LINCOLN, Neb. (KMTV) — Gov. Pete Ricketts announced on Thursday that Nebraska's COVID-19 dashboard would be scaled back starting Friday.
Friday, the dashboard no longer has a county-level tally of COVID-19 cases or demographic information. It was not updated. Going forward, it will be updated each Wednesday, according to a spokesperson for the governor. Hospitalization data by local health district will remain viewable.
When Ricketts reinstated a COVID-19 dashboard on Sept. 20, he signed an executive order that waived a state law that he said would have blocked the release of the data. He said that state law is more restrictive than the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
That executive order is set to expire on Oct. 31.
"Should coronavirus hospitalizations rise above 10% of statewide hospital capacity, the Governor would again consider reporting additional COVID-19 data," a Ricketts spokesperson told 3 News Now.
Ricketts said he announced the move because the amount of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the state dropped to below 10% of the state's hospital capacity.
Dr. James Lawler, who specializes in infectious diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, called that metric "incredibly arbitrary."
"The proportion of beds occupied by COVID-19 patients reflects only a part of the overall burden on the health system," Lawler said.
He said hospital census numbers have been "incredibly high" for the majority of 2021.
"While we have fewer hospitalized COVID-19 patients than we've had at our prior peak in the fall of 2020...our hospitals are still just as strained and just as full," Lawler added.
"I’ve never been in an emergency where less information was a good thing," he said.
Some regional COVID-19 case data will still be available from local health departments that still have their own dashboards, such as Douglas and Lancaster counties.
It appears regional data in rural areas will be more difficult to obtain. Lawler said it's a poor time for that.
"(Rural Nebraska is) where I think we’re going to see certainly the most disease activity here certainly over the next several weeks," Lawler said.
Some Nebraska counties "have case rates as high as they’re ever have been during the course of the pandemic," he said. "If you live in certain counties in the panhandle, things are not great right now."
3 News Now Investigators obtained COVID-19 hospitalization data from when Nebraska lacked a COVID-19 dashboard
Because no regional coronavirus data was available after Nebraska ended its original coronavirus dashboard on June 30, and before a dashboard was put in place again on Sept. 20, 3 News Now Investigators submitted a public records request to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services for coronavirus data.
Our original request was filed Aug. 27, before the dashboard was reinstated.
The data we received Wednesday includes weekly hospitalization data for that period by the local health district. 3 News Now Investigators believe case and death data, and more specific county and daily data, may be releasable and is still in discussion with DHHS.
"I think it certainly could help provide some additional context to trends," Lawler said, "And that idea of information always being a good thing. I think that also applies to retrospective data that helps you put current data in better context."
DHHS provided the following explanation for possible negative values in the PUI field:
Because the federal HHS requirements ask for two fields: "Confirmed and Suspected COVID Inpatients” and “Confirmed COVID Inpatients”. If a facility has confirmed patients they should put a value in both fields. To find the number of PUI (Person Under Inspection) we have to subtract the two. What happens is that a facility only puts a value in the “Confirmed COVID Inpatients” column. If you take 0 and subtract anything from it you’ll get a negative number.
The link to the HHS requirements is at https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/covid-19-faqs-hospitals-hospital-laboratory-acute-care-facility-data-reporting.pdf.
Questions 9 & 10 cover this (as it is split between adult and pediatric. We report on what the hospitals provide and don’t manipulate for any situations.