COVID-19 cases in Nebraska are on the rise, but it appears the state avoided the big virus surge that had been feared coming out of the holidays.
The new virus numbers come as the state continues its efforts to vaccinate vulnerable long-term care residents and prepares to launch a system for vaccinating the general public.
For the week ending Jan. 9, Nebraska saw nearly 6,900 new confirmed cases, up from 6,400 two weeks earlier. But the 7% growth rate in that time was modest compared to the rest of the country. It was about one-fourth of the U.S. growth rate and the seventh lowest among the states.
“The virus is still out there,” Gov. Pete Ricketts said during a state virus briefing Monday. “Hopes are rising with the vaccine, but we need to continue to be diligent.”
While the pace of the vaccine rollout has been much criticized nationally, data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests Nebraska’s efforts have rated better than the vast majority of states.
As of Monday morning, Nebraska ranked fifth among the states in per-capita vaccination rate and sixth in getting vaccine doses distributed. It also ranked fifth in percentage of distributed vaccine doses that had been administered.
Angie Ling, the Department of Health and Human Services incident commander, said the goal is to administer the vaccines within a week of their arrival in Nebraska. But there can be some delay if the kits needed to give the vaccine do not arrive at the same time. The kits contain needles, syringes and protective equipment such as masks.
Ling said the vaccines are being shipped directly to health care systems, local health departments and select pharmacies. For the most part, those entities are giving shots to people based on the state’s priority system, with front-line health care workers first, followed by long-term care workers and residents.
In some rural areas, however, she said the state is encouraging providers to vaccinate people lower on the priority list rather than have vaccine doses go unused. So far, no vaccines have expired before they could be administered, she said.
Ling said the state is preparing to activate 70 more National Guard members to help with the vaccination effort.
Nebraska is also currently working on an online registration system for vaccinating the general public, with those 75 and older set to be first in line.
Ling said the state is “slightly behind schedule” in getting the system ready but wants to make sure it works correctly. Technical glitches have been reported in a number of states that have already rolled out such websites, among them Oklahoma, California and New Jersey.
Ling did not give a specific date for completion of the system but said it should be up and running later this month. The state is also setting up a call center for people who do not use the internet.
In the meantime, Attorney General Doug Peterson warned Nebraskans not to be taken in by vaccination scams. He said people should beware of phone calls, emails or people knocking at their door and asking for personal information, supposedly for the purposes of providing vaccinations. Legitimate vaccination appointments and information will be handled by doctors’ offices, health clinics and local health departments.
In looking at recent COVID-19 numbers, Ricketts said he thinks many Nebraskans did heed advice to limit gatherings over the holidays. Contact tracing has shown that small informal gatherings are significant contributors to virus spread.
But he said there’s also still much that isn’t known about the virus and how it spreads.
Earlier this fall, the nation's biggest virus surges were in the Upper Midwest, hitting Nebraska and Iowa as well as states like Minnesota and Illinois that had stronger policies on masking and social distancing.
Now the hardest-hit states are scattered all over the country, the highest rates last week found in Arizona, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, South Carolina and California.
Ricketts noted California, which has had some of the nation’s most stringent lockdowns, currently is seeing new cases at double Nebraska’s rate.
“That’s why we tried to strike a balance here in Nebraska,” he said.
Deaths in Nebraska were sharply down last week, with 65 reported deaths compared to 110 the week before and far below the peak of 202 in early December. Nebraska last week had half the death rate of the U.S. as a whole.
But the death toll — nearly 10 Nebraskans per day — remains high compared to earlier in the pandemic. The current rate is nearly twice as much as when the virus first surged last spring.