The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Nebraska rose again last week as the state continued to record one of the highest COVID case rates in the nation.
Nebraska had 5,329 new cases for the week ending Friday, down from 6,461 the previous week, according to a World-Herald analysis of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. However, some of the drop likely was due to delayed test results over the Thanksgiving holiday. Most states appeared to have declining numbers for the same reason.
Hospitalizations for COVID-19 likely are a better indicator of the delta wave’s current status. An average of 483 Nebraska hospital beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients last week, up from 460 the previous week. That’s an increase of 5%.
On Sunday, 528 people were hospitalized with the coronavirus across Nebraska, the highest figure since early January.
Nebraska last week had the nation’s 13th-highest per-capita case rate, which was nearly 75% higher than the U.S. average.
Even as the U.S. continues to deal with the highly transmissible delta variant, the nation took its first steps over the weekend to address the new omicron variant, which has been named a variant of concern. Researchers don’t yet know whether the variant is more transmissible than others, whether it causes more severe disease or whether it can evade current vaccines.
President Joe Biden said in a briefing Monday that omicron is a “cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”
He said the best protection against the new variant or the delta variant is for people to get fully vaccinated. Those older than 18 who are fully vaccinated and who completed that series before June 12 should get a booster shot.
Biden also noted that Dr. Anthony Fauci, his top coronavirus adviser, thinks that current vaccines provide at least some protection from the new variant and that boosters will add to that coverage.
Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s infectious diseases division, said he suspects researchers will have a better idea by next week whether the vaccines continue to offer good protection.
“My guess is going to be that yes, the vaccine will continue to offer protection against more severe manifestations of disease,” he said.
The other key question is whether omicron is more transmissible than the delta variant. So far, Rupp said, there’s no hard evidence that omicron will outcompete delta or that it’s more transmissible. But omicron has been found in a number of new places over a short period of time, which raises concerns that it could prove more contagious.
Rupp said, however, that scientists are much better at defining and tracking variants than they were last winter when the alpha variant emerged in the United Kingdom. Public health laboratories in the U.S. and around the world all are sequencing the genomes of more virus samples than they were before.
The emergence of the omicron variant highlights the importance of everyone being vaccinated so there is less virus transmitting and fewer opportunities for variants to emerge. “It really calls to attention the worldwide nature of the pandemic,” Rupp said.
At the same time, he noted that other variants have emerged, raised concern and then fizzled.
Another reassuring sign: Vaccine manufacturers already have begun looking at how to tweak their products in case changes are needed to address omicron.
Rupp also encouraged those who are eligible to get a booster dose of vaccine. As time has passed, he said, researchers have seen more data suggesting that a third dose is important to mounting a robust immune response and, health officials hope, one that is more long-lasting.
People should not take the need for a third dose as a sign that the vaccines don’t work, he said. Because the vaccines were created in an emergency, researchers haven’t had the luxury of time to determine the best dosing schedule.
“I’d urge people … to be cautious, to be aware, but there isn’t reason at this point to become despondent or terribly alarmed,” he said.
Some 57.2% of all Nebraskans now are fully vaccinated, which is below the 59.1% national rate and 24th among states. Nebraska does, however, rank 13th in booster shots, with nearly one-fourth of fully vaccinated Nebraskans having received an added shot.
Progress in vaccinating children as young as 5 years old has been relatively slow. In all, 26,000 Nebraska kids ages 5 to 11 have received at least one shot. That’s 14% of the state population in that age group. Nationally, the rate is 13%.
Nebraska recorded 38 additional COVID-related deaths last week, raising the total of confirmed and presumed deaths in the state to 3,146, according to the CDC. The state has tallied 308,384 cases of COVID-19 during the pandemic, according to the state’s hospital capacity dashboard.