Nebraska marked its third straight weekly increase in COVID-19 cases last week, making it part of a surge of cases occurring across Northern states as cooler weather sends people indoors.
The state recorded 6,137 new coronavirus cases in the week ending Friday, up from 5,202 the previous week, according to a World-Herald analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Nebraska's per capita rate of new cases now is almost double the U.S. rate and 14th-highest in the country.
Eight of the 10 states with the highest rates last week were in the North, with Minnesota leading the way. Vermont ranked 11th in per capita cases for the week. That state has had the second-lowest case rate among all states during the pandemic and also has the nation's highest vaccination rate. Also hard-hit are some Western states, including Colorado and New Mexico.
Meanwhile, states in the South, including Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, that saw huge summer surges now have the nation's lowest per capita rates.
One difference between the two regions: Some states with higher vaccination rates, such as Vermont, aren't seeing hospitalization rates increase at much as the case rate.
Nebraska is in the middle of the road when it comes to vaccination, with 56.8% of the state's residents fully vaccinated. That's short of the national rate of 58.6%.
The state is seeing a prolonged delta wave and now has seen a significant jump in its official case count, said Dr. James Lawler, co-executive director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Global Center for Health Security. He thinks that the state will stay at a relatively high level of cases for awhile.
Hospitalizations for COVID-19, too, have plateaued above 400 since mid-September, with a brief dip below that level in mid-October. Lawler doesn't think that will change anytime soon.
But Nebraska's hospitalization figures ticked down slightly last week, with an average of 402 beds a day occupied by COVID-19 patients, down from 411 the week before. New daily admissions were down markedly, from an average of 54 to 46.
Nebraska reported 47 more deaths last week.
While Nebraska is seeing a small number of breakthrough cases, state health officials said recently that the state's latest data shows that the risk of being hospitalized for people of all ages who are not vaccinated is about 10 times higher than for those who are vaccinated.
Lawler said the fear in the medical community is that, even without more COVID-19 patients, a normal influenza season will mean that health systems will have tremendous difficulty meeting demand for care. Most large hospitals have been full for months, and hospital bed staffing has been stretched thin.
"Even though people want to pretend like the pandemic is over in our state, it is not," he said. "We are in a tough situation, particularly looking at oncoming flu cases."
Lawler said that once hospitals are strained, "care degrades for everyone. The way to fix this is to get vaccinated."
The holidays, he said, stand to add to the spread. To minimize it, he said, everyone should get vaccinated, get a booster if they're eligible, wear masks in public and avoid large gatherings and those in confined, indoor spaces.
For Thanksgiving, he said, having a small gathering of all vaccinated people in a large room with good ventilation will significantly reduce risk.
Nebraska administered 63,000 new vaccinations last week, including 40,000 booster shots. While vaccination rates are generally high among older residents, they appear to lag among children. The state's vaccination rate for adults — 70.2% — barely trails the national number of 70.5%.
Nebraska has recorded 3,048 deaths during the pandemic, according to the CDC. The state dashboard lists 297,217 cases of COVID-19.