Public Health Officials Say Nebraska is at a COVID-19 Crossroad, Will We Listen?

The Reader's weekly COVID-19 update for Oct. 6, 2020.


As I put it in one Tweet last week, “Well, it happened.”

On Sept. 28 Nebraska’s seven-day COVID-19 caseload average inched past its previous peak from May. Then it went higher. And higher. And higher.

By the time it stopped climbing, the state had more than 100 daily cases on average than it did back in May. You remember May right? When Grand Island became one of the biggest COVID hotspots in the nation? When we were all trying to learn how, why and where the virus was spreading? Well now University of Nebraska Medical Center and Nebraska Medicine officials warn that the state is entering a “dangerous period” in the pandemic.

“The largest surge of cases and hospitalizations we have seen is currently upon us,” the doctors wrote in a statement. “We know how to beat this virus, but we’ve gotten complacent. COVID-19 has now killed nearly 500 Nebraskans, and many more are likely to die if we don’t take more action immediately.”

The group of doctors who made the announcement at a press conference Monday included Dr. James Lawler, Dr. John Lowe, Dr. Angela Hewlett, Dr. Daniel Johnson, Dr. Mark Rupp, Dr. Jana Broadhurst.

While the Omaha City Council contemplates whether to extend the city’s mask mandate, doctors at UNMC say a mandate should be extended to the entire state. Moreover, the traditional reopening “phases” need to be reevaluated, they said. Nebraska is currently in Phase 4 of reopening, which essentially means back to normal operations in most businesses and public places.

Throughout the pandemic there’s been a contentious relationship between public health and government. 

Despite peaking cases, much of the state started reopening in May to the dismay of many. Gov. Pete Ricketts, while promoting the use of masks, has gone as far to say a state mask mandate would violate Nebraska law

Ricketts also threatened to withhold CARES Act money from any local government that implemented mask mandates in public buildings. The federal CARES Act money is meant to help local governments recover pandemic-related losses and implement public health projects. 

When schools contemplated reopening, UNMC developed a standard to decide when transmission was “under control” enough to get kids into classrooms. Ricketts said lawmakers should make decisions about school reopening not doctors.

Nearly every major county has never been below the 50 case per million residents to meet that standard and now only 12 counties out of 93, with a combined population that’s equal to 3.5% of Douglas County’s, meet that standard. Nevertheless schools have returned by and large and even Omaha Public Schools, the state’s largest district, returned this week.

Lincoln was the first county to order a mask mandate, which helped reduce cases until classes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln started up. Douglas County’s Health Director Adi Pour folded under state pressure and declined to order a mandate, leaving it in the hands of the Omaha City Council. The city council mandate helped for a while, but recently cases in Douglas County nearly eclipsed the peak set back in June.

 

And of course the contentious relationship doesn’t stop at the local level. Because—and oh my God, how have I written this much and not freaking mentioned this—President Donald Trump contracted COVID-19 this past week. There’s too much to even dive into with this one but a quick recap is in order. The New York Times also has a helpful timeline you can peruse.

At last week’s debate, Trump was asked if it was irresponsible that he was still holding rallies and his answer was basically, “It’s outside so it’s fine.” Then he gets COVID-19. Then everyone around him starts testing positive. Then he goes to the hospital and…rides around in a Secret Service vehicle for a photo op, potentially infecting everyone inside? And as of last night, he’s out.

There’s so much to unpack there that doesn’t even get to comments Trump has made about unproven COVID-19 treatments, Dr. Anthony Fauci, or even the fact that the President of the United States actively downplayed the virus while knowing the danger was more serious. All the whole more 200,000 people died, 503 of them our family, friends and neighbors.

It’s a gross oversimplification to say COVID-19 has become politicized. But its handling, or lack thereof, seems to have become a proxy war for a show of political strength. Or maybe worse, a sinister form of American individualism in lieu of shared empathy.

Nebraska is on the edge of precipice as I’ve pointed out in past columns and my daily COVID-19 data updates. But it remains to be seen if the narrative can change. Whether we can stop worrying about trying to live in a stressful state of cognitive dissonance and just recognize things are not normal.

In fact they are worse than they’ve ever been.  Public health experts are risking wading too deep into the political waters to share that with us. They’re practically screaming it. The question remains to be answered.

Will we listen?

Contact the writer at chris@thereader.com


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