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State virus emergency to end despite rural vaccination lag

June 28, 2021 GMT

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska will formally end its coronavirus emergency this week, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday, even though rural parts of the state continue to lag larger cities in vaccinations.

Ricketts said he will let the state’s current virus emergency expire as scheduled on Wednesday along with its remaining social-distancing guidelines that were made mandatory earlier in the pandemic. He said he also expects all schools to be open for in-person learning this fall without imposing any mask or vaccination requirements.

“We need to get back to normal,” he said at a news conference.

His comments came as the number of virus-related hospitalizations dropped to 27 on Sunday after more than a month of declines.

Still, Nebraska continues to show a wide disparity in vaccination rates between urban and rural areas.

In Lancaster County, encompassing Lincoln, more than 52% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard. But in the rural, overwhelmingly conservative Panhandle, the proportion is 31%. In Sioux County, on Nebraska’s northwestern border, less than 19% of the population has been fully vaccinated.

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Ricketts said he has repeatedly urged Nebraska residents to get vaccinated and ask questions of public health officials to address any concerns, but some residents have longer distances to travel and may not have made time to fit it into their schedules.

State health officials have also said vaccine hesitancy is a challenge because some rural residents don’t trust the vaccine or don’t believe the virus is a serious health concern. Others may be relying on the fact that their area is so remote, offering sporadic contact with others and thus reducing the risk of transmission.

“It’s frustrating, because we want to get as many people vaccinated as we can,” said Kim Engel, director of the Panhandle Public Health District in western Nebraska. “We have plenty of resources, and everybody out here is probably within an hour of someplace where they can get vaccinated. It’s just a matter of people deciding whether they want to get vaccinated or not.”

Nebraska will also end its multimillion dollar, no-bid contract with TestNebraska, a service the state offered to provide drive-up tests throughout the pandemic. The contract with Utah-based Nomi Health has faced some criticism from state lawmakers because it was approved quickly with no other bids.

Ricketts has defended the vendor, saying it provided rapid, convenient testing when the state needed it. TestNebraska will continue to offer tests until July 18, and the contract will expire July 31.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte