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Nebraska sees increase in COVID cases; vaccinations also on the rise
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Nebraska sees increase in COVID cases; vaccinations also on the rise

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Nebraska saw the COVID positivity rate increase over 5% last week.

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.

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