When it comes to COVID-19 transmission, is Nebraska the safest place in the nation?
All week, maps from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have made it look as though much of Nebraska is largely free of COVID-19 problems.
As of Friday’s map, 60 of the state’s 93 counties were colored blue, indicating low transmission levels. In fact, Nebraska accounts for the majority of such counties nationwide, with only 39 other blue counties in the rest of the nation.
At a time of rising COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations, the map appears to show that most of Nebraska is largely unscathed.
“The color blue on the map may not be an accurate representation of transmission rates,” said Olga Dack, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
Instead, Nebraska counties are showing up in the low transmission category for a combination of reasons, including the state’s decision to retire its COVID-19 dashboard.
Dack said the CDC had relied on Nebraska’s dashboard. This week, she said, the state discovered that the federal agency had responded to the state’s dashboard change by using an alternate measure — percentage of positive COVID-19 tests — to assign transmission categories to Nebraska counties. Thus, county-level Nebraska data currently showing on the CDC website reflect the positivity rate, not the per capita case counts reported for most other states. The CDC also stopped factoring in very small numbers, Dack said.
Nebraska continues to report county-level COVID case data separately to the CDC, she said, but the CDC hasn’t been using it for some technical reasons.
The result: Nebraska looks like an island of blue in the center of a map dominated by red, high-transmission counties.
While it’s possible that some parts of Nebraska do indeed have low per capita transmission rates, it seems unlikely that Nebraska would have 60% of the nation’s low-transmission counties.
Neighboring and largely rural states with lower per capita transmission rates statewide, namely the Dakotas, have fewer blue counties. Iowa, which has a statewide transmission rate similar to Nebraska’s, has no blue counties.
And while Nebraska’s COVID-19 cases have been rising, its number of blue counties has increased from 46 to 60 from a similar CDC map created about three weeks ago.
The CDC had not responded Friday to several requests for information.
Dack said HHS’s data team has been able to find a workaround solution that, if the CDC approves, would allow the state’s numbers to be displayed correctly in the future.
Meanwhile, Nebraska health care providers and a group of lawmakers are asking Gov. Pete Ricketts to reinstate the dashboard, saying the data is crucial for schools, businesses and hospitals making operational decisions during the pandemic.
Nebraska shelved the dashboard June 30, after Ricketts ended the state’s COVID-19 state of emergency. The state now reports a limited amount of data each Wednesday.