Doctor calls for state COVID-19 dashboard to come back

On the DHHS Coronavirus webpage, you'll no longer find a link to the state's COVID-19...
On the DHHS Coronavirus webpage, you'll no longer find a link to the state's COVID-19 dashboard. Instead, there's a link to a weekly report.(KOLN)
Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 6:27 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 21, 2021 at 6:33 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - COVID-19 case numbers are increasing in Nebraska, with the Delta variant taking hold in many communities.

At the same time, it’s hard to track where those cases are coming from or when numbers started to climb because the state took down its dashboard and has no plans to bring it back.

“Frankly that is a real problem,” Dr. Mark Rupp, infectious disease specialist with Nebraska Medicine said.

Nebraska removed its COVID-19 dashboard, which once listed detailed data on cases, hospitalizations, deaths, vaccination rates, and more. Now, the state plans to publish a list of numbers every Wednesday. Those numbers cover the state’s total cases and tests, the current hospitalization number, positivity, and vaccination rates as well as a list of variants the state is tracking. It doesn’t show trends, a breakdown by county, demographics or daily reporting numbers.

“Dismantling the dashboard and preventing the widespread dissemination of accurate information and transparency is a problem,” Rupp said. “This was ill-timed, ill-considered and unfortunately, somewhat reckless.”

Especially because the numbers that are there are cause for concern.

The site indicates there’s been a total of 226,552 COVID-19 cases diagnosed since the beginning of the pandemic. That number is about 2,500 higher than the last time the state-reported data on June 16.

Hospitalizations have also more than doubled since then, going from 42 to 97. Nebraska’s vaccination rate remains at 49 percent.

“I have real concerns we’re on the uphill swing of a sizeable increase in cases,” Rupp said.

Without a dashboard, it’s unclear exactly when or where numbers changed first. Many counties in the state report their own COVID-19 numbers on health district websites, but it’s not consistent or uniform.

Of the health districts that still report data, many have positivity rates above 5 percent, with the rate in the Panhandle Health District sitting at 21 percent at the last update.

Given this increase, we asked DHHS if it had plans to bring the dashboard back. A spokesperson said no because it was an executive order related to the pandemic which allowed the state to report detailed health information. She said without that order, releasing any identifiable information, which she didn’t specifically define, is against state statute.

We also reached out to Governor Pete Ricketts’s office. Taylor Gage, a spokesperson, didn’t address questions regarding the dashboard but sent the following statement: “The State of Nebraska’s goal has always been to protect hospital capacity and we remain focused on that measure. Working together, Nebraskans have successfully protected hospital capacity over the last year and a half.”

In a press conference declaring the end of the pandemic State of Emergency and the expiration of executive orders, Ricketts told local health departments they should take down their risk dials.

“COVID-19 will always be with us but it’s time to get back to normal,” Ricketts said. “We’re getting back to normal now.”

But Dr. Rupp said it’s not time for normalcy yet.

“I have significant concerns that are starting to bear out,” Rupp said. “We’ve seen steep increases and indicators that the Delta variant is spreading widely in Nebraska.”

Rupp said the Delta variant will continue to spread as long as there are pockets of the population that don’t get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“People will get sick, many will go to the hospital and some will lose their lives, unnecessarily at this point,” Rupp said.

He said cases remain significantly lower than the state’s peak in November, but that’s only because almost 50 percent of Nebraskans got vaccinated. He said currently at Nebraska Medicine, and the country, a majority of those hospitalized with serious cases of COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

“Which is a real tragedy because we have it in our control to get this pandemic pressed down to low levels if the vaccine were more widely accepted,” Rupp said.

He said the community needs to realize the vaccine is the best shot at recovering from the pandemic.

“We’ve given hundreds of millions of doses in the country. We understand the side effects and adverse events, they are quite rare. It’s safe and the benefits far outweigh the risks,” Rupp said.

He said while there are some people who may never decide to get vaccinated, there are more who just haven’t gotten around to it or could use some convincing. He’s hoping those groups will choose to get the shot now.

He’s urging vaccinations and he’s calling for more transparency regarding the state’s dashboard.

“This is a problem and should be reversed,” Rupp said.

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