Local officials are pleading with residents to get a COVID-19 vaccination if they haven't already, as cases and hospitalizations have risen sharply over the past few weeks.
More than 67% of Lancaster County residents 16 and older are now fully vaccinated, which is among the highest rates of any county in the state, but it has not been enough to prevent a surge in cases due largely to the delta variant of the disease.
The county documented 115 COVID-19 cases last week, the highest total in more than two months. The seven-day average of daily cases stood at 21 Monday, more than triple where it was a month ago.
"We are clearly going in the wrong direction," said Kevin Reichmuth, a Lincoln pulmonologist who cares for many of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
Local numbers mirror those from the state and nation, where case numbers have also tripled over the past few weeks.
Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Director Pat Lopez said the delta variant "appears to be a contributing factor" in the resurgence of the disease locally.
She highlighted one instance recently where an out-of-state resident, who was diagnosed with a COVID-19 case caused by the delta variant, infected family members in Lincoln, leading to a cluster of 17 cases.
Another cluster involved kids who got sick while at a summer camp. That cluster eventually reached 15 cases, including one in an unvaccinated man in his 50s who died.
Lopez said she did not have specific data on how many fully vaccinated people are among those diagnosed with COVID-19 recently, but she said that all cases in vaccinated people that underwent genetic sequencing were caused by the delta variant.
While vaccination will not guarantee you don't get an infection, it almost certainly means you will not get severely ill, she said.
To illustrate that point, Lopez pointed out that 93% of people hospitalized in Lincoln with COVID-19 over the past month have been unvaccinated.
Reichmuth said every person currently in intensive care that he's seen in local hospitals is unvaccinated.
The number of people hospitalized locally stood at 40 Tuesday, with eight of them on ventilators, which Lopez said is the highest number since February. It's also higher than the number of current hospitalizations in Douglas County, which stood at 33 Tuesday.
Hospitalized patients continue to skew younger than they were before vaccinations became widely available, with Reichmuth estimating that 30%-40% of current patients are younger than 50.
Despite the increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations recently, Lopez said there are no plans to reinstitute any mitigation measures such as mask wearing or capacity limits.
"We're not discussing restrictions at this point," Lopez said.
The Health Department's risk dial remains in green, which is the lowest category of risk, but Lopez said "we're on the cusp of going to yellow right now."
She said health officials will continue to watch the data and make adjustments as needed.
While vaccinations have slowed down considerably, the numbers did tick up last week, with 1,300 people locally getting a first shot, the highest weekly number in a month.
Reichmuth said it's clear that not enough people have gotten vaccinated yet, and he encouraged people to get vaccinated if they have not yet done so and for already vaccinated people to encourage unvaccinated family and friends to get shots.
He said he has "absolute confidence" in the safety of the vaccines and that serious side effects are very rare.
If the virus is allowed to continue to circulate in unvaccinated people, it will continue to mutate and create new variants, one of which could eventually evade the immunity provided by vaccines.
"We'll get down to zeta (the last Greek letter for variants) if we don't absolutely crush this by getting people immune," he said.
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