Things were going well. Vaccinations were rising, new COVID-19 cases were declining and life started to feel normal. Fans crowded Omaha for the College World Series, the Old Market teemed with life on hot weekend nights. Gov. Pete Ricketts ended Nebraska’s state of emergency on Wednesday, June 30, closing the state’s online coronavirus dashboard, a hub for COVID-19 information that now seemed obsolete.
But a month later, cases of the COVID-19 delta variant are on the rise, UNMC filled its COVID unit with patients and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended even vaccinated people resume wearing masks indoors. The pandemic is not over.
“At the start of the next surge is where we’re at right now,” Dr. Bob Rauner, Chief Medical Officer of OneHealth Nebraska and president of Partnership for Healthy Lincoln, said.
Medical professionals and community health advocates fear what termination of the state coronavirus dashboard really means: decreased data, increased hospitalizations and more preventable deaths as the delta variant surges and many communities in the state are still far from having 70% of their adults vaccinated.
“I think it’s ill advised and comes at a bad time, and is not what I would recommend,” Dr. Mark Rupp, professor and Chief of Infectious Diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center said. “The fact of the matter is that the pandemic’s not over, that the state dashboard was a useful source of information for those of us who are caring for patients as well as people in this community who are interested in knowing what the trends are. They’re a trusted source of information.”
Two weeks after the central data hub’s closure, the state did start reporting some weekly statistics every Wednesday. But it pales in comparison to the former dashboard and the lack of visualizations as well as geographic, demographic and historical data makes it harder to analyze.
The state COVID-19 dashboard served as an online hub for public information about the pandemic in Nebraska, featuring statistics about positive cases and total deaths, along with specific demographic and geographic numbers. When announcing its initial closure, the Department of Health and Human Services directed civilians to the Office of Public Records to request data. Earlier this month, KETV 7 requested case and vaccination numbers, which was denied. DHHS did not respond to The Reader’s requests for comment about the updated state dashboard measures.
In the June 30 press release, the state also provided links to various national websites for information.
“It’s important to note that these sites are not the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services,” the news release read. “They may collect and report data differently from DHHS.”
Currently, various health departments across the state like Douglas and Lancaster counties, update numbers through their own online coronavirus dashboards. Although frequency of when the data is posted varies as this, morning Douglas County’s data is two days old as of this writing, though another data hub lists data for Nebraska’s most populous county updated as of noon July 28. The Douglas County Health Department declined to answer The Reader’s question about the data and state of the pandemic.
Some smaller counties, such as Butler and Cheyenne, update data weekly on their public health department websites. But without a state standard, Nebraskans looking for quality information on the pandemic might be lost in the noise.
“Nebraska is just a black hole when it comes to coronavirus data,” Rauner said. “You may have political opinions about how much should or should not be done about it. But hiding information is not the right approach. Why are we hiding all that data? A department of public health’s job is to monitor that data. It’s a core function of the Department of Health to monitor things like that. So why are we hiding it?”
The data is a primary tool for advocates to encourage vaccinations, which have lagged in rural areas and communities of color. Nationally younger people who disproportionately catch the virus and go unvaccinated, are also a concern.
In some states, elected officials have shown strong responses to the latest rise in COVID-19 cases. But mask mandates, strict vaccination requirements and public, in-depth information are not the routes Gov. Pete Ricketts has taken. Ricketts resisted instituting a lockdown or mask mandate in 2020. He’s also said the CDC recommending masks indoors furthers distrust in the government and hurts chances at increased vaccinations.
“It is time for the CDC and the government to get out of the way, and stop trying to tell people how to live their lives,” Ricketts said in a press release on Tuesday titled “Nebraska’s Return to Normal Won’t Be Interrupted by New CDC Guidance.”
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But many in Nebraska still have a long way to go to get to normal. Diana Gleisberg Meredith currently works with the Do Right, Right Now campaign, which aims to increase COVID-19 awareness and connect Nebraskans with accurate information and resources. Gleisberg Meredith utilized data from the state dashboard to pinpoint vulnerable communities with low vaccination rates, allowing her to contact local community leaders and create targeted multimedia advertisements. To her, the main problem is still fighting misinformation.
“You have all these people that, unbeknownst to them, are believing all this incorrect information,” Gleisberg Meredith said. “And you see how certain areas have such a low vaccination rate that the delta variant is just running rampant, and now cases are spiking. …The biggest issue right now is how to handle the misinformation, how to debunk the myths.”
Rauner fears that the loss of the dashboard impacts not only vaccination rates, but the relationship between citizens and the government as a whole.
“How do we know tax dollars are working correctly? We can see the results in real time on a state dashboard for various things, and this is just one more thing,” Rauner said. “To remove the data means you’re removing accountability essentially. And that’s almost always a bad thing, to remove accountability from the government.”
One reason the state gives for the dashboard shutdown are healthcare privacy laws, now in effect after the state of emergency’s termination on June 30. However, counties across the state continue to provide their data individually. Attorney Kim Lammers, partner at Omaha firm Baird Holm, explained there are legal exceptions that allow providers to report medical information to public health departments.
“Even though HIPAA is designed to protect patient health information, there are lots of reasons why providers are allowed to disclose information without the patient’s approval,” Lammers said. “If you report that someone has tested positive for HIV, the public health department is going to want to know who that is so that they can engage in contact tracing.”
Lammers expects that, following the pandemic, some of the laws altered by waivers will change in the coming years.
“Some of the changes have made both providers and some of the agencies that regulate healthcare think about ‘Gosh, perhaps we don’t need this particular regulation, or we don’t need it in this particular way,’” Lammers said. “Some things will change both federally and at the state level based on the experiences during the pandemic.”
Though the world’s been under the thumb of COVID-19 for well over a year now, data and transparent communication is still essential to debunking superstitions about coronavirus. From its symptoms to its severity, to the many vaccines developed to fight it, some still need to hear this information. And despite how close Nebraska seemed to a sense of normalcy, the delta variant, rising caseloads and lagging vaccinations indicate the state is still in the trenches of fighting COVID-19.
“The real tragedy right now is that nearly all of the hospitalizations and deaths that we continue to see from COVID should be regarded as essentially preventable deaths,” Rupp said. “This virus continues to snatch people away, sometimes now young, very vibrant healthy folks. And I think, unfortunately, we’re going to see more of that as this delta variant gains steam.”
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