Nebraska’s summer COVID-19 surge is continuing, with cases nearly doubling over the past two weeks.
The state’s increase in COVID cases over that time ranks fifth highest in the nation.
Nebraska posted 5,006 new cases for the week ending Friday, up from 3,755 the previous week and 2,668 the week before, according to a World-Herald analysis of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Not only are cases above levels seen in Nebraska’s spring 2020 surge, the case growth rate now resembles the growth curve the state mounted last fall and winter. That surge led to a peak in November of nearly 1,000 hospitalized patients.
Whether the state’s current surge will lead to the kind of sustained outbreak of a year ago remains to be seen.
But Nebraska’s case counts now have grown for 10 straight weeks, fueled by the contagious delta variant.
Hospitals, which have seen an increase in COVID patients in addition to higher numbers of non-COVID patients and a shortage of health care workers, already are feeling the pinch. Thursday, 323 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Nebraska, with a seven-day moving average of 313.
“Those numbers speak for themselves,” said Dr. James Lawler, a co-executive director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security. “We’re going up, and we’re following in the footsteps of the Southern states that saw increasing cases before us. And we’ll continue that way unless something dramatic happens.”
With schools now open to in-person learning, and other venues and activities all back in play, Lawler said, the state will see an increase in cases, given its lack of uniform precautions such as masking and distancing, and its relatively low vaccination rates.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts last week declared a hospital staffing emergency, waiving some licensing requirements for hospitals and issuing a directed health measure limiting elective surgeries that can be delayed four or more weeks.
Nebraska Medicine, Methodist Health System and Lincoln’s Bryan Health previously had announced they would limit certain surgeries requiring overnight stays to ease capacity pressure.
But Ricketts has declined to impose other new restrictions. His administration last week blocked Douglas County from implementing an indoor mask mandate.
As of Wednesday, 52% of all Nebraska residents were fully vaccinated. For the second straight week, 32,000 shots were administered in Nebraska last week. That’s up from the 20,000 per week that it had been averaging.
Lawler said a community really needs vaccination rates well above 70% before vaccination can significantly blunt cases and, more important, hospitalizations.
“I think we can anticipate a similar level of cases, and for all the Southern states that have seen delta (increase case) rates, they have not seen a blunting of hospitalizations,” Lawler said.
The highest per-capita case counts, for now, remain in the South, led by Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi. Nebraska’s per-capita caseload remains below the national average but continues to climb, now ranking 27th.
Nebraska and a couple of its northern neighbors were among the largest gainers over the past two weeks. South Dakota leads the nation in two-week case growth at 170%, followed by West Virginia (130%), Pennsylvania (115%), North Dakota (110%) and Nebraska (88%). Iowa, too, was on the rise, with its two-week growth rate at 44% and ranking 19th among states.
Lawler noted that the surges in Southern states that now have reached peaks — Missouri, Arkansas, Florida and Louisiana — all began before schools returned to session. Nebraska’s fall peak may be higher, he said, because its existing increase in cases is coinciding with the opening of school.
Data from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, posted on Facebook by the Fremont-based Three Rivers Health District, indicates considerable variation in vaccination rates among the state’s health districts. While those rates are generally higher among those 65 and older, some districts have vaccination rates just over 65% in that age bracket, compared with 90% in Lancaster County.
A handful of health districts have fewer than 20% of 16- to 29-year-olds fully vaccinated, compared with 50% in Douglas County.
While the state has stopped publicly releasing county-level case data, figures for Douglas and Lancaster Counties suggest the per-capita case rate is higher in the state’s less-populated areas than in those population centers. Douglas and Lancaster Counties are home to 46% of the state’s population but accounted for only 39% of its COVID cases last week.
In Douglas County, people 19 and younger also make up a growing proportion of those testing positive for the coronavirus. Two weeks ago, residents 19 and younger made up 22% of new cases for the week. Last week, that age bracket accounted for 29% of those testing positive for the virus.
An increasing number of cases last week prompted two school districts — the Papillion La Vista Community Schools and the Westside Community Schools — to require masks for all staff and students beginning this week. The Millard Public Schools announced stricter protocols for responding to COVID-19 cases in elementary schools but did not call for universal masking districtwide.
Meanwhile, nearly two dozen doctors and other health care providers sent a letter to the Gretna school board and administrators on Monday, asking them to implement precautions, including mandatory masking. Children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination.
“Our infection rates are increasing in the community,” they wrote, “and our most vulnerable population remains unprotected.”