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Another Nebraska lab has started testing for COVID-19 variants.

Creighton University announced Wednesday that it and its clinical partner, CHI Health, have been contracted by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services to start testing at the lab at CHI Creighton University Medical Center.

Creighton said it is testing up to 100 positive COVID-19 tests a week from CHI Health to determine if they are caused by variant strains.

The Creighton lab is the third in the state to do variant testing, joining the Nebraska Public Health Lab and the lab at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health.

“This is an excellent opportunity that will expand our ongoing studies to track SARS-CoV-2 variation and evolution throughout the entirety of the outbreak, and it will greatly benefit the state’s battle against the virus and its variants,” said Michael Belshan, a Creighton medical virologist.

Nebraska has now confirmed more than 180 variant COVID-19 cases, up from just more than 100 last week and a little more than 30 three weeks ago. About 140 of those variant cases are the UK variant, said Dr. Gary Anthone, the state's chief medical officer.

In Lancaster County, the number of confirmed variant cases grew from just two last week to seven as of Tuesday, six of which are the UK version.

Creighton officials said that of the positive tests they sequenced in the past week, a majority were the UK variant strain.

Variant cases are suspected to be a factor in a recent rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the state. Hospitalizations statewide have grown nearly 50% since March 29 and are now at their highest level since early March. The average age of those hospitalized also has been trending younger.

Dr. Renuga Vivekanandan, CHI Health's chief of infectious diseases, said it's more important than ever for health officials in Nebraska to keep their eyes on variant strains.

“This is not a time to let our guard down," she said. "Hospitalization rates among younger individuals are increasing due to them being more susceptible to these highly transmissible variant strains."

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