The Grand Island area — by far Nebraska’s biggest coronavirus hot spot — now has rates of illness comparable to some of the hardest-hit states in the country.
Not only does surrounding Hall County now have more cases than any county in Nebraska, its per capita case rate is almost 12 times that of Douglas County and more than 25 times that of Lancaster County, a World-Herald analysis found.
The Hall County rate is also now about equal to that of Louisiana, which ranks among the top states nationally in both cases and deaths. It’s also higher than the per capita rate in Michigan, a state that has been in such a significant state-ordered lockdown because of the virus that it has spawned public protests.
And as eye-popping as such numbers are, Grand Island, Nebraska’s third-largest metro area, is still likely weeks away from its peak of cases and deaths. The sixth death in the local three-county health district was reported Thursday.
“Our expectation is that every day we will see large numbers of new cases and every day we will see a number of deaths,” Central District Health Department Director Teresa Anderson said Thursday. “If we take our lessons from what’s been happening in other parts of the country, I’m going to say the writing is on the wall.”
Despite such numbers, Gov. Pete Ricketts continued to say Thursday that the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is working.
Ricketts said the state has provided Grand Island help with testing and with tracing the contacts of people who test positive. And he said he has been on the phone with Grand Island employers to make sure they are taking steps to reduce the spread of the virus.
“We are paying attention to Grand Island,” he said during his daily coronavirus briefing.
He and Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska’s chief medical officer, also noted that the health care system in Grand Island has been up to the task of handling the surge of patients.
As of noon Thursday, there were 13 patients in St. Francis hospital’s 16-bed intensive care unit, including 11 on ventilators. There are more than a half-dozen additional ventilators available and still more within the CHI network.
Down the road at Mary Lanning Healthcare in Hastings, four of the 10 ICU beds are occupied by coronavirus patients.
“All in all, things seem to be fairly well under control in Grand Island,” Anthone said of the health care landscape.
Hours later, the local health agency reported 61 new coronavirus cases in Hall County, bringing the total there to a state-leading 339. That’s despite the fact that Hall has one-ninth the population of Douglas County.
The number of cases in Hall County is essentially doubling every four days. That’s more than twice the rate of Nebraska as a whole, which is currently doubling every nine days.
Overall, Nebraska as a state continues to rate well nationally in coronavirus cases and deaths. On Thursday, it ranked 42nd among the 50 states in cases per capita and 44th in deaths.
But the story is different on a county-by-county basis, as Hall, Kimball, Adams and Custer Counties have all emerged as hotbeds for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Each of those counties has seen cases at three or more times the state average rate.
Hall County’s rate, when measured per 10,000 people, has also reached a point that is comparable to the rates seen in states hit hardest by the pandemic.
As of Thursday morning, while Hall County’s rate was still less than half the astronomical rate seen in New York, it was almost equal that of Louisiana, which has the nation’s third-highest rate overall and No. 4 death rate. And it was much higher than Michigan’s rate.
Confirmed coronavirus cases in Nebraska per 10,000 people
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Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health, said the figures in Hall County are “cause for caution.”
The doctor declined to say whether additional measures are needed, saying he wasn’t aware of all that are already in place in the county. The Ricketts administration has adopted a system of county-level directed health measures to control the virus. But Khan said people there clearly need to heed state and local officials’ stay-at-home message.
“The bottom line is everyone should be staying at home, and we should clearly be helping this community,” Khan said.
Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Ricketts, questioned comparisons with statewide rates elsewhere, saying it would be more appropriate to look at similar-sized counties or other hot spots across the country.
“Grand Island is a hot spot,” he said. “The regional and state hospital systems are strong, and we are closely managing hospital-related cases in conjunction with local health officials.”
In Grand Island, local health director Anderson said the high numbers are occurring “despite our best efforts.”
She said the county is getting much-needed additional testing and will continue to advise residents to follow social distancing guidelines.
There have been a number of cases in Grand Island centered on large employers, including a meatpacking plant. And there also are a large number tied to nursing homes and long-term-care facilities, with 40 workers and residents at nine facilities having already tested positive.
But in the end, Anderson said, the disease has now spread so much that it can’t really be linked to any one employer, facility, family or part of town.
“What do (cases) have in common?” she said. “At this time, we can tell you they really have nothing in common. That leads us to believe the virus is truly everywhere.”
World-Herald staff writers Paul Hammel and Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.