OMAHA — On the heels of ending its COVID-19 state of emergency, Nebraska last week recorded the nation's largest percentage increase in coronavirus cases.
The state tallied 456 cases for the week ending Thursday, up from 253 cases the previous week and 181 the week before that, according to state data compiled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nebraska's one-week 80% increase in cases was the highest in the nation, as was the two-week increase of 152%.
But because Nebraska came into the increase with one of the five lowest case rates in the U.S., the state still ranks only 23rd in weekly cases per capita, with a rate that remains slightly below the national average.
The World-Herald used cases for the week ending Thursday to compile the weekly snapshot because of delays in state case reporting due to the Fourth of July holiday.
The state of Nebraska discontinued its COVID-19 dashboard last week. The dashboard for months had provided at-a-glance data on cases, hospitalizations and deaths as well as on vaccination numbers and demographics.
Gov. Pete Ricketts announced the end of the COVID-19 emergency June 28. He stressed the need to get back to normal and urged Nebraskans to keep the risk posed by the coronavirus in perspective. As he has since the first shipments of vaccines arrived in late December, Ricketts encouraged Nebraskans to get vaccinated, emphasizing that the shots work.
In fact, it appears that the recent increase in cases has not yet resulted in any notable increases in hospitalizations and deaths. Hospitalizations remain low, and the state has added only four COVID deaths in the past three weeks.
But the uptick in cases in Nebraska comes as cases are on the rise in a number of Midwestern states, with Kansas No. 2 nationally in growth last week and Iowa cases up 8%. Cases in the country as a whole were up 12%, ending a recent national run of declining case numbers. Nebraska two weeks ago broke an eight-week streak of declining cases.
In addition, case rates in several states surrounding Nebraska continued to rank high over the past week, with Missouri at No. 2, Wyoming at No. 4 and Colorado at No. 9. All of those states have reported increases in the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus in pockets with low vaccination rates among residents.
Erik Frederick, chief administrative officer at Mercy Hospital Springfield in southwest Missouri, tweeted Monday that the hospital had 115 COVID-19 patients and was expanding to a second COVID-19 intensive care unit and a second step-down unit for less-ill patients.
In an interview Saturday with NPR's Laila Fadel, Frederick said many of the hospital's COVID patients now are younger and healthier than the ones treated during the preceding surge.
In Lancaster County, the 60 new cases reported last week were the most in over a month and hospitalizations due to COVID jumped to 26 on Tuesday, matching numbers from mid-May.
Dr. James Lawler, an executive director at the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Global Center for Health Security, said Nebraska's increase in cases is not a surprise.
He predicted a dramatic increase to come because of the delta variant and a significant increase in hospitalizations and deaths, primarily in middle-aged and young adults who are not vaccinated.
"Clearly, if we could get more people vaccinated, we would be in a different situation, as all of these hospitalizations, all of these deaths, are now preventable," Lawler said.
The nation could be done with the pandemic, he said, if everyone who was eligible — those 12 and older — got their shots.
Lawler said the timing of the College World Series, which wrapped up an 11-day run Wednesday, probably wasn't ideal. But he said it was too early to detect a jump from that event.
The CWS brought to Omaha thousands of fans from states with lower vaccination rates than Nebraska's. Mississippi has the nation's lowest vaccination rate at 46.3%. Tennessee, home of Vanderbilt University, is sixth-lowest at 52.8%.
Nebraska fell short of President Joe Biden's goal of having 70% of the states' 18-plus population with at least one dose by July 4.
Twenty-one states hit the target, including neighboring Colorado. Nebraska, at 65.3%, had the 23rd-highest rate in the country, while Iowa was 27th at 64%.