Nebraska’s initial contract with the Utah-based consortium was for 540,000 tests.
The governor noted that other providers will continue to give the public access to tests.
He also encouraged local health departments to discontinue the risk dials they have been using to convey the level of virus threat in their areas.
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Ricketts said most pandemic-related executive orders will expire 30 days after the emergency ends. He already canceled some, while three will remain in effect for longer. One related to telehealth will expire Aug. 27, when newly passed legislation takes effect and makes permanent the changes in telehealth coverage for mental health care.
Two related to unemployment will stay in place until next year so lawmakers will have the chance to pass Legislative Bill 567, which would make a time-saving change permanent. The bill would require the Department of Labor to look only at a worker’s most recent job when determining the amount of unemployment benefits.
World-Herald Staff Writers Henry J. Cordes and Sara Gentzler contributed to this report.