COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to fall in Lancaster County, and, at least for now, signs point to that trend continuing.
The county recorded only 66 cases last week, down from 89 the previous week and the lowest weekly total since the week ending July 3 of last year.
More impressive has been the drop in hospitalizations. Lincoln’s two hospital systems reported only 12 COVID-19 patients Monday. That’s the lowest total since June 23 and the fourth-lowest total on any day since the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department debuted its COVID-19 dashboard in April 2020. On Tuesday, the number of patients had risen to 14.
There are other positive signs as well. The county’s rate of positive COVID-19 tests was 3.5% last week, essentially the same as the previous week and the third straight week it’s been below 5%.
In fact, the only real negative COVID-19-related data last week was the three reported deaths. Still, Lancaster County has recorded only five deaths this month, compared with 32 in February and 39 in January.
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The local numbers, which warranted keeping the county’s risk dial in the green, or low, range for the second week in a row, are in line with statewide numbers.
For the week that ended Sunday, the state reported 330 COVID-19 cases, down from 354 the week before.
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As of Monday night, there were 84 COVID-19 patients in Nebraska hospitals, the lowest number since mid-July. CHI Health reported only 19 patients total across its hospitals in Nebraska and southwest Iowa.
Dr. David Quimby, an infectious disease specialist with the health system, said that just a month ago, it had that many patients on ventilators.
On Monday, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services debuted two new tools that can be used to track COVID-19. One is a genomic surveillance report that shows the prevalence of variants, and the other is a roundup of all wastewater monitoring that is occurring in the state.
The wastewater monitoring report, which tracks samples collected at 13 sites in 11 counties, shows a few occasional spikes in virus samples found over the past month, but the general trend is either a leveling off of virus particles or a slight increase.
The genomic surveillance showed that as of March 19, the most recent data available, the omicron BA.2 variant was found in 7% of positive COVID-19 samples that underwent genetic sequencing. While that’s a big jump from the 1% of samples that showed BA.2 in the weeks ending Feb. 19 and March 5, it’s far below the national average, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate is nearly 55% of all cases.
Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Director Pat Lopez said in a statement that while BA.2 activity is limited in Nebraska right now, “we’re concerned that this could change and we continue to monitor the situation closely.”
The variant has sparked new outbreaks in Asia and Europe, and health experts have been warning for weeks that the same thing could happen in the U.S.
Several states have seen double-digit increases in their COVID-19 case numbers over the past couple of weeks, while the daily average in the U.S. has risen slightly and leveled off since hitting its low point of just less than 27,000 cases March 19, according to the CDC. However, both hospitalizations and deaths have continued to decline nationally.
Dr. James Lawler, co-executive director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, said it’s “inevitable” that the U.S. as a whole and Nebraska will see another spike in cases caused by BA.2.
“The question is just the timing of when,” he said.
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Lawler said he expects case numbers will rise significantly within the next couple of months, which will again lead to increases in hospitalizations and deaths.
The good news is that any surge could be blunted by warmer weather, and hospitals are in much better shape now than when the first omicron wave hit in December.
One other thing that could help blunt another wave of COVID-19 is people getting vaccinated and/or boosted.
Lawler said the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to approve a second booster for those older than 50 is great news.
“I hope we have a lot of takers for that,” he said, noting that boosters have been shown to greatly reduce the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19, especially in older people.
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