2021-10-06 19:08:16 Nebraska Restores its Covid Dashboard After a Rise in New Cases
Nebraska Restores its Covid Dashboard After a Rise in New Cases
Tracking community transmission is central to efforts to halt the spread of the coronavirus, according to scientists, and in most states, daily dashboards displaying new cases have been a critical tool for public health officials trying to track the virus’s trajectory, which has killed 700,000 Americans.
Despite this, Nebraska did not release any county-level data to the public for three critical months this summer. On June 30, state officials stopped sharing county-by-county counts of new coronavirus cases with the public, just as the Delta variant began to spread in the United States.
That was on purpose. Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican who opposes both mask and vaccine mandates, allowed his emergency order to expire in June, and the state’s unusually strict privacy laws, which he said prohibited the continued release of the data, were reinstated.
The number of new cases in Nebraska had reached an all-time low at the time, and Test Nebraska, which provided free virus tests to hundreds of thousands of residents, ceased operations shortly after the emergency ended.
The virus, however, continued to spread in the state, aided by the highly contagious Delta variant. From the end of June to the middle of September, hospitalizations increased tenfold. In August, the number of new cases increased dramatically. Deaths also increased.
Mr. Ricketts announced on Sept. 20 that county-level case data would be made public on a new “hospital capacity” state dashboard after coronavirus hospitalizations surpassed 10% of the state’s staffed hospital bed capacity.
However, he stated that the data will be removed if the figure falls below 10% on a 7-day rolling average. Furthermore, the state is still failing to report county-level deaths.
All summer, public health experts in Nebraska were outraged by the decision to delete the dashboard, and state legislators wrote a letter requesting that it be reinstated.
Because they have more than 20,000 residents, a few of the state’s 93 counties continued to provide daily data on their websites throughout the pandemic.
That meant that during July and August, the only real-time data on the virus across the state that doctors like Dr. David Brett-Major, an infectious disease specialist, had was watching sick people stream into the emergency department of the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
“If the tests are only done when the cases are more serious, you’re not getting a broad look,” he explained in a recent interview.
Susan Bockrath, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Local Health Directors, said her organization raised the missing dashboard with state officials several times, pointing out that it was also a necessary tool in the fight against pandemic misinformation.
Stephanie Summers, board of education president in David City, was attempting to determine the best policy for students and families in her rural community one hour west of Omaha when the dashboard was removed. Despite pleas from some public health officials, Mr. Ricketts has advised Nebraskans to get vaccinated but has refused to require masks.
“The state cannot insist on an individual’s freedom to choose whether or not to wear a mask or whether or not to be vaccinated while also withholding the data required for citizens to make informed decisions,” she said, adding that she fully agreed with state leaders in emphasizing those individual freedoms.
While the dashboard has been mostly restored, some doctors are skeptical that the current testing system accurately reflects reality on the ground. In early September, two dozen doctors wrote to Mr. Ricketts, requesting the return of Test Nebraska.
“Our access to testing is so bad right now, and the turnaround is so bad, that these numbers are probably vast underestimates, and not accurate simply because there isn’t enough testing,” said Dr. Bob Rauner, chief medical officer of OneHealth Nebraska, a network of 65 locally owned medical clinics across the state.
The governor and his aides defended their decision to halt data flow on privacy grounds, claiming that publishing county-level data would violate the state’s version of HIPAA, which prohibits the release of patients’ personal health information without their consent.
According to experts, releasing data from counties with only a few cases raises privacy concerns, and as a result, states generally suppress information in jurisdictions with fewer than five cases or deaths.