COVID protocol should be based on county totals, not health district

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Of all the questions asked and answered regarding this life-altering coronavirus pandemic, there is one that still seems a bit confusing. In light of lower totals for confirmed COVID cases and deaths, why is Hamilton County one of only four counties in Nebraska lagging one step behind in the effort to gradually loosen social distancing guidelines?
The given answer, explained by Gov. Pete Ricketts very early on, is that safety protocols would be determined by health districts across the state. Hamilton County joins Hall and Merrick counties in the Central District Health Department, thus the three have been linked in terms of tracking numbers, communication and protocols.
On the whole, Gov. Pete Ricketts has done an outstanding job leading our state through these unprecedented times. He has surrounded himself with capable spokespeople at every press conference, letting them address the detailed questions while he offered a positive voice of calm, rational leadership. That’s what Nebraskans expect from our elected leaders, and he has been up to the challenge.
There was no model to follow when this pandemic first broke, so when we first heard that reporting and protocol decisions would be broken down by Educational Service Units across the state, there wasn’t much push-back or debate. Soon after, Ricketts, and presumably some of the state’s top healthcare advisors, changed the approach to instead cluster Nebraska’s 93 counties by health district.
Sadly, Hall County was hit early and hard by the fast-spreading virus, at one point being touted as one of the leading counties for confirmed COVID cases, per capita, in the nation. Now, two months in to this altered universe we’ve been living in, the numbers suggest that clustering by health district may not be the best approach. As of Friday, Hamilton County had 61 confirmed cases and 13 deaths (ranking approximately 15th highest by county) with a population of just over 9,000 residents, while Merrick County was even lower with 39 cases and no deaths (ranking 25th). And yet, both are included with Hall County (1,553 cases and 42 deaths), along with Dakota County (1,704 cases and 24 deaths), as the only four in a higher alert category dictating tighter restrictions.
Case loads are no doubt easier to track and communicate by health district since those organizations already have the needed resources. That need not change, but the governor and his leadership team have the authority to establish protocols on a county-by-county basis if they so choose, which would make more sense. Governmental entities, businesses and organizations within each county would still have discretion to go slow in “reopening the doors,” and in fact some may likely choose to proceed with caution. They should be given that choice.
It’s not too late to give this option a serious look, since the pandemic threat is clearly far from over.
Kurt Johnson

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