Starting today, nearly every county in the state is no longer required to follow state-issued directed health measures.
Under Phase 4, measures have been lifted that previously applied bars, restaurants, childcare facilities, churches, gyms, salons, barbers, tattoo parlors, weddings and more are lifted. Original guidance is still recommended, however. The only hard-and-fast limitation is that indoor gatherings, like movie theaters and libraries, are limited to 75% capacity and six feet of social distancing of both indoor and outdoor activities is still in place.
Gov. Pete Ricketts announced last week the only county not advancing to Phase 4 is Lancaster which is seeing an alarming spike in COVID-19 transmission. This far exceeds Douglas County’s daily caseload on a 7-day average.
While kicking open the doors on reopening during a time COVID-19 cases are actually rising in Nebraska largest counties seems wrong, reopening in the state has never really followed those trends. In May, businesses were allowed to reopen to 50% capacity. Bar and restaurant owners in particular felt like the state forced them to choose between spreading a deadly disease and further financial ruin. Not much has changed about COVID-19 since then.
While hospitalizations are generally lower, there’s still no vaccine or known treatment. Testing has increased, but the positivity rate, on a 7-day average, has steadily increased. Right now it’s hovering at about 10%, double what the World Health Organization calls “too high” to reopen.
It’s led to a fracture of some businesses operating with little to no caution, and others trying to keep capacity down. But following health recommendations when the state says they’re not required has led to some lost business and employees’ income shrinking. And with benefits running out or reducing, as well as the state reimplementing job-search requirements on unemployment applications, institutional help for those hurt by the pandemic has dwindled.
Not to mention Gov. Ricketts decision not to expand food assistance through P-EBT (Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer) program which would help 85,000 kids get meals they won’t get from school because classes are either limited or completely online. But I digress.
At the risk of editorializing, the move to further reopen does not seem like one completely based in science. Cases are not going down and the positivity rate is not looking good. But, for the sake of the argument, I always come back to something Dr. Jeffrey Gold, Chancellor of UNMC and the University of Nebraska at Omaha as well as board chair of Nebraska Medicine, told me in May.
“I don’t look at the amount of of domestic violence that’s coming from this, child abuse,” Gold said then. “I don’t look at the amount of street crime, I don’t look at the amount of homelessness I don’t look at the amount of food insecurity that’s going on. These are all the dramatic sequelae of both the economic and the sociologic impact of this pandemic and the rate we reopen has to weigh all those things.”
There’s an imperfect science that comes with making decisions around the pandemic that’s always fascinated and scared me. On one hand there are hard metrics we can point to. On the other there are subjective criteria that equally influence decision making. My efforts to do a story about this decision making locally fizzled after several fruitless attempts to set up a meeting with Dr. Adi Pour, director of the Douglas County Health Department.
But all this to say what responsibility to continue limiting the spread of COVID-19 do these business owners and community event organizers have? And what does that look like? Some I know personally would prefer they could stick to take-out or alternative business models. But that’s not financially possible and beyond keeping their business afloat, they have employees whose livelihoods are at stake. When the state itself says the pandemic is under control here, it makes it harder and harder to justify continued pandemic protections. More people are going to want to go out to eat and drink while institutional help may be harder to come by.
One piece of good news around the pandemic is the continued vaccine trials. An agreement between the University of Nebraska Medical Center and a New York-based biotech company will pave the way for an early clinical trial of a COVID-19 vaccine. Trials could state later this fall.
This joins hundreds of other vaccines racing to find a COVID-19 cure, which in itself has been on an insane journey. In the early days it seemed like we couldn’t move fast enough–the White House literally called the effort “Operation Warp Speed,” and President Donald Trump handed them essentially a blank check to find the cure. But this expediency (and the financial incentives of being first) doesn’t really pair well with the idea of a safe, well-tested vaccine.
Gallup said recently that a third of Americans would not take the vaccine. And just run a social experiment among your friends and family. Ask them whether they’d be the first to take it. I bet you’d get a lot of people saying they want to see how it plays out in others first.
That just leads me to the big question of when will the United States have COVID-19 under control? It seems we missed our chance to really flatten the curve like other countries because of premature reopenings. It’s also going to be a while before a vaccine is publicly available. Though many vaccines are in Phase 3 of testing, there’s no telling whether they’ll come out successful from that stage or how long data collection and analysis will take. There’s also an emphasis on releasing the strongest vaccine possible.
In an interview with Newsweek, Dr. Anthony Fauci said life will probably look about the same as it does now into 2021.
So strap in and get used to this modern life if you’re continuing to get tested and socially distance. If you’re not, I’d strongly encourage you to read the writing on the wall that little has changed in the past few months.