Nebraska COVID-19 cases have been on the rise, with officials saying more contagious variants may be playing a role in the increased infections.
State dashboard figures show weekly coronavirus cases have climbed from 1,863 to 2,096 in the past two weeks, an increase of almost 13%.
Nationally, case counts over the same two-week period increased at a slightly higher pace, rising by 17.4%.
Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data for the past two weeks show Nebraska had the nation’s highest increases. However, those numbers appear to be inflated by the delayed reporting of older cases.
Still, there’s no doubt cases in Nebraska, and nationally, are on the rise. The national numbers prompted an urgent plea for caution last week by federal health officials.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday that a couple of factors probably are driving such figures. One is that more easily transmissible variants of COVID-19 have shown up in the state. Fifty-three cases of people infected with variants have been confirmed in Nebraska, the CDC said.
The state also has pulled testing data, including positive cases, from smaller providers into its system.
When asked whether some of the cases from months ago were counted among last week’s cases, Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical officer, said, “That’s what we’re trying to sort out right now.”
Even with an uptick, however, case counts are nowhere near the numbers the state was recording during the surge last fall and winter.
The good news is that many more Nebraskans are getting vaccinated every day. About 385,000 Nebraskans ages 18 and older, or about 26.4%, now are fully vaccinated, a figure that ranks 13th among states. That includes 64% of those 65 and older, the eighth-best rate in the country.
Iowa’s vaccination tallies are similar, with that state ranking ninth in 18-plus residents being fully vaccinated and ninth in the number of 65-and-older residents having gotten shots.
Nebraska on Monday officially opened vaccination to residents 16 and older. However, Ricketts repeated that local health departments will make that call based on their appointment availability.
Both the Douglas County Health Department and the Sarpy/Cass Health Department on Monday opened eligibility to residents 16 and older, with the Pfizer vaccine approved for that group and the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots OK’d for those 18 and older. In both districts, those under age 19 must be accompanied to their vaccine appointments by a parent or legal guardian.
Ricketts said White House officials last week told states the nation as a whole will receive 5.1 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine this week, an amount more than double what the company delivered last week.
Of this week’s total, Nebraska expects about 27,600 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Combined with the other two two-shot vaccines, the state should get about 70,500 doses this week.
The number of pharmacies nationwide participating in the federal retail pharmacy program also will grow from 17,000 to 40,000. While the state does not have as good a handle on the amount of vaccine those pharmacies receive, Ricketts said it’s likely they will see an increase, too.
“Ultimately,” he said, “that’s how we get through this pandemic is getting people vaccinated.”
Ricketts also cautioned that hospitalizations related to COVID-19 rose last week after 18 straight weeks with no increases. Sunday, 132 Nebraskans were hospitalized because of the virus, up from a low of 102 on March 29.
In addition, the state’s positivity rate last week topped 5% for the first time in eight weeks.
Ricketts said the state will stick with its current system of basing restrictions intended to slow the virus’s spread on COVID-19-related hospitalizations, as in the past, rather than imposing new limitations to clamp down on new cases.
When asked whether he would consider holding vaccination clinics on college campuses, Ricketts said some health departments are considering that step, but that it probably wouldn’t happen until fall.
Ricketts said he would oppose any sort of vaccine mandates for college students.
Dr. James Lawler, an executive director at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, said the increase is the predictable result of the two variants that are circulating and the relaxation of the health measures, such as masking and avoiding crowds, that have taken us this far.
“I think people have unfortunately gotten the incorrect message that the pandemic is on the down slope and we’re home free,” Lawler said. “And that is certainly not the case.”
The B.1.1.7 variant, which originated in the United Kingdom, is more transmissible and causes more disease in young people, and the P.1, originally identified in Brazil, appears to dramatically increase severe disease in younger people.
While a large proportion over age 65 have been vaccinated, the proportion under 50 who have gotten shots is smaller.
The key to getting out of the pandemic is to get as many people vaccinated as possible, Lawler said. That includes people who have had COVID-19. The immunity from the vaccine is much stronger than from infection.
