Early in the pandemic, Governor Pete Ricketts delivered a simple message to Nebraskans to try to keep the coronavirus from spreading: If you want to see Husker football in the fall, you had better comply with social distancing measures. The warning fell a bit short, as Nebraska was forced to play its home games in a mostly empty Memorial Stadium. But now, on the anniversary of the state’s first known coronavirus case, Ricketts said he’s increasingly confident fans will be able to see those games in-person later this year. “I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Ricketts said in an Associated Press interview. “We’re just asking for people’s patience, to hang with us for a few more months to get through this. But by the second half of the year, we’ll be starting to get back to normal.”
Ricketts pointed to the state’s ramped-up testing and vaccination efforts. More than 11% of residents who are at least 16 years old have been vaccinated so far, placing Nebraska in the middle of the pack among states. Nebraska has reported 202,310 confirmed coronavirus cases and 2,112 related deaths since the pandemic began, with elderly residents accounting for the vast majority of fatalities, according to the state’s online tracking portal. The number of new deaths has been gradually declining since early December, a few weeks after the number of virus-related hospitalizations surged to record highs.
Even so, Ricketts said he expects the state to incur additional costs from its vaccination efforts, including new locations to administer shots. State officials have said they expect to get more vaccine doses in the coming months and should be able to vaccinate the general public by late April or early May. Nebraska has received 502,472 doses so far from drugmakers Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. After vaccinating frontline medical and long-term care facility workers, states officials shifted their focus to vaccinating people who are least 65 years old.
Ricketts has faced some criticism from younger residents who have underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk. Some of them are likely to become eligible at the end of this month, when the state is expected to enter its next vaccination phase focusing on residents ages 50 to 59. “I certainly am sympathetic to folks who want to get the vaccines as quickly as possible,” Ricketts said, but noted that residents age 49 and younger are substantially less likely to die.
When that next phase begins, local public health districts will be allowed to use up to 10% of their available doses on younger people with underlying conditions. Angie Ling, incident commander for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, said local doctors will work with their area’s public health department to choose who qualifies and help schedule them. “The state will not be determining what medical conditions are included,” Ling said.
In Omaha, Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour said Wednesday that the health department will start vaccinating school officials starting next week. Under the state’s directives, local health districts are also allowed to vaccinate other essential worker groups. “We are now at a time when we can vaccinate them,” Pour said.