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Staff at Douglas County Correctional Center scramble to contain 'widespread' flu outbreak

Yet another reason to stay out of jail: The Douglas County Correctional Center in Omaha is experiencing a flu outbreak.

What started out as two flu cases Dec. 14 mushroomed into 23 confirmed cases as of Friday, Douglas County Corrections Director Mike Myers said. While the 23 men and women suffering so far represent a small percentage of the 1,264 inmates, the flu has hit seven of the 29 housing units at the jail.

That has Myers, corrections staff and courthouse personnel scrambling.

“We’re trying to do everything we can do to limit the spread,” Myers said. “This is the most widespread (virus) I can recall in my 12-plus years of being here.”

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The jail’s outbreak is a product of the broader battle with the flu across Omaha and the state. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just released Nebraska’s flu numbers, marking the state’s outbreak as “widespread,” the worst designation the CDC gives.

This is the hardest and earliest Douglas County has been hit — Nebraska’s largest county was up to almost 530 cases last week, about 100 more than 2018’s peak and two weeks earlier. Statewide, 3,350 people had been diagnosed with the flu as of Dec. 14.

Three nursing homes in Douglas County also have had outbreaks. Phil Rooney, a spokesman for the Douglas County Health Department, declined to name those three but said none of them are “closed or going to be closed.” The nursing homes have worked to put in place precautions and to try to segregate those who have the flu from those who don’t.

The flu has turned seven of the 29 sections of the jail into pseudoinfirmaries. The jail can’t put all of its sick people in its medical unit without jeopardizing the health and welfare of those already there, Myers said, so corrections officers are trying to isolate the sick patients from the healthy ones.

Corrections officers are screening any new jail arrivals by taking their temperature and checking for signs of the flu virus, which causes fevers, body aches, coughing and respiratory problems.

This strain of the flu typically incubates for one to four days, and its effects last one to two weeks.

Officers also are offering the flu vaccine to inmates — the Douglas County Health Department shipped 65 vaccine kits to help bolster supplies, Myers said. To those already infected, nurses are offering and administering antiviral medications to try to stem symptoms.

The flu is in one of the four women’s housing units and six of the 25 male housing units.

“We book 50 new people a day,” Myers said, “so we’re trying to avoid putting healthy people in units where the flu is present.”

Myers said they’re also trying to limit the spread by having correctional officers wear masks and gloves; having kitchen staff deliver food to the sick only in designated, segregated areas; and by having the staff scrub and disinfect all surfaces. So far, three correctional officers have contracted the virus.

The virus has come at an inopportune time. Just as the rest of the country is preparing to celebrate the holidays, jails typically see an uptick in visitors.

Though the jail offers no in-person visits with families, corrections officials are nonetheless encouraging visitors to wash their hands as they use video monitors to talk to their loved ones.

And then there’s court. Douglas County — which has veterans court and drug court — has effectively set up Flu Bug Court. Myers said officials are trying to hold court in the jail courtroom for sick inmates at a different time than they do for healthy ones.

And they’re asking attorneys to conference with their clients via videophone.

Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley said the flu has put a bit of a crimp in his attorneys’ ability to get clients in for bail reviews or early pleas that might get them home for the holidays. The jail is requiring a court order for any transport to the courthouse; some court officials are reluctant to bring over defendants for fear the bug will spread to the courthouse, Riley said.

“I’m comfortable that Myers and his staff are doing the best they can,” he said. “It sounds like it’s a nasty strain they’re dealing with.”

Notable crime news of 2019

2 million people don't have any running water, nonprofits say

SWEETWATER, Navajo Nation — On a good day, when the breeze is up and Apache County's rutted red-clay roads are passable, Legena Wagner's family drives 45 minutes to fill water containers at a windmill pump.

In the days that follow, Wagner dispenses their contents sparingly: half a cup for her 5-year-old to brush his teeth; a couple of pints, well heated, to wash dishes in the decorative enamel bowl on her kitchen table; and about 10 gallons, measured out to last a week, for bathing.

