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Nebraskans with additional health risks frustrated by state decision to vaccinate by age

Comorbidities category removed from Phase 1B priority list last week
Published: Feb. 22, 2021 at 3:32 PM CST
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LINCOLN, Neb. (WOWT) - Gov. Pete Ricketts again defended the state’s decision to remove the comorbidities category from the Nebraska Phase 1B COVID-19 vaccine priority list saying the data supports focusing on age groups.

It’s a growing frustration among Nebraskans with high-risk medical conditions like cancer, heart disease, and asthma.

“I want to go my high school graduation,” said Daisy Friedman, who has lived in Omaha since she was 3 years old,. She needed a triple-organ transplant to survive.

Last week, Nebraska eliminated the pre-existing conditions priority group for the COVID-19 vaccine. That group was part of a Phase 1B chart the state shared with local health departments earlier this month, showing those with any in a long list of comorbidities vaccine-eligible once those ages 65 and older had been vaccinated.

A couple weeks, later, the governor’s team changed its mind.

Kelly Clark, 50, has spent half her life with multiple sclerosis.

“When I get a virus, it goes crazy inside me,” she said. “God only knows what would happen if I get this.”

She recently wrote a letter to the governor asking why Nebraskans with pre-existing conditions aren’t getting vaccinated yet.

“My biggest concern is I’m an only parent, not just single parent, but only parent because my husband passed away,” she said. “I’m raising my kids by myself, and I’m afraid to send them to school for fear they would bring the virus to me and then be left with no parents.”

6 News asked the governor on Monday about the growing frustration over vaccination priority when it comes to those with compromised immune systems. Ricketts said the data say they’re less at-risk than senior citizens.

“Nothing’s changed for those folks from the standpoint for Phase 1B. We were all along focused on those 65 and older,” the governor said. “When we analyze the data, one thing we’ve seen is the single biggest correlation will be age.”

Ricketts on Monday re-stated some of his comments from last week, when he noted that COVID-19 deaths occurring in the 50-59 age group exceeding the deaths in all other younger age groups combined.

“Even if everybody in that younger category had one single comorbidity — and they don’t, but let’s say they did — if they all had once single comorbidity, it still wouldn’t be as much risk as those who are in the 50-59 category,” he said Monday.

For those like Friedman, who are already dealing with medical uncertainty, the vaccine wait is maddening.

“The thing that makes me most upset is that the ones with pre-existing conditions have been the most safe and smart in terms of following guidelines and obeying what’s right because they have to — and now they’re being punished for it,” she said.

It’s especially frustrating to hear that other states are still adhering to CDC vaccination priority guidelines.

“I feel like I deserve my spot in line where it was in every other state,” Clark said.

Friedman agrees.

“Specifically New York — my mom is from there,” she said. “I would have been vaccinated a month ago. ... It’s pretty disheartening.”

Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska’s chief medical officer, said Monday that he supported prioritizing the COVID-19 vaccination by age.

“When you look at the data from our epidemiology team, it’s pretty glaring that the age is the No. 1 factor,” he said. “We know that those people 49 or less are gonna have some comorbidities, but when you add up the numbers, it’s pretty glaringly obvious that age is the No. 1 reason for dying of COVID.”

Anthone said the COVID-19 data for the state, including mortality rates, is collected by epidemiologists and officials with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

Asked about whether anyone with a comorbidity could get an exception, Ricketts again pointed to the data on COVID-19 deaths in older populations.

Those with high-risk medical conditions are wondering when they might finally be vaccinated. After all, the state’s vaccination sign-up page asks about your medical background.

All the governor said was “stay tuned.”

According to a timeline labeled “tentative” on the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services website, Nebraskans ages 50 and older have been slotted for Phase 2A COVID-19 vaccine distribution in early April.

Phase 2A, which includes all Nebraskans ages 50-64, is expected to follow the last half of Phase 1B and Phase 1C vaccination priorities, slated for April; with Phase 2B, including all Nebraskans ages 16-49, beginning in May.

The state is currently on the first tier of Phase 1B, vaccinating those ages 65 and older as well as first-responders and utility workers, with homeless shelter and corrections staff and educators including teachers, staff, and licensed daycare providers to follow. Douglas County said last week they plan to begin vaccinating teachers and staff this week.

The last two tiers of Phase 1B are slated to include funeral homes and coroners, grocery workers, and meat-packing and food-processing plant employees; followed by transportation employees like truckers and railroad workers, postal service employees, and public transit employees.

Phase 1C, expected to begin in mid-March, will prioritize vaccinations for those in congregate living situations, such as residential treatment centers, corrections facilities, and homeless shelters.

Watch Monday’s news conference

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