A sign at the Grand Theatre in downtown Grand Island offers a message for the city.

The meatpacking communities of Hall, Dawson and Dakota Counties are seeing COVID-19 cases at 15 times the rate for the rest of Nebraska and more than five times the national average.

A World-Herald analysis of the latest per-capita coronavirus rates across Nebraska’s counties Wednesday morning shows how powerfully the spread of the virus through those three meatpacking communities is driving Nebraska’s large increase in cases.

No matter how you slice up the state, those three counties tower over all others.

In the Omaha metro area’s five Nebraska counties, the rate of 4.6 cases per 10,000 population is about half the statewide average of 9 and well below the national average of 14.

The Lincoln metro area is even lower, with a rate of only 3 cases per 10,000.

And in the most rural parts of the state, the counties that have no city with a population of 10,000 or more, the rate is only 3.5 cases per 10,000.

Not all meatpacking centers have seen spikes in cases. Not counting Hall, Dawson and Dakota, the other biggest meatpacking counties collectively are also well below the state average. For example, there have been few cases in Colfax — where meatpacking makes up the highest percentage of jobs of any county in Nebraska.

But as of Wednesday morning, Hall had more than 90 cases per 10,000. Dawson and Dakota, respectively, had about 75 and 35 per 10,000. Collectively, the three counties average 77 cases per 10,000. The other 90 Nebraska counties average 5.

“While Douglas County is stabilizing to some extent, what we’re seeing now, here’s Hall and some other counties taking off,” said Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health.

Two of Khan’s UNMC colleagues are working with the plants and others to try to reduce the spread among workers. Like most other food production facilities, meatpacking plants are considered essential businesses and across the country have remained open during the pandemic.

“We need to find better solutions to help decrease transmissions by engaging with impacted workers,” he said.

He said efforts are underway to try to gain control of the outbreak in those communities. Many other meatpacking areas around the country have been dealing with large numbers of cases.

“What we’re trying to do is get to the plateau in Nebraska,” Khan said.