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Nebraska COVID cases fall, but low vaccination rates contribute to mounting death toll

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COVID-19 cases continue to trend down in Nebraska and nationally, but the virus is still proving deadly, especially for those not protected by vaccinations.

The 35 Nebraskans who were added last week to the state’s toll of confirmed or probable COVID-19 deaths brought the total for the 2½-year pandemic to 4,542. For perspective, that’s over 100 times the 44 people who died in the state’s last pre-pandemic flu season.

And pandemic experts say the vast majority of COVID deaths today are preventable.

“Almost all of them,” said Dr. James Lawler, co-executive director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security. “If we had everyone fully vaccinated and were taking precautions (like indoor masking) to reduce spread in high-risk environments, we would not be seeing very many deaths at all.”

Vaccines have proven highly effective at reducing the risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19, often turning the infection into little more than a mild cold. The latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows those who aren’t vaccinated are over 10 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who have stayed current on vaccinations.

But vaccination rates were never strong, and they’ve only lagged further in the past year as additional boosters have been recommended.

While 76% of Nebraska adults ultimately got their original vaccination series, fewer than half have received even one booster shot. Even among the most vulnerable age 65 and over population, while some 94% received initial vaccinations, only 74% received a booster, and only 34% got the recommended first two boosters. The U.S. figures are even more dismal.

Now a new bivalent booster shot is available to specifically target the omicron variant that has sparked most recent cases. But national figures suggest people aren’t rushing out to get it. Unless people have received all recommended boosters, Lawler said, they are not fully vaccinated.

Lawler said a general pandemic fatigue among the public has no doubt contributed to the failure to sustain both vaccination efforts and masking in crowded indoor settings.

“Everyone wants it to be over and wants to believe we’re out of it, and that whatever vaccinations they have gotten are enough,” Lawler said.

But he also called out a failure of messaging among state and federal political leaders that goes right to the top, noting President Joe Biden’s recent statement that the pandemic is over.

“I think calling the messaging ‘weak’ would be a compliment,” Lawler said.

Lawler said the nation also has lost the understanding that vaccinations are needed on a societal basis to stamp out a disease, just as they were long accepted to eliminate diseases like measles and mumps. He noted that one of the nation’s first vaccination mandates came when George Washington required his Revolutionary War troops be inoculated against smallpox.

“I understand America is all about rugged individualism, and that’s a great thing,” Lawler said. “But Americans have also understood there are exceptions to that.”

Nationally, the pandemic has claimed over 1 million lives, and continues to claim about 400 a day.

In addition to the deaths, Lawler said, it’s estimated some 25 million Americans are dealing with the health uncertainties associated with “long COVID,” with symptoms persisting for weeks, months or years. We are still learning the long-term health consequences of COVID-19, Lawler said, including among children.

According to CDC data for last week, the state recorded 1,224 new virus cases, down from 1,424 the previous week and marking the fourth straight weekly decline. Weekly cases are now down 70% from levels in late July.

Hospitalizations are also trending down, with the average daily figure of 125 in Nebraska down 23% from the week before.

Deaths are harder to track, as they tend to be added to CDC totals in bunches, including the 35 last week. But since early July, the state has added an average of 15 deaths a week to its pandemic death toll.

It’s difficult to say where the unpredictable pandemic will go next, as cases surged during the winter months in both 2020 and 2021.

While some are hopefully projecting that won’t be the case this time, Lawler is not among them. He noted that cases are already starting to climb in the cooler climes of northern Europe.

“I’ve heard those victory declarations many times now,” he said. “I think the odds that we avoid that are very small.”



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