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Ricketts defends Nebraska COVID-19 vaccine decision to remove co-morbidities category from Phase 1B

Published: Feb. 19, 2021 at 9:54 AM CST|Updated: Feb. 19, 2021 at 9:55 AM CST
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LINCOLN, Neb. (WOWT) - After a presentation and question-and-answer session on Nebraska’s judicial system, Gov. Pete Ricketts turned his focus to answering questions about the state’s decision to eliminate the priority group of those ages 18-64 with pre-existing conditions from Phase 1B.

On Feb. 4, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services released a chart containing a list of medical conditions that would qualify those ages 18-65 for COVID-19 vaccinations as part of the first tier of the Phase 1B rollout, indicating that group would become vaccine-eligible once those residents age 65 and older had made their way through the process.

But the governor said the state chose to focus on age rather than pre-existing conditions because the two are connected. As you get older, he said, you’re more likely to have pre-existing conditions.

“Those (older) folks are most at risk,” Ricketts said, noting that 83% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths have been elderly people.

The state’s COVID-19 cases dashboard shows 1,695 of the state’s 2,043 COVID-19 deaths to date have been among those ages 65 and older. COVID-19 deaths in Nebraskans ages 55-64 amount to 11% of the state’s virus deaths, ages 45-54 account for 4%, with those younger than age 45 making up the remainder. Those percentages mostly align with data closer to home: The biggest difference on Douglas County’s COVID-19 case dashboard is that COVID-19 deaths in the 55-56 age group account for 9.8% of the 650 total COVID-19 deaths here.

“When you look at the data, the single biggest correlation is age. That’s what the data shows us,” he said. “...as you are older, you’re also more likely to have those underlying health conditions.”

Ricketts said there’s no comparative data on how much faster it might be to focus on age rather than co-morbidities, but said attendance at vaccination clinics played a part in the decision.

“When we look, for example, at clinics we run where we say, ‘hey, if you’re 65 years and older, come in,’ we can book those and we get all the vaccines out. When we try to do other sorts of populations, we know that we don’t get it fully booked,” he said. “...We have lots of no-shows, people don’t show up or whatever, for whatever reason. ... It is less efficient than doing it by age.”

The changes to Phase 1B stray from CDC recommendations, which Ricketts called “guidance.”

“We’re using Nebraska-specific data,” he said. “We’ve said all along we’re going to create a plan that is specific to Nebraska. And the CDC recommendations — and this has been reinforced in every White House call I’ve been on — are just that: they’re just recommendations. They are guidance. They’re not rules set in stone. We’re using Nebraska-based data to make our decisions.”

For people who are younger with those conditions, “nothing’s changed,” he said, because the focus has always been on the older population.

“If you’re younger, we know that you’re much more likely to survive,” Ricketts said, pointing to data of COVID-19 deaths in Nebraska which show that such deaths among people younger than age 49 accounted for less than half of those in the 50-59 age group, though he did acknowledge that co-morbidities probably played a part in the deaths of that older category.

“Broadly based on the broad data that we have, you’re going to be more at risk if you’re 65 years or older,” said Ricketts, stopping short of assessing how the COVID risks for a 40-year-old with a certain co-morbidity might compare to a healthy 65-year-old.

The governor did not share details about how Nebraska might proceed with the vaccine rollout past Phase 1B, but said the state may still use the data on underlying health conditions acquired through the DHHS vaccination sign-up portal to guide future decisions on the rollout.

Ricketts said the chart posted on the website would be updated to reflect the changes.

Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska’s chief medical officer, said the state’s weekly federal vaccine allocations were expected to be received Friday or Saturday.

Ricketts said the state did not receive any doses for the federal pharmacy program, and no other pharmacies were added to the list of recipients. The governor said he was informed on a call with the White House earlier this week that the administration was planning to double the allotments to that program next week.

Watch Friday’s full Q&A on vaccine rollout

This is a developing story. Stay with 6 News for updates.

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