COVID-19 case rates continue to remain at heightened levels in the 12 counties covered by the Panhandle Public Health District, health officials reported Monday.
Four Panhandle counties continue to be listed as having high transmission, according to the CDC Data Tracker available at covid.cdc.gov: Scotts Bluff, Cheyenne, Morrill and Sheridan counties.
PPHD director Kim Engel reported that the case rate continues to increase, with 542 cases per 100,000 people in the last 14 days compared to 476 cases per 100,000 people last week. Near the same time in August, the case rate in the Panhandle was reported at 176 cases per 100,000 people, demonstrating a significant increase in COVID-19 cases.
Scotts Bluff County Public Health Director Paulette Schnell reported that 242 new cases were reported last week, with 106 of those cases reported in Scotts Bluff County. Children comprise 21% of the overall case total, with 53 cases reported among children under the age of 19.
Seventeen people are currently hospitalized, Nine deaths are pending verification, which is nearly double from last week, when five deaths were pending verification. The positivity rate increased from 8.4% reported during last week’s briefing to 10.6%. The CDC reports Scotts Bluff County’s positivity rate is 13.83%.
The Omaha World-Herald reports that 5,313 new cases of COVID-19 were reported for the week ending Friday, Sept. 12, roughly the same as the 5,329 cases reported the week before. Nebraska had seen cases increase over 11 straight weeks.
Nationally, cases were down 12% last week from the week before and down 1% the week prior. UNMC’s Dr. James Lawler, who spoke during last week’s PPHD briefing, continues to tell people to use caution, noting that some areas of the country, such as Idaho, continue to see COVID-19 cases increase.
States also are collections of smaller epidemics, with what happens in Omaha being very different from what occurs in the Panhandle. The state’s vaccination rates aren’t significantly different from those in Florida, Alabama and other states that have seen big peaks, he said, according to the Omaha World-Herald.
“To expect it (the delta variant) to behave differently in our community would be ungrounded and unwise,” Lawler said.
According to the CDC website, it is recommending masks be worn indoors in high transmission areas, like Scotts Bluff County.
As cases increase among children and more cases are reported among school-aged children, officials have fielded questions about quarantining of children identified as close contacts in COVID-19 investigations. During PPHD’s briefing, it reviewed the quarantine guidance by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, which is being used in schools. Children who are identified as a close contact are advised to self-monitor for fever or other symptoms, but are not required to stay home unless they develop symptoms or test positive for the virus. Health officials do recommend that close contacts mask and isolate at home if symptomatic and test positive.
For the general population, people who are identified as close contacts are recommended to self-quarantine, by staying at home, separating themselves from others and monitoring their health. If they experience symptoms, they should get tested. If an employer’s policy allows them to continue working, they are advised to wear a face mask, practice social distance, self-monitor for a fever and other symptoms for 14 days. Persons who are symptomatic or test positive are to quarantine.
Any persons who are identified as close contacts will be notified, often via text message to take a survey to identify close contacts to complete. PPHD also offers a self-reporting tool on its website for people who have been tested, and tested positive. People who have completed self-tests, such as those available at pharmacies, are asked to complete the reporting.
Officials also talked about the Panhandle vaccination rate, which continues to be the second lowest in the state, at 35.23% of people being fully vaccinated.
However, Engel reported that Scotts Bluff County has achieved a rate of 40%, which she and other PPHD and Scotts Bluff County Public Health officials noted as a positive.
“We’re delighted about that,” Engel said, noting that other counties in the Panhandle continue to try to improve vaccination rates. “(Vaccines) are available every day, for everybody that wants to be vaccinated. So please However, in comparison, the statewide average is 50.46% and the CDC reports the national average at 53.4%.
Vaccination continues to be the key way that people are encouraged to protect themselves, though using social distancing, good hygiene and masking continue to be among the reminders for people to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
A booster shoot of the vaccine is now approved for persons who are moderately to severely immunocompromised. According to guidance, the booster is available to persons who have been receiving active cancer treatment, received an organ transplant and are taking medicine to suppress the immune system, received a stem cell transplant within the last two years, suffer from moderate to severe primary immunodeficiency syndromes, have advanced or untreated HIV investigation, or are receiving active treatment with high-dose corticosteroids or other drugs that may suppress the immune system.
Health officials announced some changes to PPHD’s reporting on the dashboard on its website. PPHD will break reporting up into “northern” and “southern” subregions, which each of these regions comprising of around 20,000 people in an attempt to bring more clarity for people about COVID-19 activity. Scotts Bluff County, which exceeds 20,000 people, will continue to standalone in reporting.
Megan Koppenhafer, of PPHD, explained that health officials are mindful that reporting is meaningful. As reporting availalbity changed after Gov. Pete Ricketts ended the state’s health emergency, health officials have been aware that limits that allowed them to only report for populations of 20,000 limited the information that they had.
“We are really excited about these changes,” she said. “We think that they are going to make understanding and using the dashboard much more easy and hopefully, informative,” she said.
Changes, including incorporating more CDC data, are expected to take place in the upcoming weeks. For more information on COVID-19, including where you can get vaccinated or get tested in your community, visit pphd.org.