"Running water, it would be such a luxury," Wagner said, pausing to describe how different her life would be if she didn't have to trek outside, past the empty plastic buckets and the rootling pigs, to the outhouse with its majestic views across northeast Arizona's snow-skimmed plateaus. Wagner is one of more than 2 million Americans who do not have running water and sanitation, according to a report released by two national nonprofit organizations last month. According to the report, Native American households are 19 timesmore likely than white households to lack indoor plumbing; black and Latino households are twice as likely.

Researchers also found an urban-rural divide. While the lead-contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, highlighted the perils of aging infrastructure in the nation's cities, rural communities face special challenges, often lacking the economies of scale to upgrade systems and the local expertise to operate them. The situation is so dire in parts of rural America that experts liken it to the developing world.

"The cultures are different, but the experiences are similar," said Brett Gleitsmann, a water supply and sanitation engineer with the Rural Community Assistance Corp. who worked on projects in Africa and south Asia before coming to Native American lands. "Always people are hauling water — from a well, from a relative who has water or a public water station."

The United States does not have a comprehensive means of tracking the number of people living without piped water, according to George McGraw, founder and CEO of the nonprofit DigDeep.

Harder still is to calculate how many people cannot afford water even if they can access it, said Radhika Fox, CEO of the U.S. Water Alliance, a policy-focused nonprofit group that partnered with DigDeep to produce the report, called "Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States."

"That number is much larger than 2 million," she said.

The report was produced by collating federal data sets, including 2014 data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey, which asks a small representative sample of residents whether they have running water.

DigDeep and the U.S. Water Alliance identified six communities with poor access to running water and wastewater services, including the Navajo Nation, and spent more than a year assessing how their lives are affected.

In the Navajo Nation, the country's largest reservation, where water has long been held sacred, about onethird of the population of more than 300,000 does not have a tap or flushing toilet.

Its cultural importance echoes in the place names- Lake Valley, Whippoorwill Springs, Indian Wells.

Here in Sweetwater, 15 miles south of Interstate 160 on largely dirt roads, the spring water was known for its bracing mineral taste.

But the springs no longer flow— one of several changes that residents of this drought-prone region attribute to climate change and environmental degradation.

The seeps that used to ooze up before daybreak to refresh grazing sheep and goats have disappeared.

Rains that once sustained apricots, corn and squash have been replaced by occasional downpours that race through the empty creek beds. And the winter snows no longer cloak the high desert with the thick, moist blankets Wagner's grandfather recalls.

Those who drive miles to windmills, often carrying matches and wood to light fires below the wells' frozen spigots, may draw water that is not safe. Many water sources across the Nava- jo Nation are marked with signs warning of contamination, some with naturally occurring toxins such as arsenic, some with uranium and other byproducts of the mining industry.

"A lot of people still drink from those wells," said Jordan Begaye, who had a summer job painting "For livestock use only" on them.

That's despite extensive public education efforts, according to Yolanda Barney, environmental program manager for the Navajo Nation's Public Water System Supervision Program.

Wagner supplements her supplies with bottled water from a grocery store an hour away.

Efforts to bring clean water to remote households have been marked by ambitious aims and setbacks.

Federal funding for water infrastructure has dropped to a fraction ofwhat it was in the 1970s after the passage of the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts, with the federal government setting national standards for water quality that the states were responsible for implementing. These days, the available funding is largely loan-based, requiring repayments that can be crippling for small communities.

The American Water Works Association estimates that maintaining and expanding the country's water systems will cost $1 trillion over the next 25 years. The Indian Health Service has put a price tag of $200 million for providing water and sanitation in the Navajo Nation.

In a rare bipartisan move, the House and Senate recently introduced legislation to establish pilot programs designed to assist low-income residents in paying for water and sewage.

"It's a very new concept," said Nathan Gardner-Andrews, chief advocacy officer for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. He warned, "It is going to take a while."

That's because political wrangling is only the first step in a process that people here describe as frustratingly slow.

