LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Public health officials expressed growing concern Tuesday about a recent increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Nebraska, primarily among residents who haven’t been vaccinated.
Officials said they were worried about the slow-but-steady increase in infected people who end up hospitalized, putting pressure on COVID-19 treatment units.
“From a risk assessment perspective right now, I have serious concerns, particularly about that part of our population that has not been vaccinated,” said Jeremy Eschliman, health director at the seven-county Two Rivers Public Health Department in central Nebraska.
Nebraska reported 978 new cases in the week ending Thursday, a 42% increase over the previous week and exactly double the 489 new cases logged two weeks earlier, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most other states have seen larger increases, however, especially Southern states with lower vaccination rates. Nebraska’s growth rate ranks 41st nationally.
Despite the increase, Gov. Pete Ricketts repeated Tuesday that the state will not be imposing mask or vaccination requirements despite new CDC guidance.
“Nebraskans exercise personal responsibility for their own health, and are encouraged to have a conversation with their doctor about the vaccine,” the Republican governor said in a statement. “These conversations will be important because the virus will be with us forever. Working together, we’ve successfully protected hospital capacity throughout the pandemic. It’s time for the CDC and the government to get out of the way, and to stop trying to tell people how to live their lives.”
In Omaha, the 25 beds in the Nebraska Medical Center’s main COVID-19 unit were all full and hospital officials were considering adding beds. Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse said the increase was mainly driven by unvaccinated people and implored residents to get a shot. The health department announced new clinics that opened this week to offer vaccinations.
In Lincoln, Lancaster County Public Health Director Pat Lopez implored residents to get vaccinated and urged unvaccinated people with underlying health conditions to wear a mask indoors. New cases in Lincoln have begun rising again after falling to their lowest level in nearly a year last month.
“Now is the time they should be getting vaccinated,” Lopez said at a news conference.
In Kearney, Eschliman of the Two Rivers Public Health Department said about 45% of residents in his district who are 50 to 64 years old haven’t gotten vaccinated. The vaccination rate for the 30-to-49 age group is lower, with about 59% still unvaccinated.
Eschliman said roughly one-third of the district’s eligible residents signed up for a vaccination shortly after doses became available, another one-third were “on the fence” but have been gradually agreeing to get a shot, and one-third have declined to take one.
He said interest has ticked up, however, as the number of cases has increased. For example, many farmers waited because they didn’t want to feel side effects during their planting season, he said.