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Nebraska resumes reporting some coronavirus statistics

July 14, 2021 GMT

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Two weeks after Nebraska quit publicly reporting daily coronavirus statistics, the state launched a new website Wednesday to provide weekly updates on some of the information.

The state’s decision to stop providing daily COVID-19 updates was widely criticized by health experts who use the data to track the virus’ spread.

“I don’t think that was a well-timed decision,” said Dr. James Lawler, who is one of the leaders of the Global Center for Health Security at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. “I think that if you are trying to drive down a rivet at night in the rain, blindfolding yourself is probably not the best idea.”

Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Olga Dack said the state’s new website will be updated on Wednesdays with some of the latest information about the virus’ spread. The site includes the number of virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the state along with statistics on the vaccination campaign, but it doesn’t include as much detail as the previous version of the dashboard.

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Dack said that part of the problem is that much of the data the state had been reporting previously is covered by state and federal health privacy laws, which were suspended as long as the state’s official virus emergency continued but that ended June 30. The executive orders that allowed HHS to release potentially identifiable information on the dashboard expired when the emergency ended.

Nebraska is not alone in changing what virus data it reports, but most states have continued to update their online COVID-19 dashboards at least on weekdays. Iowa and South Dakota recently switched to reporting virus data only on a weekly basis.

In South Dakota, health officials also stopped holding monthly news conferences. They justified the decision to scale back reporting because infection rates in the state hit their lowest rate since the pandemic began. But state health officials also have continued to issue reminders that the pandemic is not over and the delta variant poses a new threat.

South Dakota state epidemiologist Josh Clayton last month said he is concerned that coronavirus cases in the state will follow a similar trend as last year, slowing during the summer only to make a resurgence in the fall.

Although health officials say they still think the state can reach a goal of getting 70% of eligible people vaccinated, the rate of vaccinations has slowed to a trickle. About 53% of eligible people have been fully vaccinated, according to the Department of Health.

Iowa health officials said switching to weekly updates is part of the state’s “transition to COVID-19 pandemic recovery.” Gov. Kim Reynolds has said she believes it is time for the state to get back to normal now that case counts have slowed and nearly half of Iowa’s population has been vaccinated.

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When Nebraska stopped reporting virus statistics late last month, officials said data on the pandemic will still be available through public records requests, and they said statistics on the virus’ spread are available from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But they said the data reported on those sites may differ from what the state had been reporting. And television station KETV reported that its public records request for COVID-19 case and vaccination numbers was denied.

In the weeks since the state stopped providing the figures, Nebraska has seen its cases per week nearly double as the highly contagious delta variant of the virus spreads. CDC figures showed 489 cases last week, up from 456 the week before and 253 cases two weeks earlier.

Nationwide, the average number of new cases doubled over the past three weeks, going from 11,300 a day on June 23 to about 23,600 a day on Monday.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Nebraska has more than doubled over the past two weeks from 43 new cases per day on June 28 to 86.29 new cases per day on Monday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

On its new website, the state reported 225,600 virus cases and 2,267 deaths on Wednesday. That is up from 224,488 cases and 2,261 deaths that were reported June 30 on the last day of the old dashboard, but the demographic and regional breakdowns of the data the state used to provide are gone.

Nebraska said 78 people are now hospitalized with the virus, up from 28 on June 30 but still well below last November’s peak of 987.

The state also said that 49.1% of Nebraska’s residents have now been fully vaccinated against the virus.

Lawler said the state virus dashboards have been a valuable source of information throughout the pandemic even though the data reported in each state has varied. For instance, he said, only about half the states are reporting cumulative hospitalization data by age groups, so it’s not clear how many children have been hospitalized.

“We have to extrapolate and do estimates to try and arrive at that number. In 2021, that’s just nuts. There’s no excuse,” Lawler said. “I’ve rarely seen a situation where more data is a bad thing — and certainly not in emergencies.”

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Associated Press writer Stephen Groves contributed to this report from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.