COVID-19 deaths have increased as well as the number of positive cases, and increases in the number and size of gatherings are the underlying reasons, the area’s top health official said Oct. 13.

“We are letting our guard down,” West Central District Health Department Executive Director Shannon Vanderheiden warned on a live Facebook appearance with other members of the district’s public health command team.

Six deaths in the health district have now been attributed to COVID-19, doubling the number from May-September.

The causes of 11 more deaths are under investigation, according to the WCDHD dashboard of information.

There were 172 new COVID-19 cases from Oct. 2-12 in the six-county health district. Thirty-six new cases were reported Oct. 10, by far the largest daily total since the outbreak began in mid-March. Vanderheiden categorized it as a huge increase in clusters of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

The same numbers are increasing across the state, which are signs of a decrease in cooperation, she said.

“Flu season has not arrived yet,” she said, “and the health system is already taxed to keep up.”

She urged people to cooperate with “contact tracers” who try to get people who have been exposed into quarantine.

A week ago, Great Plains Health hospital sent patients to two other hospitals in the area. Currently, GPH has a COVID-19 patient on a respirator, and 12 positive patients.

“This is not over,” GPH Spokeswoman Megan McGown said. reiterating Vanderheiden’s message.  The fear is that the number of COVID-19 cases could expand exponentially unless people keep social distance, wash hands frequently and wear a mask. In other states, numbers have declined when three situations – crowded places, close contact and confined spaces — are avoided, Vanderheiden said.

The outbreak in the North Platte area jumped about the same time that long-term care homes began to allow a few more visitations. A direct cause-and-effect has not been announced, but it was certainly bad timing.

Nolan Gurnsey, the spokesman for the health district’s long-term care homes, expressed deep sympathy for those whose loved ones have died. He said the safety of residents and staff is the top priority – one reason that visits are strictly limited again.

“Once it (the virus) get in, it’s hard to get rid of it, because it is contagious,” Gurnsey said.