By GRANT SCHULTE-Associated Press
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska public health officials are watching for signs of strain on Omaha's hospitals because they've received a steady increase in coronavirus patients, but the state's top medical official said Friday that he isn't worried yet about the caseload as Gov. Pete Ricketts moves to further ease safety restrictions.
Nebraska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Gary Anthone said that based on his conversations with Omaha-area hospital officials, he doesn't believe the hospitals are at risk of being overrun with COVID-19 patients.
"So far, nobody feels really overwhelmed. ... I can't predict the future, but I'm not worried about it right now," he said at a news conference with Ricketts.
His comments came after a University of Nebraska Medical Center infectious diseases expert said she's concerned about the number of hospitalizations in the Omaha area, even though hospitals statewide still have plenty of capacity.
On Thursday, Ricketts announced that he was further loosening social-distancing restrictions in all but four Nebraska counties on June 1, citing Nebraska's statewide hospital capacity and the need to inch back toward normal life.
Dr. Angela Hewlett, medical director of the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit, said the university medical center is at 80% of its capacity. Statewide, Nebraska's hospitals have 43% of their beds, 36% of their intensive care unit beds and 77% of their ventilators available.
"We just keep building," Hewlett said Thursday night on Nebraska Educational Telecommunications, the state's public broadcasting station. "That's what I'm worried about. It's not a big surge, but a gradual building up over the last couple of weeks."
Asked Friday about the patient numbers in Omaha, Ricketts said he's "paying close attention to that area" and getting advice from Anthone and other public health officials, but he gave no indication that he intends to back away from plans to loosen restrictions. He said the caseloads illustrate why it's important for residents to continue with social-distancing safety measures.
Anthone said Douglas County has only seen a net gain of one coronavirus patient in the last 24 hours, from 134 to 135. He said there hasn't been an increase in the number of patients who need ventilators, but as of Friday, the county only had 61 of its 365 intensive-care unit beds available.
However, Anthone said Omaha-area health officials still have a lot of options to prevent an overload, such as sending patients down to Lincoln hospitals that have stable numbers and aren't nearly as crowded.
Health officials reported Thursday that five more people in Nebraska had died of COVID-19 and there were 303 more confirmed cases of the disease. That raised the state's death toll to 143 and its total number of confirmed cases during the pandemic to 11,425, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. The actual number of people in the state who have contracted the disease is believed to be much higher, as testing hasn't been widely available during the pandemic and some people who get the disease don't show symptoms.
Nearly 78,700 people have been tested since the pandemic began.
For some infected people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe illness or death. But for most people, it causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks.
Also on Friday, 11 state senators sent Ricketts a letter calling on him to spend some of Nebraska's federal coronavirus money on rental assistance.
Ricketts previously assigned an executive order designed to protect tenants from getting evicted during the pandemic, but he announced this week that he's going to let it expire in June.
Ricketts sidestepped a question about how he plans to respond to the senators' request, but he said he expects to make an announcement soon on how the state will use its share of the money.