OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — “We are not using the public health tools that are available to us to get this disease under control,” said Ali S. Khan, MD, MPH, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health.
Khan presented an overview of the COVID-19 pandemic during a public hearing of the Health & Human Services Committee of the Douglas County Board of Commissioners. He gave his insights on what the community needs to do to prepare for the tough winter months ahead and issued dire warnings for Nebraska if COVID-19 infections are not brought under control.
Commissioner Jim Cavanaugh moderated the virtual hearing in which the commission also provided updates on rent, utilities, social services and other assistance programs for people and nonprofits impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cavanaugh began the meeting by saying that Nebraska's COVID-19 infections have "skyrocketed" since March. He said the national death toll is "close to what we experienced on 9/11" every single day.
Calling the virus "far from contained," Khan explained that Nebraska is ranked fifth in the nation for average daily cases per 100,000 people. He said that positive tests are around 20 percent right now and that positive test rates need to be less than 5 percent for the disease to be considered under control.
“That is not a record we want here in Nebraska,” Khan said.
With winter coming and people spending more time gathering indoors, Khan warned of the potential collapse of the healthcare system. He mentioned that Dr. Robert R. Redfield, Director of the CDC, is projecting 450,000 preventable deaths from COVID-19 if changes are not made.
Khan also expressed frustration with the political climate in the United States.
“There’s no doubt the polarization and the politicization of this disease has made things very difficult to get things under control,” said Khan.
He praised for the Douglas County Public Health Director, “Dr. Adi Pour is one of the best local health officials, not just in America, but I would say in the world.”
Khan commended state efforts to encourage personal responsibility and mask wearing, but also said those efforts aren't enough.
“Pandemics are not a function of a failure of personal responsibility.”
He recommended implementing public health measures for getting the disease under control before the vaccine is available, including a statewide mask mandate. As of right now, Nebraska is one of thirteen states that do not have a mask mandate.
Khan's recommendations are based around the concepts"Control, Contain, Eliminate." He explained that there are countries in the world that are seeing very few new cases of COVID-19 because of robust public health actions taken by officials. Measures that he said would help include:
- Leadership: Data Driven and evidence based decisions with good metrics
- Decrease Transmission: Test and Trace, Isolate, Quarantine
- Community Engagement: Masks, social distancing, handwashing
- Temporarily close gyms, bars, restaurants, houses of worship until positive COVID tests meet a certain threshold.
- Keep schools open
- Statewide mask mandate with enforcement
- Pay a stipend to people who are asked to quarantine because of infection or exposure
- Deploy a contact tracing application, scale up contact tracing
- Increasing community engagement
- Continue with personal responsibility campaigns around mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing.
He said that the state needs to improve its use of data and that the metrics currently available aren't adequate.
“Routine stuff I used to do in Africa, 20 years ago in response to infectious diseases — we still don’t see those metrics here in our state,” Khan said.
Khan provided some good news. He mentioned that there are multiple vaccines in phase 3 trials. The vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer have seem to have good safety and efficacy and may be approved by the FDA this month. He also spoke approvingly of the CDC guidelines and ethical principles for prioritizing vaccine distribution:
- Maximize benefits and minimize harm
- Mitigate health inequities
- Promote justice
- Promote transparency
Residents of long term care facilities and healthcare workers will be given the vaccine first and it may be available to the entire population late spring or early summer.
“It’s not destiny, the number of deaths in our state. This is a choice in the United States of what we do because we know what tools, we know we have the tools that can get the disease down,” Kahn said.
Watch below or on our Facebook page.
Statement from Douglas County Board
Dr. Khan is looking at at the current state of the pandemic in Nebraska and is offering his thoughts on what will likely occur between now and the arrival of a vaccine. He is outlining what the community must do now and for the duration of the pandemic to most effectively fight the spread of the virus, minimize its toll, and ultimately eliminate it.
Dr. Khan is the third dean in the UNMC College of Public Health. Prior to coming to UNMC in 2014, Dr. Khan was a senior administrator for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, where he served for 23 years. He also served as assistant surgeon general with the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS).
In addition to Dr. Khan's presentation, the committee is receiving year-end updates on federal funding that Douglas County has received from the CARES Act Provider Relief Fund to assist communities in dealing with the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. CARES funding has been designated in the following amounts for COVID-19 impacted individuals and families in our community – $10 million for rent assistance; $4 million for utility assistance; $10 million for local social services to help provide food and other direct assistance; and other funding for nonprofit organizations for culture, arts and entertainment in Douglas County.
The HHS Committee is reviewing an updated status report on the amount of CARES funding for these programs awarded to Douglas County citizens and nonprofits since the programs began in July. To date, more than 50 percent of Douglas County’s CARES funding has been awarded for rental assistance funding. Dec. 16 marks the final day that people will be able to apply for the funding.
“We are striving to get 100 percent of the CARES funding to people by the end of 2020,” said James Cavanaugh, the Douglas County Commissioner who chairs the HHS Committee. “We are in the home stretch. We need to get the word out that people still have time if they want to apply for rent and utilities assistance. It can truly change people’s lives. This provides real help to real people impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our goal is to get all this money distributed to people in need as soon as possible.”