COVID-19: Daily growth rate slowing in Nebraska, but deaths per day rising

As of Friday, May 15, Nebraska has more than 9,700 cases of COVID-19. (Source: KOLN / DHHS)

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska has seen roughly 8,800 new COVID-19 cases over the last 30 days, but there are signs the new daily case growth could be slowing. At the same time, the number of people dying per day is rising.

Daily COVID-19 cases in Nebraska, according to daily updates from DHHS and regional health departments, compiled by 10/11 NOW

Let’s take a look at the average number of new cases per day over the last three weeks:

May 9-15 = 1,941 or 277 cases per day
May 2-8 = 2,789 or 398 cases per day
April 25-May 1 = 2,577 or 368 cases per day

Now, let’s look at the average number of deaths per day over the last three weeks:

May 9-15 = 30 deaths or 4.3 per day
May 2-8 = 19 deaths or 2.7 per day
April 25-May 1 = 25 or 3.5 per day

Nebraska’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Gary Anthone, said earlier in the week that while it’s too early to say whether Nebraska has peaked, the statistics are promising.

“I’m an optimist,” Dr. Anthone said earlier in the week. “We’ve handled it well up until now and I’m looking forward to the same thing going forward.”

There are currently 9,772 cases in Nebraska and 124 deaths.

Nursing Homes

The virus has taken an especially harsh toll on long-term care facilities. They account for more than half of all COVID-19 related fatalities. The state is still investigating the cause of death in some cases but has confirmed 62 deaths in long-term care facilities linked to COVID-19.

As of data from Thursday, May 14, there are 84 impacted assisted living facilities and nursing homes. At those 84 facilities, 311 residents have tested positive along with 242 staff members. Of the 553 cases, all 62 deaths are residents.

On Friday, Dr. Anthone commented on the fact that high-risk individuals make up a majority of the deaths in Nebraska.

“As a doctor, I know how precious life is,” he said. “My take is that Nebraska is doing well, even though every life is precious and every death is a tragedy, but having a higher percentage of high-risk patients dying is probably a good statistic for the state. It means the lower-risk patients are not dying.”

COVID-19 Deaths

So far, the virus has killed 124 Nebraskans. It has a fatality rate of about 1.3 percent among lab-confirmed cases. Only 11 of 104 deaths where age has been identified are in people younger than 60. The average age of death has been 73 years old. However, data has become increasingly scarce. Some health districts are only reporting deaths, and not age or gender details.

20s: 1
30s: 1
40s: 3
50s: 6
60s: 26
70s: 30
80s: 22
90s: 15
Not Reported: 20

Male: 44
Female: 34
Not Released: 46

With 37 deaths, Hall County (Grand Island) accounts for just less than one-third of all fatalities in Nebraska. Douglas County is second with 24 deaths, Dakota County is third with 13 deaths, and Hamilton County is fourth with nine deaths.

10/11 NOW has been tracking COVID-19 deaths and how underlying conditions are playing a role. However, it's difficult to get concrete information because counties are reporting the data differently. Some counties are tying every death to underlying health problems, others aren’t reporting the data.

According to releases from various health departments, underlying conditions can be attributed to at least 44 deaths in Nebraska.

Lincoln and Lancaster County

Daily growth seems to be slowing in Lancaster County, but the county is highlighting what Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird calls ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘deeply troubling’ racial statistics. Of Lincoln’s 735 lab-confirmed cases, more than 57 percent identify as either Asian or Hispanic. Even though they make up more than half our cases, they only account for 11 percent of our population.

Race // % of Population // % of COVID-19

White: 85.6% // 31%
Black: 3.9% // 7.4%
Asian: 4.0% // 33.3%
Hispanic: 7.2% // 23.8%
Other: 6.4% // 4.5%

“This data now makes clear that racial and ethnic disparities and health outcomes in Lincoln that have long existed are becoming more pronounced as a result of this virus,” Mayor Gaylor Baird said on Wednesday.

For the first time, the county also released recovery data. Of the 735 cases, the data dashboard shows 120 recoveries. To qualify as a recovery, according to interim health director Pat Lopez, a person needs two negative COVID-19 tests, or to be 28 days symptom-free.

While growth has slowed, Lancaster County announced three more deaths this week. All five reported deaths have had underlying conditions, four were in the hospital, and one was in the process of seeking emergent care.

With 261 COVID-19 cases, 160 employees and 101 close contacts, the Smithfield Plant in Crete is responsible for about 36 percent of Lancaster County’s cases, according to the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department. Lincoln’s Smithfield plant has identified 17 cases and the Smart Chicken plant in Waverly has identified 12 cases.

Lincoln and Lancaster County instituted the new Directed Health measure this week despite asking for an extension that Mayor Gaylor Baird said was ‘flatly refused’ by the State.

It allows restaurants to reopen at 50 percent capacity, salons and tattoo shops to see customers again, and child care centers to expand to 15 kids per room. Still, she’s encouraging the public, especially high-risk groups, to only go out if necessary and to always wear masks.

Doctors agree.

"Get rid of the denial, the anger, the bargaining,” said Dr. Bill Johnson with Bryan Health said earlier this month. “Take this disease for what it is. It doesn't negotiate. It's a tragedy that can be turned into a success story. We can say there truly is no place like Nebraska."

The city also announced it will side with Gov. Ricketts in allowing youth baseball and softball to return in June. Practices can start on June 1 and games can start on June 18.

Surging Counties

One of Nebraska’s smaller counties, Dakota County, continues to be one of our nation’s hotspots. With more than 1,500 COVID-19 cases and a population of only 20,000 people, the county has roughly a 7.5 percent positivity rate among its entire population. That’s second in the country behind Trousdale, TN.

Douglas County, or the greater Omaha area, is again seeing a surge in cases. Although the term surge is relative, considering Douglas County is the state’s largest with more than 570,000 people.

There are now nearly 2,100 cases in Douglas County – more than half of those are meatpacking plant workers. Despite the county having the highest number of cases, it ranks 14th out of 93 counties in per capita data.

Meatpacking Plants

Throughout April, the numbers doubled about every seven days, however that has slowed slightly. Now, it appears the state is doubling about every two weeks. Nebraska reached its 500th case on April 8, its 1,000th case on April 16, its 2,000th case on April 23, its 4,000th case on April 30, its 5,000th case on May 1, its 6,000th case on May 4, and its 7,000th case on May 7, its 8,000th case on May 9, and its 9,000th case on May 13.

Many of the cases can be tied to meatpacking plants. Most plants aren't issuing direct data on how many employees are affected, but health departments have all cited strong links to the surge in cases and these specific employers.

Here's a look at how the total number of cases in several counties has changed in the last five weeks:

County // April 1 // April 15 // May 1 // May 15

Hall (JBS): 16 // 278 // 1,111 // 1,409
Adams: (JBS): 6 // 65 // 187 // 246
Dakota (Tyson): 0 // 3 // 942 // 1,507
Saline (Smithfield): 0 // 1 // 194 // 403
Lancaster (Smithfield): 9 // 59 // 281 // 735
Colfax (Cargill): 0 // 4 // 116 // 481
Platte (Cargill): 2 // 6 // 110 // 426
Dawson (Tyson): 1 // 21 // 503 // 778
Madison (Tyson): 3 // 7 // 132 // 281

Nebraska: 218 // 984 // 5,042 // 9,772
Deaths: 5 // 21 // 75 // 124

Nebraska Testing Data

Testing has increased dramatically since this time last month. The daily average has tripled since mid-April. While testing rates are higher, the positivity rate is also higher (though dropping slightly).

For example, on April 1, a total of 5.7 percent of all tests were coming back positive. Over the last week, there have been about 1,940 new cases out of 16,400 tests. That’s a positivity rate of about 12 percent. Compare that to last week, when there were 2,800 new positive cases in Nebraska out of roughly 13,500 tests, or about 21 percent.

May 9-15: 16,400 // Average: 2,342 p/day
May 2-8: 13,500 // Average: 1,923 p/day
April 25-May 1: 9,700 // Average: 1,385 p/day
April 18-24: 6,505 // Average: 929 p/day
April 11-17: 4,281 // Average: 611 p/day
April 1-10: 6,091 // Average: 609 p/day
March 9-31: 3,170 // Average: 138 p/day

Since Start: 60,092 Nebraskans Tested
Overall Rate: 16.3%

Much of the increase in testing capabilities is due to Test Nebraska. The program is designed to test more than 500,000 Nebraskans over the next several months. Eventually, Test Nebraska hopes to test 3,000 Nebraskans per day, on top of the other testing already being done. The new testing, targeting both people who’ve been exposed to COVID-19 and people in at-risk groups, is likely why the positivity rate is also decreasing.

Currently, there are sites in Grand Island, Omaha, Lincoln, and Schuyler.

Hospitalizations & Recoveries

On Wednesday, the State released updated hospital data showing 192 COVID-19 patients hospitalized throughout Nebraska. From 5-6 percent of all Nebraskans who contract COVID-19 end up in the hospital, according to Dr. Anthone.

Hospital capacity is healthy. As of Friday afternoon, 47 percent of beds, 42 percent of ICU beds, and 75 percent of ventilators are available.

Here in Lincoln, the healthcare system is also healthy, according to the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department. There are 36 people in Lincoln hospitals, but only 17 are Lancaster County residents. Of the 36, ten are on ventilators, including five from Lancaster County.

Projected Peak

A model released by the University of Nebraska Medical Center predicts the state's death toll likely ranging from around 200 to 300, depending on when the peak is. If the peak was last week, it would be on the lower end, if we don’t peak until now or early next week, it would be on the higher end.

Using the same dates, it predicts a total number of cases from around 16,000 to around 30,000.

The IHME Model, which has fluctuated throughout April and May, predicts Nebraska might’ve peaked over the last few days. It has changed its death projection drastically over the last two weeks. On May 4, it predicted a death toll of around 380, now it predicts a death toll of less than 200. The model has always maintained Nebraska should have zero shortages in ICU beds or ventilators.