Searching for Answers in A Worsening Pandemic

The Reader's weekly COVID-19 update for Oct. 12, 2020.

In last week’s column, I posed the question: “Health officials are trying to warn us about the pandemic, will we listen?”

While it’s probably too early to see whether the data reflects a trend reversal, it certainly isn’t getting any better.

Last week, the state surpassed its previous peak of daily COVID-19 cases on a seven-day average by more than 100 cases. This week we’ve doubled the ante and tacked on another 100+ cases. Today our daily caseload on an average is 653.6 cases. That’s 220 more cases, more people, on average than back in May and about 108 more cases than last week.

I wish I could dust off my old calculus skills to find out the curve’s acceleration. But for now I can eye it and say it’s getting worse pretty fast. That’s in line with what University of Nebraska-Medical Center and Nebraska Medicine said last week. They said if cases kept increasing it would seriously overwhelm hospital staff and strain resources like hospital beds.

In Omaha, the hospital occupancy rate is currently 88%. That number became more real when KETV reported that there were only 25 intensive care beds in Douglas and Sarpy county a few days ago.

That gap has slowly been closing since the beginning of the pandemic when the occupancy rate was 43% at its lowest in recent months, according to the Douglas County Health Department’s COVID-19 dashboard. Statewide we’ve got 28% of intensive care beds available and 31% of all hospital beds.

So, things are not great. And we’re just starting to wade into flu season, which could make things worse. In addition, we’re going to have colder months, which can limit social activity but also social distancing.

And it’s not just Nebraska. Many states are seeing COVID-19 cases increasing and the midwest in particular is seeing more cases on average than ever. 

There is some good news in Omaha. The city council extended its mask mandate to Nov. 24. Across the state, testing is higher than it’s ever been. 

But Omaha Public Schools is also getting back into the full swing of things and that’s a lot of kids, teachers and staff interacting, creating an ever-growing web of social contacts. And while health experts said the state should reconsider its reopening guidance, there hasn’t been any news that Douglas County, or much of the state, will step backward from “Phase 4,” which is nearly a full reopening.

And who knows how long it’ll be before we have a vaccine. President Donald Trump said we’d have it “in a matter of weeks,” back in late September. Others say it’s a matter of months still, at least. Which is still an unprecedented turnaround considering it takes years, if not decades, to make an effective vaccine. And of course there’s the question about who will have access to the vaccine once it’s available. 

Will the tens of million of uninsured Americans have the same access as everyone else? What about the meatpacking workers who shouldered the burden of cases early in our state? The pandemic has highlighted so many inequities in our healthcare system and social structures, I personally believe we’ll see that continue.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that in Nebraska, a system like TestNebraska can transition from free, easy to sign up for, drive-up testing can transition to giving out vaccines in a similar fashion.

But until then we have to continue facing reality. We’re still very much in a pandemic and locally it’s getting worse. 

If elected officials won’t meet this moment with adequate leadership, we can. We know what to do: wearing masks and social distancing. Of course what do you tell a people-facing workers who’s losing their unemployment benefits? Or a parent whose children are falling behind in their education because they learn virtually as easily as other kids?

I’m still trying to come up with satisfying answers. We all are.

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