State Testing and Cases Spike: Weekly COVID-19 Roundup, Aug. 31.


Editors note: This is a weekly series from The Reader breaking down COVID-19 data from the state. In it, reporter Chris Bowling will look at the latest in COVID-19 numbers and news.

See daily COVID-19 updates here

Things were looking good. Douglas County finally had a mask mandate. Lancaster County had moved into risk-level “yellow.” Daily COVID-19 caseloads were down statewide.

Now there’s been huge spikes in cases in Nebraska’s two largest counties–Lancaster saw its highest case growth rate and yesterday’s numbers are a new peak. Now, in a time when most of the country has seen consistent declines in cases, Nebraska’s climbing up again.

The question is, “Why?” If you’ve been paying attention the answer shouldn’t shock you. 

Testing.

Since mid-July, and up until late last week, Nebraska’s daily testing amounts were on the decline. The state’s highest testing total on a 7-day average came on July 18 with a bit under 4,000 tests. The drop off in testing didn’t necessarily result in a similar decline in cases, though. Even as tests steadily trended downward, cases across the state rose and stayed high. 

Starting Aug. 20, daily caseloads on a 7-day average nosedived.

Quick side note: Situations like this are why a 7-day average is not only a more reliable figure, but It’s really helpful to spot a trend. Without that the average, you’d probably look at the daily case amounts and have a hard time telling what exactly is going on with testing in Nebraska. With it, it becomes clear that either Nebraskans have had enough testing or there’s something wrong in the system.

At this point, 360,000 Nebraskans have been tested–about one fifth the state and enough to fill four Memorial Stadiums, not that I’d recommend that any time soon. Much of the state is seeing relatively low levels of transmission and some counties surprisingly still have not reported a case. So maybe declining tests just shows less and less people need them.

Not quite.

I’m burying the lede here, but TestNebraska got some flack last week for delays in tests. The rumors surfaced on Reddit, then The Omaha World-Herald had a story in which the state apologized but didn’t give many details beyond saying a computer glitch caused the issues.

So, whether we’re seeing a deluge of tests finally reported or there is indeed more testing going on is hard to say. What is apparent is that, to the shock of no one, these tests show Nebraska does not have COVID-19 under control. 

In addition to seeing spikes in cases, the daily positivity rate today is about 10% on a 7-day average, twice the national average. The World Health Organization recommends a positivity rate of about 5%.

The number of tests is also surprising because it bucks some expectation of what should be high or low testing days. Nebraska is not quite as predictable as some states, but the number of reported tests starts small in the beginning of the week and gets bigger.

But test amounts stayed high on Sunday. We’ll see what they look like through this week–whether we’re just catching up on a backlog of tests or we’re experiencing another bump in the long (very, very long) road to getting COVID-19 under control.

Some other notes about the week past and ahead. The Reader’s model for school re-openings has hardly changed. More than four-fifths of the state is not ready to go back to school, per a University of Nebraska Medical School standard. Despite that, school is back in-person for many. 

COVID-19 keeps appearing in sorority houses at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In Chadron, the public university is tied to 30% of the county’s cases, according to the editor of Chadron State College’s student newspaper. Since the end of July, Dawes County in northwest Nebraska has had 73 cases. Before that they’d had four. 


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