Editors note: This is the first column in a new 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.
Despite school reopenings, businesses returning to normal operations and the Nebraska Legislature ending its session without passing additional coronavirus protections, the state is far from conquering COVID-19.
Testing delays led to erratic results last week, leading to some slight bumps and boosts for Douglas County’s 7-day average. Today’s average shows about 113 new cases in Nebraska’s most populous county. The state saw an uptick over the weekend and sits at 277 new cases on the same average. An influx in tests on Friday also led to the state’s second-highest daily caseload going back to May 17.
On Friday, Dr. Ali Khan, Dean of the University of Nebraska-Medicine’s College of Public Health, met with Dr. Deborah Birx, Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House. Khan is also the former director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Birx also spoke at the Capitol while on a tour of the Midwest.
The appearance followed a leaked phone conversation where Birx identified Nebraska as one of a handful of COVID-19 hotspots concerning health officials. On Twitter, Khan said the two talked about containment strategies and metrics to measure improvement. He also shared a graphic that puts Nebraska’s current transmission levels above “uncontrolled” and into the somewhat confusing “the sky’s the limit” category. To put it in other words: very not good.
#NewSARS Rethinking thresholds
Nice to have Ambassador Birx in Nebraska supporting state efforts to control community transmission.
Decided to take opportunity to recolor the thresholds.
— Dr. Ali Khan (@UNMC_DrKhan) August 16, 2020
However, Birx said she’s seeing positive signs from Omaha and Lincoln.
Part of that could be mask mandates passed in both cities. After a legal kerfuffle between Douglas County Health Department Director Dr. Adi Pour and the state, the Omaha City Council stepped up and instituted a mandate. It came with many exceptions and a relatively small fine ($25), but it ended Omaha’s reign as the only of the 100 largest American cities not to have a mandate.
The Omaha World-Herald said anecdotal accounts around the city make it seem like the mandate is being followed by most.
My own non-scientific observations say it depends where you go. At my South Omaha grocery store, I saw plenty of maskless patrons. At other smaller businesses, I saw a number of people walk in and out without donning a mask. It might be our “Nebraska nice” tendency to avoid confrontation, or possibly the lack of a uniform statement about the need for a mandate from officials.
Most schools also started up last week and the news of COVID-19 cases have peppered the headlines. Staff and students in Ralston, a Papillion-La Vista High School cheerleader, a chunk of staff in Broken Bow. Millard Public Schools (which was already on a staggered schedule) cut its in-person attendance by half. Omaha Public Schools had been slated to start in-person before the school board pushed the eject button at the last second.
Data shows that most of the state is not ready, per UNMC standards (fewer than 50 new cases per 1 million residents).
Of the top 20 most-populous counties (about 82% of the state’s population), one passes that standard.
Gov. Pete Ricketts also made expediting testing a priority. Delays have caused some uneven patterns in data–like an 18% daily positivity rate, the highest in months–as well as leaving people in limbo for days. He’s said the state will upgrade its testing capacity to speed up turnarounds.
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