“We’re still in for a few months of sweaty palms,” he said.
World-Herald Staff Writer Henry J. Cordes contributed to this report.
Now that you’re vaccinated, here's what you can and can’t do
What you can do
CDC guidance contains activity recommendations for fully vaccinated people in private settings and includes:
Visiting with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks.
Visiting with unvaccinated people from one other household indoors without wearing masks or staying 6 feet apart if everyone in the other household is at low risk for severe disease.
Refrain from quarantine and testing if no symptoms of COVID-19 are experienced after contact with someone who has COVID-19.
The CDC has also updated its guidance to say fully vaccinated people can travel within the U.S. without getting tested for the coronavirus or going into quarantine afterward. Read more about that here:
For the most up-to-date guidance from the CDC, go to the CDC's COVID-19 site.
Precautions in public
The CDC says that anyone who is fully vaccinated should continue to take these precautions when in public, when visiting with unvaccinated people from multiple other households, and when around unvaccinated people who are at high risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19:
Wear a well-fitted mask.
Stay at least 6 feet apart from people you do not live with.
Avoid medium and large in-person gatherings.
Get tested if experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
Follow guidance issued by individual employers.
Follow CDC and health department travel requirements and recommendations.
10 things to know about vaccine side effects
Here’s a list of 10 things you should know about potential COVID-19 vaccine side effects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Harvard Medical School:
- The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine and Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine both require two shots in order to get the most protection. You should get the second shot even if you have side effects after the first shot, unless a vaccination provider or your doctor tells you not to get it.
- Side effects from the second injection may be more intense than the ones you experienced after your first shot.
- The most commonly reported symptoms are pain, redness and swelling at the site of the injection. Other common symptoms reported include tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, fever and nausea.
- You may take acetaminophen, aspirin or antihistamines for any pain and discomfort you may experience after getting vaccinated — as long as you have no medical conditions that prevent you from taking them normally.
- It is not recommended that you take pain relievers before being vaccinated in an effort to prevent side effects. They may interfere with the vaccine’s effectiveness.
- If you have pain at the vaccine’s location, keep the arm active and use a clean, cool, wet washcloth over the site.
- For a fever, drink plenty of fluids and dress lightly to remain as cool as possible.
- The symptoms should improve within two or three days.
- Call the doctor if redness and/or tenderness at the injection site worsen after 24 hours.
- Call your doctor if any other symptoms seem to be worsening or not improving after two to three days
Can I get COVID-19 after being vaccinated?
Like other vaccines, such as the flu shot, the COVID-19 vaccines work by teaching the immune system how to recognize and fight the virus that causes COVID-19. It typically takes two weeks after vaccination for the body to build immunity against the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Because of this, it is possible for a person to get COVID-19 before or just after vaccination, and then get sick because the body hasn’t had enough time to develop protection.
Dr. Michael Lindberg, chief medical officer at Monadnock Community Hospital in New Hampshire, said that while possible, it’s “very uncommon” for someone to become infected with COVID-19 after vaccination.
Should I still get tested after getting vaccinated?
If you’ve been vaccinated and are showing symptoms of COVID-19, then yes, you should get tested.
If you have been vaccinated and don’t have symptoms, however, you don’t need to get tested even if you suspect you’ve been exposed to the virus, per guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When will we hit herd immunity?
Scientists estimate that potentially 75% to 85% of the population needs to be immune to reach herd immunity for COVID-19. Some estimates are higher, at around 90%. As of March 29, 15.8% of the U.S. population had been fully vaccinated, 28.6% had gotten at least one dose.
How long will we have to wear face masks?
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in February that even with increasing vaccinations, it’s “possible” Americans could still be wearing face masks and coverings in 2022.
Also contributing to this report: The News & Observer (N.C.), The Keene Sentinel (N.H.), Dayton Daily News (Ohio) and The Staten Island Advance (N.Y.)