Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Director Pat Lopez on Tuesday provided justification for why local officials have pressed on with the strictest COVID-19 protocols in Nebraska, including mandating masks.
Those measures, she said, have led to fewer deaths from the coronavirus compared with the rest of the state.
Lopez presented data showing the county's COVID-19 death rate at 102 per 100,000 residents. That's considerably lower than Douglas County's rate of 150 deaths per 100,000 people and the state's rate of 161 deaths for every 100,000 residents.
"This shows that Lancaster County has fared better than the rest of the state," she said.
The Health Department announced the latest death Tuesday, an unvaccinated man in his 40s who brought Lancaster County's death toll to 329.
But if Lancaster County's rate matched Douglas County, the local death toll would include 154 more casualties. It would be 189 higher if the county's rate matched the rest of the state, Lopez said.
If Lancaster County had a death rate similar to the surrounding states of Iowa, Kansas or South Dakota, its death toll would be more than double.
"I think it's just really important for people to see the purpose of doing these measures is to prevent death," she said.
Mask mandates are also aimed at preventing hospitalizations, and though the number of COVID-19 patients in Lincoln hospitals hit 108 on Tuesday, the highest number in two months, the area is doing better than much of the rest of the state.
Lincoln's average number of daily hospitalizations has stayed within a narrow range of between 90 and 100 for more than a month, and while that's a relatively high level, the city has not seen the spike that some other areas of the state are now seeing.
On Monday, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services reported 551 hospitalized COVID-19 patients statewide, the highest number since December of last year. The number of hospitalized patients in Nebraska has risen more than 50% in just more than a month.
The Douglas County Health Department reported 274 COVID-19 patients Tuesday, the highest number in more than 10 months. Hospital officials there are so concerned they scheduled a joint news conference for Wednesday afternoon to discuss the situation.
A release announcing the news conference noted that the sickest patients on ventilators are now people in the 18-40 age range.
The state's COVID-19 dashboard says 35% of ICU beds are currently taken by COVID-19 patients. In many health districts, however, that number is much higher.
The Central District Health Department, which includes Grand Island, reported 100% of ICU beds filled by COVID-19 patients. In the West Central District Health Department, which includes North Platte, it was 83%. The South Heartland District Health Department including Hastings reported a COVID-19 ICU occupancy rate of 129%.
Lancaster County's rate is a relatively tame 22%, but that doesn't mean hospitals are in better shape here.
Dr. Jim Nora, an infectious disease specialist at Bryan Health, said the hospital "is absolutely packed," with emergency room patients in some cases waiting in hallways for beds to open up.
"There's just no extra room in the hospitals, not only in Lincoln but also in Omaha," he said.
Bryan's COVID-19 dashboard showed that as of Monday, unvaccinated patients continued to make up the vast majority of its COVID-19 hospital admissions. Of the coronavirus patients, 72% were unvaccinated. Among patients under 50, 87% were unvaccinated.
COVID-19 case numbers declined significantly in Lancaster County last week, from 953 the previous week to 734, but Lopez said that was likely due to a decline in testing because of the Thanksgiving holiday, although she did note that the test positivity rate dropped from 13.6% to 12.4%.
Still, with hospitalizations remaining elevated, the Health Department kept its COVID-19 risk dial in the mid-orange range, signaling a high likelihood of spread of the disease.
Lopez encouraged people to get vaccinated if they haven't yet or to get a booster dose if they are eligible. She said about 23% of kids ages 5-11 have gotten one dose of vaccine, while nearly 5% are now fully vaccinated, and more than 60,000 people have gotten a booster dose.
Overall, nearly 62% of all county residents are fully vaccinated.
Lopez and Nora also both said it's too early to know the possible effects of the new COVID-19 omicron variant.
"Right now there are more questions than answers," Lopez said.
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