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National
CDC warns Americans to prepare for possible coronavirus outbreak, saying 'this might be bad'

ATLANTA — A coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. is not a question of if but when, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

“The coronavirus outbreak is rapidly evolving and spreading,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “Cases are appearing worldwide without a known source of exposure, and successful containment at U.S. borders is becoming problematic.’’

“There is no vaccine or drug available to treat it,” Messonnier said during a media conference call.

Before the call, Messonnier recounted a conversation with her children Tuesday morning, in which she said the family should prepare for a possibly significant disruption to their lives as a result of the outbreak.

There are 57 cases in the United States as of Tuesday. Most are believed to be mild.

President Donald Trump requested $2.5 billion that he said will prepare the nation in case of a U.S. outbreak, as well as help other nations unprepared to handle the threat. The White House budget office said the money would be used for vaccine development, treatment and protective equipment.

Early Wednesday, the U.S. military said an American soldier in South Korea had tested positive for the virus.

The Dow Jones industrial average sank 879 points Tuesday as investors absorbed increasingly worrisome forecasts about the coronavirus. Tuesday brought the Dow’s two-day swoon to more than 1,900 points — the worst two-day percentage loss in two years.

“We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad,” Messonnier said.

Schools, child care centers, workplaces and other places for mass gatherings may experience more absenteeism. Public health and health care systems may become overloaded, with elevated rates of hospitalizations and deaths, the CDC warned.

In other developments:

New outbreaks

New clusters of the illness popped up far from China, causing increased concerns for officials in some of the wealthiest nations in Europe and Asia, as well as in countries with far fewer resources. But many remained uncertain about how best to contain it.

The new outbreaks were reported in places as far-flung as Italy and Iran, France and Algeria, and Spain’s Canary Islands. The Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain said it had 17 cases, including a school bus driver who had transported students as recently as Sunday.

In Iran, the head of the country’s virus task force, who just a day earlier had urged the public not to overreact about the spread of the disease, tested positive himself. The official, Iraj Harirchi, posted a new video online, promising that authorities would bring the virus under control within weeks.

But a ministry spokesman, Kianoush Jahanpour, said it could take at least until the Persian New Year’s holiday on March 20, or as long as late April, to contain the disease.

“We don’t expect a miracle in the short term,” he said.

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South Korea

Officials in South Korea said they were racing to contain an outbreak that has grown to nearly 1,000 cases.

“It’s a matter of speed and time: We must create a clear turning point within this week,” President Moon Jae-in said. In the largest cluster, in the city of Daegu and nearby towns, many shops remained closed Tuesday and activity in some neighborhoods came to a near standstill.

On a U.S. military base in Daegu, the center of infections in South Korea, officials said a 61-year-old widow of a U.S. service member had been infected. And a 23-year-old U.S. soldier who had visited the Daegu base became the first American service member to test positive. 

Numbers still climbing

The virus’s toll continued to mount, even as Chinese officials reported a slowing in the number of new cases. As of Tuesday, the spread of the illness had sickened some 80,000 people worldwide and caused about 2,700 deaths. The vast majority of those infections remain in China.

Fatality rate

The World Health Organization said the fatality rate was between 2% and 4% in Wuhan and 0.7% elsewhere in China.

Dr. Bruce Aylward, the WHO envoy who led a team just back from China, told reporters Tuesday the reason for the large discrepancy was partly because the disease hit Wuhan early and fast, when “people didn’t know what we were dealing with (and) were learning how to treat this.”

At the beginning of the outbreak, “people were finding severe disease, that’s why the alarm bell went off,” Aylward said. But now with more aggressive testing, mild cases are being diagnosed and isolated.

Still, he expressed frustration at people saying, “ ‘Oh, the mortality rate’s not so bad because there’s way more mild cases.’ Sorry, the same number of people that were dying still die.”

