Despite recording the largest weekly number of new COVID-19 cases in four months last week, the South Heartland Health District saw its risk dial reading for further spread of the disease hold steady.
The four-county health district’s risk dial reading for this week stands at 2.0, right on the line separating the moderate (yellow) and elevated (orange) risk zones. That’s the same reading the district had a week ago.
The South Heartland district encompasses Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties. The four counties together saw 33 new laboratory-confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, for Sept. 6-12 — the highest one-week tally of new cases since mid-May, said Michele Bever, executive director of the district health department headquartered in Hastings.
But, while case numbers were up last week, the district’s positivity rate — that is, the total number of new cases as a percentage of the total number of tests administered — dropped from 9.2% to 6.8%.
Other beneficial factors for the week included an increased number of test results received, increased access to testing in district communities, and reduced numbers of students from area schools in quarantine or isolation related to COVID-19 exposure or diagnoses.
The risk dial, which includes low (green), moderate (yellow), elevated (orange) and severe (red) zones, is based on numerous factors. The district’s highest risk dial reading to date was 2.2, in the low end of the elevated zone, in mid-August.
“The risk dial is one tool we use to communicate the risk of coronavirus spread in our district,” Bever said. “We are continuing to monitor the situation, especially with the transition to Phase 4 of the State-Directed Health Measures that went into effect this past Monday.”
The state issued a new DHM document for the South Heartland District, effective through Oct. 31, pushing the district from Phase 3 to Phase 4 of “reopening.” Phase 4 allows for larger indoor and outdoor gathering sizes and the elimination of various mandates for public health precautions by businesses, leaving non-binding recommendations in their place.
The move from Phase 3 to Phase 4, which also occurred across much of the rest of the state, took place against a backdrop of increasing case numbers in some communities.
South Heartland reported the 14-day average of new daily cases per 100,000 residents (a mathematically derived number) was 8.6, up from 7.1 the week before.
Bever said the continuing upward trend in weekly case numbers, which has persisted for many weeks, is a concern.
“Last week’s case count was as much as 16 times higher than what we were seeing through June, when weekly new cases in the single digits was the norm,” she said.
On the other hand, increased testing and access to testing helps the cause.
According to Bever, an increased number of lab results were reported to the health department last week. The weekly positivity rate dropped to 6.8%, and the rolling three-week average positivity was 8.0%, down from 8.5% the previous week.
“We’re glad that testing availability has improved in our district,” she said. “With the addition of Hastings Convenient Care as a TestNebraska site, there is free testing available in Hastings every day of the week. This includes each weekday at Mary Lanning (Healthcare) and on weekends at Hastings Convenient Care.”
Operations for pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade schools across the health district are in better shape than they were a week ago, Bever said.
On Tuesday, 41 students and staff members across the district were out of school for reasons related to COVID-19. Those 41 individuals included 33 students and six staff members in quarantine due to exposure and one student and one staff member in isolation after testing positive for the viral infection.
By comparison, 109 students and staff members were in quarantine or isolation on Sept. 8, Bever said.
“We want to recognize all of the work the schools are doing to reduce the risks for their students and staff,” she said. “And kudos to the students and their families who are protecting themselves and protecting others by practicing prevention against COVID-19.”
Bever encouraged residents across the district to continue hewing to risk dial guidance, especially with the transition to Phase 4 of reopening under the state Directed Health Measures.
“It is important to continue to work to reduce the spread of coronavirus so that the upward trend in our weekly new cases can be flattened or reversed,” she said. “We encourage residents to continue to follow the level-specific recommendations for yellow/moderate risk and orange/elevated risk.”
For more information, including statistics, visit the health department website, southheartlandhealth.org, or the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services website, http://dhhs.ne.gov/Pages/Coronavirus.