LINCOLN — Nebraska posted a significant milestone last week in the battle against COVID-19, injecting its 1 millionth dose of vaccine.
By Sunday, the total number of shots administered stood at 1.1 million, after health officials gave 136,000 doses last week alone, according to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data analyzed by The World-Herald.
Last week’s shot total includes a day when health officials gave 33,000 inoculations, a new record day for the state, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday.
The state also is approaching another milestone, with 48.5% of Nebraskans 18 and older — a total of 707,000 people — having gotten at least one shot, putting Nebraska at 19th best among states in that category. Nine states now have reached the 50% mark for the percentage of their 18-and-older populations that have gotten at least one shot.
In addition, some 450,000 Nebraskans, or 31%, now are fully vaccinated. That puts the state at 16th best. The state also ranks well — No. 9 — in terms of getting shots into its most vulnerable 65-plus population, with almost 70% of those older Nebraskans now fully vaccinated.
The continued momentum on vaccination comes as cases in the state increased again and health officials warned Nebraskans that it’s too early to abandon masking, distancing and avoiding large gatherings.
The 2,395 new cases of COVID-19 recorded last week were up 28% from the 1,872 reported two weeks earlier, according to CDC data.
Nebraska’s growth rate is more than 2.5 times the national rates in that time and ranks 14th highest among the states. Nebraska also stands out in the region, with most of its neighbors, including Iowa, having seen cases fall in the past two weeks.
Whether the uptick is the start of a third surge of cases in the state still is not clear. Cases remain a third of what they were at the beginning of the year and far below the peak seen last fall. But they are approaching the levels the state saw during its first peak last spring.
Ricketts noted that the state’s positivity rate has increased over the past couple of weeks. The positivity rate was 6.2% on Saturday, compared with 4.9% on March 27.
Hospitalizations, too, have increased during that time from a low of 102 on March 29 to 168 on Monday. Ricketts, however, noted that those figures have been stable over the past six to eight days.
Ricketts and a top state health official also reassured Nebraskans of the safety of the COVID vaccines, following reports of a Douglas County resident suffering blood clots after a vaccination.
The case was reported Friday and is being investigated by county, state and federal health officials, said Felicia Quintana-Zinn, the deputy director of public health for the Department of Health and Human Services.
She said the Douglas County resident developed blood clots about two weeks after getting the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The person remains in “guarded condition” at the Nebraska Medical Center.
But Quintana-Zinn said there is no evidence that the vaccine caused the blood clots. Nationally, there have been fewer than 10 reports of similar problems with any of the three vaccines that have emergency approval for use in the United States, she said.
Among the 40,000 people participating in the trials of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, there were blood clots reports in 14 vaccinated people, or .06% of those who got the vaccine, she said. Among those who got a placebo, there were 10 reports of blood clots, or a rate of .05%.
“Close monitoring of the safety data has not revealed any concerning patterns regarding these rare medical events,” she said.
Ricketts emphasized the message. More than 2,200 Nebraskans have died from COVID-19, a rate of just over .1% of the state’s 1.9 million residents.
“The key message here is all these vaccines are safe and effective,” he said. “You’re going to be at much greater risk from getting COVID than you are from some of the side effects these vaccines have.”
Getting the vaccine, he stressed, also is an important step to protect family and friends.
“Ultimately, this is how we get back to normal life and get through this pandemic, is by getting people vaccinated,” he said.
Nebraska, meanwhile, has seen an increasing number of cases of COVID-19 caused by variants, a total of 237 such cases as of Friday. The most commonly found is the variant that originated in the United Kingdom. Studies suggest it is more contagious than the original strain, may cause more severe illness and affect younger people. However, all three vaccines used in the U.S. are effective against variants found here, particularly when it comes to preventing serious illness and death.
Health officials also announced Monday that they had identified the state’s first case of the New York variant of COVID-19, known as B1.526, in a Douglas County resident.
The variant has been spreading throughout the United States, particularly in the northeast. While it’s still being studied to determine its contagiousness and severity, health officials expect that vaccination will remain effective against it.
Surveillance for variants has increased in recent weeks. The Nebraska Public Health Laboratory can sequence the genomes of more than 100 samples a week and Creighton University now can sequence nearly 100 samples a week. Genetic sequencing is necessary to distinguish variants from the original virus.
Quintana-Zinn said state health officials had identified 122 possible vaccine breakthroughs as of Friday, cases in which Nebraskans tested positive 14 days after completing their vaccination series.
That represented .03% of the 428,000 Nebraskans then fully vaccinated, showing the vaccine is working for more than 99% of those who have received it.
Only three residents have been hospitalized with infections after being vaccinated, she said. That represents .05% of the 6,390 Nebraskans hospitalized with COVID-19 during the pandemic. No COVID-19-related deaths have occurred among vaccinated Nebraskans.
Locally, cases and hospitalizations in Douglas County also have ticked up in the past several weeks.
New weekly cases have nearly doubled in the past three weeks, going from 621 for the week ending March 21 to 1,136 last week.
A total of 136 people were hospitalized locally with COVID-19 on Monday, up from 73 on March 29.
Vaccine appointments, however, have become easier to get. The Douglas County Health Department announced that it was making changes at its vaccination clinics to offer more walk-in vaccination opportunities.
Walk-in shots will be available at the Stockyards Plaza clinic at 35th and L Streets on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Thursdays from noon until 6 p.m. Douglas County residents 16 and older now are eligible for the vaccine. Those 16 and older can get the Pfizer shot, but residents must be 18 or older to get the Moderna or J&J vaccines.
Ricketts noted that the number of pharmacies offering shots through the federal retail pharmacy program also has expanded.
CVS Health announced Monday that it will begin vaccinating eligible residents Wednesday at 11 CVS Pharmacy locations in Omaha, La Vista, Lincoln, Grand Island and Norfolk, Nebraska. Appointments will become available for booking Tuesday. Patients must register in advance at CVS.com or through the CVS Pharmacy app. Those without online access can call 800-746-7287.
World-Herald Staff Writer Henry J. Cordes contributed to this report.