Europe

In Italy’s north, where more than 200 people were sickened, a dozen towns were sealed off and police wearing face masks patrolled. Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza huddled in Rome with counterparts from bordering countries — France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia — as well as with those from Germany and Croatia, two countries whose citizens are among frequent visitors to Italy. Among the shared points of view emerging from the meeting, Speranza told reporters, was this one: “Closing borders is inappropriate” as a response. Italian officials reported 322 cases of the virus, including 11 deaths.

Croatia and Austria reported their first cases of the virus. And an Italian doctor staying at a hotel in the Canary Islands tested positive for the virus, prompting the quarantine of hundreds of guests.

Croatia, Hungary and Ireland advised against traveling to Italy’s affected area, one of a number of government moves seeking to limit further exposure.

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Washington Post.

Photos: More people potentially exposed to coronavirus flown to Nebraska

Health
UNMC starts clinical trial on possible coronavirus treatment

Andre Kalil

The University of Nebraska Medical Center has begun the first clinical trial in the United States of an experimental treatment for the new coronavirus.

The first participant to enroll in the trial is an American who was brought to the UNMC campus after being evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan. The person volunteered to participate.

The participant is among 15 people from the ship who are under quarantine at UNMC — 13 in the National Quarantine Unit and two in the separate Nebraska Biocontainment Unit.

The first 13 arrived in Omaha on Feb. 17. The 14th landed Monday after being transferred from an Air Force installation near San Antonio. And a 15th arrived Tuesday night from California.

Clinical trial participants will be cared for in the biocontainment unit.

The trial is being sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. Plans call for enrolling nearly 400 patients in the trial at 50 sites worldwide, said Dr. Andre Kalil, who is leading the trial at UNMC.

Clinical trials of the drug, an antiviral called remdesivir, also are ongoing in China, the center of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

The NIH-sponsored trial, in fact, is similar in design to one Kalil and other UNMC researchers helped devise for a different drug targeting Ebola virus disease during the waning days of the 2014 outbreak in Africa.

That Ebola drug trial, in turn, was essential to the development of a more recent NIH-sponsored trial that has found two new drugs to be effective against Ebola.

Researchers demonstrated during those trials that they could conduct clinical trials during the middle of outbreaks and adapt them as they sought to find the best treatments for patients.

All of that is helping researchers understand how to better respond during outbreaks, said Kalil, a professor at UNMC and infectious diseases physician with Nebraska Medicine.

“I think it’s fair to say that in the United States, this is probably the most rapid (clinical) trial initiation we’ve seen in American history,” he said. “The trial was just designed a few weeks ago in NIH, and we’re able to bring the trial here and get started right away, in a matter of weeks.”

Launching such complex trials typically takes months. “We don’t have the luxury of time,” he said. “We have to really get these drugs tested early.”

UNMC and Nebraska Medicine, its clinical partner, are the first to launch the trial because of their experience in biopreparedness, the researchers’ involvement with infectious diseases and the existence of the biocontainment unit on campus.

The trial’s design means it can be adapted to other treatments. If remdesivir is working, it can be used as a control to compare the effectiveness of the next drug to come along.

“There’s basically almost an unlimited (number) of medications that can be tested” with this design, he said.

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved any specific treatments for people with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“We urgently need a safe and effective treatment for COVID-19,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on its website Tuesday that more cases of COVID-19 are likely to be identified in the coming days, including more cases in the United States. It’s also likely that person-to-person spread will continue to occur, including in the U.S.

Widespread transmission of COVID-19 in the U.S., the CDC said, would translate into large numbers of people needing medical care at the same time. Schools, child care centers, workplaces and other places for mass gatherings may experience more absenteeism. Public health and health care systems may become overloaded, with elevated rates of hospitalizations and deaths.

Fauci noted the antiviral drug has been administered to some patients with the condition. But researchers do not have solid data to indicate that it can improve patient outcomes.

“A randomized, placebo-controlled trial is the gold standard for determining whether an experimental treatment can benefit patients,” he said.

The drug previously has been tested in humans with Ebola virus disease and has shown promise in animals for treating Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. MERS and SARS are caused by other coronaviruses.

Participants in an NIH-sponsored trial must have a laboratory-confirmed infection with the new coronavirus and evidence of lung involvement, including abnormal chest X-rays; rattling sounds when breathing, with a need for supplemental oxygen; or illness requiring mechanical ventilation.

