State officials have removed tracking data for COVID-19 in wastewater just as cases have started to rise.
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has removed from its website a page that had provided weekly updates on concentrations of COVID-19 in wastewater from more than a dozen sites across the state.
A spokesman for the state Health Department said the state’s wastewater data was taken down due to President Joe Biden’s ending of the national emergency and public health emergency declarations for COVID-19 in May.
“Data continues to be tracked for that program and is available upon request,” the spokesman wrote in an email Monday.
Laura Strimple, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jim Pillen, wrote in an email Tuesday that the state wastewater page was removed Aug. 4 in consultation with the Governor’s Office. She also cited the end of the federal public health emergency in response to questions about why the page was taken down. Since then, she wrote in an email, Nebraska has successfully phased out many of the measures put into place during the emergency.
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She also noted in an email Tuesday that the Health Department is “winding down its COVID-19 wastewater testing program, so that resources can be devoted to monitoring other illnesses including influenza and RSV.”
Nebraska’s wastewater surveillance page also included the results of genomic sequencing of virus particles in wastewater, giving users insight into what variants of COVID-19 were circulating in the state. The state and its partners earlier this year became one of the first groups in the U.S. to tap the wastewater surveillance system, initially established as an early-warning system for virus surges, to also monitor for new variants. That change occurred after people increasingly began using at-home tests for COVID-19, leaving labs short of samples to sequence.
Dr. Bob Rauner, president of Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln, said he’s disappointed the state has stopped providing the wastewater data and has asked for a reason why but didn’t get a response from anyone at the Department of Health and Human Services.
“It’s important data for the medical community because it’s the most accurate community gauge of a possible COVID surge,” Rauner said.
He questioned the timing of the removal, pointing out that cases and hospitalizations are on the rise.
There were 379 confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide for the week ending Saturday, a 75% increase from the previous week and the most for a week since the end of April.
Lancaster County reported 72 cases for the week ending Saturday, also the most for a week since the end of April.
Case numbers are not as reliable of an indicator as they once were of the scope of COVID infections, because many people now use home tests or don’t bother getting tested.
But those who are getting official tests that are reported to health officials are testing positive at rates that haven’t been seen for some time.
The statewide test positivity rate was 13.9% for the week that ended Saturday, nearly double the previous week and the highest weekly rate since the first week of December.
Lancaster County’s rate was even higher, at 15.3%. That was triple what it was just a month ago and the highest rate since mid-February.
Lancaster County continues to provide wastewater sampling data on its COVID-19 dashboard, and Health Department spokeswoman Leah Bucco-White said there are no current plans to change or eliminate the reporting.
The local data shows a steady increase in COVID-19 concentrations since they hit a pandemic low the week ending July 1 of 55,500 virus particles per liter of wastewater. That has since climbed to nearly 304,000 virus particles for the week ending Aug. 12, the highest levels since the end of April.
The last statewide wastewater report before the data was removed indicated that concentrations of the virus had increased relatively sharply overall, based on preliminary data through July 19. Seven stations reported increasing levels over the previous 15 days, three counted decreasing concentrations and the rest were stable or had no recent data to report.
The good news is that the increase in COVID-19 cases does not appear to be leading to many cases of severe illness.
Though hospitalizations have risen, the numbers remain small. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average weekly number of new hospital admissions for people with COVID-19 in Nebraska rose from 16 to 26.5 over the past month.
And very few people are dying of the disease. According to the CDC, Nebraska has recorded no deaths in three out of the past four weeks, while Lancaster County hasn’t recorded a death since May.
Still, with school starting, it raises concerns about further increases in cases, especially with the loss of a reliable monitoring tool.
Rauner, who is on the Lincoln Board of Education, said students, their parents and teachers are likely at low risk if they have been vaccinated, but any increase in cases linked to schools, “will likely increase spread in the community, which would increase risks for the elderly and those with high-risk health conditions.”
“How much school start will raise the spread of COVID would be best monitored with wastewater, which we now can no longer see,” he said. “So we won’t have much indication until 2-3 weeks after that fact when we see the effect on hospitalizations.”
Dr. James Lawler, associate director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, agreed that wastewater testing is a good tool for high-risk members of the community and their families to rely on to gauge their own actions in order to reduce their risk of infection.
He pointed out that state government officials have promoted the idea that Nebraskans should be free to make their own decisions about managing COVID risk.
“The state should allow people access to the data they need to make those decisions,” Lawler said.
The Omaha World-Herald contributed to this story.
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