Gov. Pete Ricketts announces new directed health measures during a press conference on Oct. 16. Picture courtesy of the governor's office.
Gov. Pete Ricketts announces new directed health measures during a press conference on Oct. 16. Picture courtesy of the governor's office.

Cases of COVID-19 in Nebraska have increased by more than 50% since mid-October and the spread is impacting rural hospitals. 

As of Oct. 27, less than 40% of hospital beds and only 36% of intensive care unit beds are available, according to Nebraska’s COVID-19 dashboard. Given the increase in cases, Gov. Pete Ricketts announced Oct. 16 that indoor gatherings must be at 50% of the maximum capacity and no more than eight people can be seated together at a restaurant. 

The majority of the state’s hospital beds are located in Lincoln and Omaha, and according to Nebraska Hospital Association’s Vice President of Advocacy Andy Hale, rural hospitals send their more serious patients to Omaha and Lincoln. However, as those beds fill up, Nebraska’s smaller hospitals with fewer ventilators, fewer beds and fewer staff members, cannot send their critical patients there. 

“They’re anxious,” Hale said of smaller hospitals. “Are they going to be able to transfer patients from their facilities to other hospitals? That’s their biggest concern.” 

Chuck Seper, the chief public health officer at East Central Health District based in Columbus, said that transfers are helpful to the district’s hospitals because they allow more beds to be available for emergency health events, such as a car crash. 

The staff works long hours to treat all patients, and the pandemic has been quite stressful for them, according to Seper, and hospitals have attempted to accommodate employees by shortening their shifts. 

Ricketts allocated $40 million of funding from the CARES Act toward hiring traveling nurses. Hale said he appreciates the effort to relieve hospital staff from their duties, but acknowledged that hiring traveling nurses will not be easy. Hospitals across the country are battling the coronavirus, and people will want to spend time with their family as the holiday season approaches. Plus, Nebraska winters may also deter nurses.

“To be honest, if you can go to Florida or California or Arizona or Nebraska during the winter months, where are you more inclined to go because of the weather?” he said. “There’s some obstacles we’re facing that there’s nothing we can do about.”

New directed health measures state that hospitals must have 10% of their beds open if they want to continue to perform elective procedures or surgeries, which can be rescheduled. 

“I’m not aware of any hospitals in the state that are unable to do elective procedures because of the 10%, but that’s a real danger,” Seper said. 

Seper said that hospitals can submit plans to continue to do elective procedures while 90% of the beds are taken. But patients cannot be transferred solely to make room for elective procedures. 

In Lincoln, Bryan Health’s Vice President of Advancement Bob Ravenscroft announced Oct. 15, that the facility was at 95% capacity, though about 5% of hospital beds are occupied by coronavirus patients. As of Oct. 19, the hospital had 37 COVID-19 patients, and 25 of those patients were from outside of Lancaster County. 

Patients from rural hospitals must meet certain criteria to be transferred to bigger facilities in Omaha or Lincoln, especially as hospitals there face capacity concerns, too.  

“I don’t know people that are stronger, tougher, more dedicated with kinder hearts than the physicians and nurses that are dealing with this,” Ravenscroft said during the Oct. 15 press conference. “I think it’s fair to say our staff is increasingly frustrated on the cynicism and with the lack of compliance on masking.”

Though the Nebraska Hospital Association is pleased with the government’s recent actions to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus, Hale said the community needs to step up to help. 

“The problem is once it’s in your community, it’s too late,” Hale said. “And if they want to continue to have in-person school, if they want to have sports, if they want to have those sorts of things, they need to wear masks until we have a vaccine.”