Those with confirmed infection who have mild, coldlike symptoms or no apparent symptoms will not be included in the study, the NIH said.

NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES-ROCKY MOUNTAIN LABORATORIES 

This image from a scanning electron microscope shows the novel coronavirus (the round objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. This coronavirus causes the disease known as COVID-19. The virus shown was isolated from a patient in the U.S.

Kalil noted that between 80% and 90% of people with the disease have mild cases. It’s not advisable to treat them with intravenous drugs.

“The goal here is really trying to help the people that need it the most,” he said.

Eligible study participants will be randomly assigned to receive the experimental drug or a placebo. The study is double-blind, meaning researchers and participants won’t know who is receiving the drug or the placebo.

Either the drug or the placebo will be administered intravenously for the duration of hospitalization, for up to 10 days total.

Clinicians will monitor participants and assign them daily scores based on a scale that considers such factors as temperature, blood pressure and use of supplemental oxygen.

Participants also will be asked to provide blood samples and nose and throat swabs about every two days. Researchers will test those specimens for the coronavirus.

Initially, researchers will compare the outcomes of participants in both groups on day 15 to see whether those receiving the drug saw increased clinical benefits compared with those receiving the placebo.


A look back at the Nebraska Medical Center biocontainment unit’s Ebola patients

A look back at the Nebraska Medical Center biocontainment unit's Ebola patients

Local
'We did it, baby!': South Omaha skateboarders will ride once again in Lynch Park

Things move fast in the skateboarding world. Teenagers in South Omaha can tell you that.

On Monday morning, those young people awoke to find that the City of Omaha had removed homemade skate ramps from Lynch Park, prompting an outcry from skateboarders, community members and legendary skateboarder Tony Hawk.

By Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Jean Stothert made a commitment to them: The city will explore options for a permanent skate park in South Omaha. In the meantime, the city will install temporary ramps in the park at 20th and Dorcas Streets so that the teens can get back to practicing their kickflips.

Stothert said the city always is willing to work with people to address community needs. But the city had not been approached about a skate park in South Omaha until Tuesday morning, she said, when representatives of the Nebraska Skate Parks Council met with city leaders.

“If we would have known of the need and the want of a skate park in South Omaha, we certainly, the Parks Department, would have been more than happy to work with them,” Stothert said.

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The temporary equipment at Lynch Park could be installed within a month or so, Stothert said at a press conference in her office. The exact timeline will depend on what equipment the skaters want and whether the city has to complete any additional work at the site. City costs would be minimal, Parks and Recreation Director Brook Bench said.

The city also will evaluate sites in South Omaha for a permanent skate park, which may or may not end up in Lynch Park. The timeline on that will depend in part on where the park is built.

Brenton Gomez, a member of the Nebraska Skate Parks Council who met with the city, said he’s happy that the mayor saw the need for a skate park in South Omaha. On Tuesday afternoon, he hadn’t yet spoken with many of the teenagers who frequent the park, but he knew what he’d say to them.

“When I see the kids, I’ll tell them, ‘We did it, baby! We did it,’ ” said Gomez, 32.

The city removed the original ramps because the skateboarders, a group of teenagers and adults, had installed them on tennis courts at Lynch Park without city approval. Officials have said the ramps were dangerous, did not meet city standards and would have posed a liability had someone gotten hurt on them. The group had drilled some of them into the tennis courts.

After learning of the city’s plans to remove the equipment, the skateboarders gathered at the park Saturday to ramp up support.

The temporary equipment at the park will be approved and installed by the city, Bench said.

REECE RISTAU/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Douglas County Board member Mike Boyle addressed the skateboarders who were gathered at Omaha City Hall on Tuesday. Boyle said he supported their cause. He gave out his phone number and said he would work to help them. "A skateboard park really belongs at that park," Boyle said.

Lynch Park was donated to the city years ago, Stothert said. The city had planned to redevelop it until officials discovered contaminated soil, which delayed the process. The cleanup effort was completed recently.

