Nebraska health providers, seniors to get vaccine first

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska's health care providers and elderly and vulnerable residents will be first in line to get a coronavirus vaccination when it becomes available as early as this year, state officials said Monday.

Gov. Pete Ricketts and public health officials said they plan to give those groups top priority in their plans to distribute their limited share of the vaccine, once it's developed and shipped.

The announcement came as Nebraska sees a record number of people hospitalized because of the coronavirus. The number of new virus-related hospitalizations jumped to a record-high 436 on Saturday, and the number on Sunday held fairly steady at 435, according to the state's online tracking portal.

“We expect that vaccine supply will be limited early on, and initial doses will go to health care personnel and critical populations,” said Angie Ling, incident commander for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

States were required to submit their distribution plans to the federal government earlier this month as researchers close in on a vaccine to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Nebraska plans to dispense its vaccine supply in phases, using an existing state network of health care providers, local public health departments and hospitals, Ling said.

Initial doses will go to workers at hospitals, long-term care facilities, urgent care clinics and other health providers. Residents who are at least 65 years old and those with underlying health conditions such as cancer, kidney disease and obesity will also get priority. So will workers who are considered critical, although Ling said local health officials will determine who meets that definition.

Eventually, the vaccine will become available to the broader public. State officials said they don't know how long it will take to vaccinate all residents who want the shot.

Ling said the state's plan is a “living document” that could still be changed, but it's designed to do the most good based on current scientific evidence. She said the federal government reviewed Nebraska's plan and offered feedback but didn't have to formally approve it.

For most people, the new virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Nebraska public health officials reported 582 new coronavirus cases on Sunday and have confirmed 63,797 coronavirus cases since the pandemic began. The actual number is likely higher because some cases aren't reported. State officials have confirmed 596 deaths so far.

Ricketts said he doesn't plan to mandate that people in Nebraska get the vaccine. The vaccine will be free for people who receive it because the federal government has promised to cover the costs.

“My anticipation is there will be lot of education with regard to the vaccine, but it will be voluntary,” Ricketts said.

Before the pandemic, the state's distribution network was designed to help get vaccinations to children. State officials said they chose the network because its members already know how to properly store and handle vaccines and won't need additional training.

“It kind of makes it an easier transition," said Jeri Weberg-Bryce, a program manager with the state Department of Health and Human Services.

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