People have their hopes raised by big projects, said Cindy Howe, a longtime community leader who now works as a field operations manager for DigDeep.

"It all sounds so good," she said. "But will it happen?"

Sasse pushes for tougher U.S. response to violence in northern Mexico

WASHINGTON — Violence in Mexico has risen to record levels, and the country’s overall murder rate is now about six times that in the U.S.

“Those are borderline war zone numbers,” Sen. Ben Sasse said in an interview Friday.

The Nebraska lawmaker recently joined several fellow Republican senators in a effort to goose the U.S. government into a more aggressive response to the situation, which is particularly intense in northern Mexico near the U.S. border.

Their legislative proposals include expanding the authority of law enforcement to treat violent drug cartels more like terrorist organizations, in part by targeting family members of those in the organizations, freezing assets and barring entry to the country.

Sasse compared that approach to tactics used after the Sept. 11 attacks, when U.S. authorities discovered that family members of terrorists were funneling money to Osama bin Laden’s affiliates.

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This year’s violence in Mexico has been shocking, vividly illustrated by the grisly massacre of nine American women and children in northern Mexico last month.

In the wake of those killings, President Donald Trump raised the prospect of designating the cartels as terrorist organizations but ran into objections from Mexico, which has complained about the prospect of unilateral U.S. action.

Sasse said that he is aligned with Trump on the ultimate goal of stopping the violence but that there remains some inertia among the bureaucracy.

He hopes that the legislation can help spur action. Sasse was also sharply critical of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has stressed the importance of addressing underlying issues such as poverty.

Sasse said that kind of nonconfrontational strategy is clearly not working.

He pointed to this week’s arrest of a former top Mexican anti-drug official accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes from the cartel formerly run by notorious drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

That should be a “scandal of epic proportions in Mexico City,” but it has been shrugged off by Obrador, Sasse said.

“There’s no urgency in Mexico City about this,” he said. “ ‘Hugs not guns’ is just an absolutely insane way to tackle cartels that are in a semiautonomous region of Mexico right now.”

Meet the Nebraska state senators

86 Omaha-area homeless people who died this year remembered for light they 'brought into the world'

They were sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.

Some were high school athletes. Some were combat veterans.

Like anyone, they had hopes and fears and first kisses. They were human beings.

There were 86 of them in total, the people from the Omaha metro area who died this year while experiencing homelessness.

On Friday night, their friends, family and the people who helped them during times of need gathered at the Siena Francis House to grieve and remember.

Through song and speech and prayer, attendees memorialized those who may not have received a proper funeral. Volunteers wearing the names of those who died lit 86 candles in their honor.

The Rev. Chuck Cornwell said the candles represented more than remembrance: “They represent the light that these people brought into the world.”


Tim Burns appears to pray during a memorial service for the homeless at the Siena Francis House on Friday. Through song, speech and prayer, the service honored the 86 people in the metro area who died this year while experiencing homelessness.

Cornwell felt the warmth of that light firsthand through his relationship with Tom Gavin, one of the people who died this year. Gavin’s life wasn’t easy, Cornwell said. He experienced traumas in childhood, during his time as a member of the U.S. Army and later in life.

Gavin eventually found his way to the Siena Francis House, where he met Cornwell, a licensed mental health practitioner. Cornwell said he feels privileged to have been invited into a “sacred space” with Gavin, one in which the man was able to find healing for his pain.

Gavin eventually left the shelter and, for a time, found supportive housing where he “became a support to those around him,” Cornwell said.

Those who experience homelessness often don’t have safety nets, said Tim Sully, the shelter’s development director. They may not have family or friends who can help them when times get tough.

When they die, Sully said, their deaths may go unnoticed.

That’s why community groups like the Siena Francis House hold such ceremonies, which occur nationally near Dec. 21 — the longest night of the year.

The ceremony is an act of humanity.

“The Siena Francis House has long held a philosophy of acceptance and hospitality,” Sully said, “and what undergirds that is knowing that people are important, that they deserve respect and dignity as human beings.”

A roundup of inspirational stories from Midlanders with heart