The city now plans to move forward with a $5 million master plan to revitalize the park, adding a splash pad, walking trails, new playground equipment and sports fields. The plan is in the early stages and the city is working to raise private money to pay for much of it.

Planners will consider whether a permanent skate park can be configured into the Lynch Park plan. If not, the city will consider other sites.

The new permanent skate park would differ from the ones at Roberts Park and Seymour Smith Park, both of which have large in-ground bowls and other ramps that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Bench said.

The new spot would feature smaller equipment, which is what the skaters want, he said.

But keeping skating activities at Lynch Park is a priority for the skateboarders, Gomez said, many of whom live near 20th Street. The group had come to use the park as a place to gather, socialize and skate.

The park has experienced some vandalism and other problems, but Gomez and others have said much of it was not caused by the skateboarders. The group made and installed their own signs at the park telling people to be respectful and avoid littering.

Bench, Stothert and other city leaders will continue meeting with the skateboarders to work out the details of this new partnership. There are sure to be snags along the way.

But for now, Stothert said, “I think that we formed a good partnership with them today and we’re going to move forward.”


Weird World-Herald headlines from the archives that leave you wanting more

Weird World-Herald headlines from the archives that leave you wanting more

State_and_regional
College athletes closer to making money with bill backed by big-name Huskers

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers moved a step closer Tuesday to letting college athletes make money off their name, image or likeness.

Legislative Bill 962 cleared the first of three rounds of debate by a vote of 36-4. The measure has backing from some big-name former Husker athletes.

Two former Huskers — football player Jeremiah Sirles and basketball player Isaiah Roby — expressed support for the measure at a legislative hearing this month.

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, who introduced the bill and named it her priority, cast the issue as one of fairness. She said she wants college athletes to have the same freedom as their classmates to participate in the free market and earn money for their skills.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re the biggest star athlete at Nebraska or if they’re a DIII tennis player who just wants to give private lessons in the off-season,” she said. “Currently neither of them can earn a dime, and that’s not right.”

LB 962 is modeled after a California law passed last fall and joins a growing movement. At least 20 other states are considering bills to let student-athletes get a slice of the $14 billion college athletics industry.

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The bill would not require colleges or universities to pay student-athletes but would allow players to sign sponsorship deals, teach at a summer camp or hire an agent without being penalized by losing their athletic scholarship or amateur status under NCAA rules.

Under an amendment added to the bill, colleges would have to put the measure into effect by June 2023, but could do so earlier if they chose.

The bill conflicts with current NCAA regulations. However, the NCAA has begun the process of allowing student-athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness, and is crafting rules and specifics.

“People who work in athletics know that is an idea whose time has come,” Hunt said.

She praised Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha for being a national leader on paying college athletes. He has pushed for compensation for college athletes since the 1980s, arguing that others profit off of their hard work and talent.

Some senators expressed concerns about the measure, saying it would lead to bidding wars for top athletes. They also raised concerns that the bill would mostly benefit players in major sports at the biggest schools, leaving other athletes and other students behind.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha compared the bill to Citizens United, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that opened the door for corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on elections. He said it could lead to donors offering sponsorships and other opportunities to top recruits.

At the same time, he predicted athletes will be asking whether Nebraska allows them to make money while playing here. The bill would give Nebraska schools an advantage, at least until other states catch up.

“I really think this is a bad idea and I am going to vote for it,” Lathrop said.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, who cast one of the four votes against the bill, argued that players who want to make money in the free market could drop out of school to do so. He said the bill would allow athletes to ink deals with Iowa’s sports betting outlets.

“This young man or woman represents the state of Nebraska,” he said.

Lawmakers last year voted to amend a 2003 law sponsored by Chambers that allows Nebraska football players, and other athletes, to be provided a “stipend” by the university.

The original law stated that it would become operative only after at least four other states in the Big 12 Conference passed similar bills to pay players. Last year’s update changed the law to apply to the Big Ten Conference, which Nebraska joined in 2011.

Meet the Nebraska state senators