LINCOLN — Nebraska will reimpose a set of public health restrictions as the state’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations climb to record numbers.
Gov. Pete Ricketts on Friday announced four steps that will go into effect Wednesday and stay in place at least through Nov. 30.
— Hospitals will need to protect 10% of their bed and intensive care availability to leave room for incoming COVID-19 patients.
— Indoor gatherings in public places must be smaller. They can now go up to 75% of their rated occupancy, but that will drop to 50%. In addition, individual groups at a gathering will be limited to eight per party.
— People patronizing bars and restaurants must remain seated, with table sizes limited to eight people.
— Wedding and funeral receptions must limit table sizes to eight people.
The new restrictions do not include a statewide mask mandate.
Ricketts said it “pains me” to impose restrictions on people, but the state needs to protect the state’s hospital capacity.
He cited the example of Italy, where hospitals became overwhelmed earlier this year as coronavirus cases soared there.
The governor also urged Nebraskans to avoid what he called the “Three C’s”: crowded places, close contact and confined spaces.
Ricketts’ announcement comes as the state has emerged as a hot spot for COVID-19, both in terms of new cases and hospitalizations.
Nebraska on Friday ranked No. 6, ahead of No. 7 Iowa, in terms of new per capita cases over the preceding seven days, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Indeed, the state on Friday was adding COVID-19 cases at an average rate of 37.6 per 100,000 residents, according to the CDC data. That’s up from 23.2 on May 8, the earlier peak of COVID-19 cases in Nebraska.
Dr. James Lawler, a director at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, said: “We have entered a dangerous phase of the pandemic in Nebraska.”
In contrast to what was happening in May, where viral outbreaks were concentrated in and around urban areas and cities with meatpacking plants, Lawler said “the epidemic is really widespread across the state.”
Some rural counties are reporting a daily average of COVID-19 cases in excess of 70 per 100,000 people per day, Lawler said. That, he said, is well above the rates New York City was experiencing at the peak of its coronavirus cases.
“This is a really serious situation,” Lawler said. “We are certainly at risk for our health systems becoming overwhelmed.”
Cases tend to lead to hospitalizations and deaths by three to four weeks, he said, so the cases the state is seeing now mean trouble later.
But health officials know more about how the virus is transmitted than they did in the spring, Lawler said, and that’s through close contact where respiratory secretions can be transmitted to others nearby and by aerosolized particles.
“We know now that eating in a restaurant where there are many people without masks and in close congregation are at significant risk.”
Wearing a mask, he said, can be a powerful tool in decreasing the spread.
“Together,” Lawler said, “we will be able to reduce transmission and protect vulnerable communities.”
To shore up hospital staffing, Ricketts announced that the state would provide up to $40 million from its federal CARES Act funding to help hospitals that treat COVID-19 patients hire traveling nurses and other health care workers to bolster their staffing.
The funding also could be used to provide hazard pay for existing staff to cover extra shifts and overtime, said Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska’s chief medical officer. Twenty-one acute care and children’s hospitals statewide would be eligible for the funding.
Ricketts said it’s important to preserve hospital capacity not just for coronavirus patients but also for heart attack victims and others who need acute care.
Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said schools are doing a good job having everyone wear masks, but the proper health practices also must be followed outside the school setting.
“We’re fighting an uphill battle,” he said.
Students enjoy being able to be in school, Blomstedt said. “We are putting that at risk if we cannot slow overall community spread,” he said.
To keep schools open, he said, people in the community have to follow proper health protocols. It’s hard to maintain a safe school environment if the virus is spreading in the community at high rates.
Ricketts noted that if a group of teens is headed to a game, they all should be wearing masks. If they’re in a locker room, he said, they should be wearing masks. Ricketts also referenced a large party that was recently held.
More than 300 Gretna High School students were tested for COVID-19 on Thursday after 40 positive cases were traced to one event. A note sent to families by Superintendent Rich Beran said the cases had been traced back to a large gathering outside school on Oct. 3.