Lancaster County's COVID-19 risk dial moved farther into the orange range as cases and hospitalizations continue to climb.
The county again saw a significant rise in COVID-19 cases, with 813 last week, a 14% increase from the previous week and the most since the week ending Sept. 3.
While the county's rate of 500 cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks is lower than the state rate, it's higher than rates in Douglas, Sarpy and Hall counties.
Hospitalizations also have increased significantly. There were 107 COVID-19 patients in Lincoln hospitals Tuesday, 68 of whom are Lancaster County residents. That's up from 91, with 54 local patients, a week ago.
Those additional COVID-19 patients are "adding even more stress on an already strained hospital system," said Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Director Pat Lopez.
Lopez said the increase in cases and hospitalizations, as well as an increasing test positivity rate, which hit 12% last week, were the factors that led to the risk dial moving from low-orange to mid-orange, a place it hasn't been since late September. Lancaster County also recorded another death Tuesday, a woman in her 50s who was unvaccinated, and has now had 11 so far this month.
"Our local situation is growing more serious," Lopez said.
She and Dr. Kevin Reichmuth, a Lincoln pulmonologist, both stressed the importance of people getting vaccinated if they haven't already or getting booster doses if they are eligible.
"I can't stress enough how critical it is that people get vaccinated," said Reichmuth, whose practice provides critical care to hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Lincoln.
About 30% of local hospitalized COVID-19 patients are vaccinated, but the percentage of vaccinated patients in intensive care or on a ventilator is less than 10%.
Reichmuth said larger hospitals across the state are at or close to capacity, and it's very stressful, even "heartbreaking at times," when hospitals have to say no to a critically ill patient that needs a transfer because they don't have any beds available.
According to the state's COVID-19 dashboard, there were 457 patients hospitalized as of Monday night, including 118 in intensive care. Lincoln and Omaha both have 10% of their hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients, much better than hospitals in cities such as Grand Island, Kearney and North Platte, which in some cases have up to 30% of beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.
Locally, Lopez said there has been strong demand for vaccine for children 5-11 and for booster doses. In just more than a week, the county has vaccinated more than 4,400 kids, or about 15% of the population. It also has given out more than 46,000 booster doses.
Despite a high number of local vaccine breakthrough cases — Lopez said the percentage was above 30% for the second week in a row — there are no plans to expand eligibility for the shots.
Currently, the Food and Drug Administration recommends Pfizer and Moderna booster shots after 6 months for anyone 65 and older and for people 18 and older who are at high risk because of a job, health condition or living status, and booster shots after 2 months for anyone 18 and older who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. However, some states and cities have chosen to open up eligibility to all adults.
Lopez said the Health Department has discussed the matter, but is waiting on further guidance from the FDA and has no plans to offer boosters to others unless the agency recommends it.
Lancaster County remains the only county or city in the state with a mask mandate, and it appears likely it will be extended. It's scheduled to expire next week, and while Lopez did not specifically say it will be extended, she hinted that it's likely.
"When we look at where we are and where our whole state is, that tells a story," she said, noting that the mandate will be addressed at next week's briefing.
Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird did not speak at Tuesday's briefing, but she told local radio host Jack Mitchell on Tuesday morning that the best way to get rid of the mask mandate sooner rather than later is to get more people vaccinated.
"Really, if we want to get rid of masks, get vaccinated," she said.
9 charts that show how Lincoln and Nebraska are coping with COVID-19
Lancaster county COVID-19 deaths
Lancaster county COVID-19 cases
Lincoln hospital bed occupancy
Nebraska ICU capacity, by county
Nebraska hospital capacity, by county
Nebraska COVID-19 vaccine distribution
COVID-19 vaccination rates: How Nebraska compares
Nebraska COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU usage
Nebraska COVID-19 testing
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