Five more deaths among residents of the South Heartland Health District have been attributed to the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19 — pushing the four-county district’s death toll past the 100 mark.

The five additional deaths attributable to COVID-19 were announced Tuesday night in the district health department’s weekly novel coronavirus disease update. With those deaths added to the tally, the number of fatalities among district residents now stands at 104.

The South Heartland district encompasses Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties. The health department doesn’t attribute deaths to COVID-19 unless or until an official death certificate is received from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services verifying the cause of the individual’s demise.

“Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the many individuals who have lost their lives due to COVID-19 over the course of this pandemic,” Michele Bever, South Heartland executive director.

She lamented that more South Heartland residents have not taken advantage of the opportunity to receive a free vaccination against the virus, which causes only mild symptoms in some individuals who become infected but also can be deadly, especially among the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.

“What is most devastating to the health department is that so many of these deaths were preventable, especially now that we have highly effective vaccines widely available to most age groups,” Bever said.

The COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, and vaccines became available to the first patients in December of that year. Since Jan. 1, 2021, 80% of the confirmed COVID-19 deaths in South Heartland were in individuals who were not fully vaccinated, Bever said.

In addition, Nebraska data for the four-week period of Sept. 12 to Oct. 9 showed unvaccinated individuals had three times greater risk of testing positive for COVID-19, 12 times greater risk of being hospitalized because of the viral infection and 13.2 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19 compared to fully vaccinated individuals.

In other negative news Tuesday, Bever reported that the three hospitals in the South Heartland jurisdiction — Mary Lanning Healthcare in Hastings, Brodstone Memorial Hospital in Superior and Webster County Community Hospital in Red Cloud — are dealing with an increasingly heavy patient load related to COVID-19.

As of Tuesday, 46% of all in-patients in the three hospitals — 17 individuals in all — were being treated for the viral infection, and just 29% of all staffed intensive care beds were available for new patients.

The number of tests for COVID-19 administered in the health district last week was up 21-24% over the previous two weeks. Ninety new confirmed cases already have been logged by the health department this week, and the district’s cumulative total number of positive cases among residents since March 18, 2020, stands at 6,851.

The district’s rate of new cases — confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days — has remained in the high level of community transmission.

For the four-county district, the seven-day rate was 449 cases per 100,000 population on Nov. 15. The overall test positivity rate was 19.6% for the week ending Nov. 13, which is high community transmission.

Community positivity, which excludes test results from regular surveillance testing in long-term care facilities, rose to 38%,and community transmission in the district’s four counties ranged from 33% to 42%.

Bever said South Heartland’s local COVID-19 Advisory, which is informational in nature, will remain in effect for the four counties while community transmission levels remain high, as indicated by both the case rate and community positivity metrics.

The health department is encouraging vaccination for anyone 5 years and older, and boosters for those who are eligible. Shots for children age 5-11 were approved by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just Nov. 4.

As of Nov. 9, 45.4% of all South Heartland residents were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and 48.6% had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Individuals who are unvaccinated are more likely to become ill with COVID-19 and need hospitalization or die from complications,” Bever said. “Statewide, our health systems do not have the capacity to care for this many COVID patients and all of the other critical care needs. We worry that, added to this, we might see an influx of influenza patients needing care as the flu season unfolds.”

Individuals still needing to get either this year’s influenza vaccine or the COVID-19 vaccine are encouraged to do so and are advised that both shots can be administered in one doctor’s appointment.

“We are urging people to protect themselves and others, and to give the hospitals a needed break, by getting both their flu and their COVID-19 vaccines, which can be given at the same time,” she said. “Please take care and practice prevention over the holidays and plan for limited and COVID-19-safe gatherings.”

With community transmission remaining high, the health department is continuing to promote use of prevention layers to help curb community spread.

Prevention layers include staying home from school, work, and activities when you have symptoms; keeping a 6-foot distance between you and others; wearing a mask; washing hands frequently; and getting vaccinated.

Bever encourages residents to contact their personal doctor or the health department if they have questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, additional doses for immunocompromised individuals, booster doses, or COVID-19 testing.

Contact South Heartland at 402-462-6211 or 877-238-7595. For locations of COVID-19 tests or COVID-19 vaccine, refer to the South Heartland website, southheartlandhealth.org.

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