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Ricketts will lift elective surgery ban May 4, consider loosening social distancing rules by June

LINCOLN — Nebraska took a first, small step toward relaxing coronavirus restrictions Monday, with Gov. Pete Ricketts announcing that elective surgeries will be allowed to resume in two weeks, under certain conditions.

The conditions? That hospitals have sufficient beds and ventilators to deal with coronavirus patients.

The governor said that overall, Nebraska’s hospitals have so far had sufficient intensive care space and personal protective equipment for workers to deal with the pandemic, which had produced 1,648 confirmed cases in the state as of noon Monday. Statewide, 190 people were hospitalized with the virus on Monday, with 47 of them in the Omaha area, which has plenty of health care capacity, Ricketts said.

“At the end of the day, all of this is about not overwhelming the health care system,” he said.

Later Monday afternoon, Ricketts said on a Fox News talk show that by May or June, he will consider loosening social distancing guidelines in Nebraska.

“But we’ll still be living with social distancing for quite some time,” he added.

Ricketts, when asked at his press conference what he would tell those who are protesting coronavirus restrictions, said that in times of emergency — “and we’re in one” — states clearly have the power to take “extreme measures.” He called the current restrictions “a temporary, short-term thing” that will keep people safe.

Under Ricketts’ announcement on elective surgeries, hospitals could resume such surgeries on May 4 if they have 30% of overall beds available, as well as 30% of intensive care beds and 30% of ventilators. The facilities also must have a two-week supply of protective equipment.

At least one hospital, the one in Grand Island, the state’s coronavirus hot spot, would not qualify, the governor said, because 14 of its 16 ICU beds were occupied as of Monday. But in Douglas, Sarpy and Washington Counties, only 24% of the ventilators were in use, and only 47% of the area’s hospital beds were occupied.

The governor’s announcement also frees up dental and veterinarian offices to resume nonelective procedures, as well as eye care facilities and ambulatory surgery centers. The current restrictions, he said, were hurting the facilities financially, as well as delaying surgeries that, while elective, were needed.

Ricketts also announced a relaxation of the requirements to get a test for COVID-19, which he said should increase testing here.

Now physicians can make the call on whether someone needs to be tested; previously, tests had been reserved for those who had traveled to coronavirus hot spots or who were in the vicinity of someone who had tested positive, and for health care workers and first responders deemed most likely to contract the virus.

The change comes as Nebraska has lagged behind its neighboring states in testing. But the governor said Monday that he’s optimistic that one hurdle — a lack of reagent to perform the tests — will soon be overcome.

Ricketts made the announcement during his daily briefing about the coronavirus outbreak as Nebraska saw a new hot spot of disease emerge.

Dawson County, home to Lexington and a large meatpacking plant, reported 172 coronavirus cases as of 5:30 p.m. Monday, the third-highest total in the state, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

Hall County, where Grand Island is, still has the most cases of any county in the state, with 531 as of Monday afternoon, and Douglas County — the state’s largest county — had 299 as of Monday afternoon, according to state figures.

Ricketts’ other coronavirus comments:

  • The state received about 2,000 COVID-19 test results over the weekend, which shows that testing is expanding in Nebraska. He said the federal government recently gave Nebraska “some ideas” on how to expand testing, including information on the labs in the state that have the equipment to do tests.
  • To help improve communication with non-English speakers, the governor will be hosting a press conference in Spanish at 5 p.m. Tuesday. It will be live-streamed at facebook.com/GovernorPeteRicketts.
  • On 4/20 — a day on which marijuana advocates rally for legalization — Ricketts and Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical officer, issued warnings that smoking or vaping pot or tobacco can complicate the ability to diagnose COVID-19 and decrease your ability to fight it off.

Anthone, who is a surgeon, said quitting even for two weeks before a surgery can help clear up your lungs. Smoking inflames the air passages in the lungs, he said.

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

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Pair accused in plot to firebomb Nebraska pharmacy peddled products on Kathy Ireland infomercial

The duo who federal agents say planned to firebomb a small-town Nebraska pharmacy had another venture just before that plot.

A few months before Hyrum Wilson of Nebraska and William Burgamy IV of Virginia had their sights on a competing pharmacy in Auburn, the two hoped something else would blow up: interest in Wilson’s fledgling skin care lotion line.

The way they tried to increase the skin care line’s exposure: by apparently paying for a 10-minute infomercial with supermodel Kathy Ireland.

In the infomercial, which resembles a “Saturday Night Live” parody, the two appeared on Ireland’s “Modern Living” YouTube channel in March 2019.

On a couch 5 feet from Kathy Ireland, spreading the gospel of his scar cream: Wilson.

At a bathroom sink, spreading lotion on his face: Burgamy.

The two and Burgamy’s mom, Lisa, espouse the miracles of “an oil that is extracted from a seed of a Pracaxi tree in the Amazon rainforest.”

Wilson then took Ireland, with her permanent smile, through the genesis of Scargenix. How his wife helped fund his way through Creighton University pharmacy school. (Wilson himself worked at an Omaha Walgreen’s for 10 years, before and during pharmacy school.)

How, in return for his wife’s support in helping him open his first business — Hyrum’s Family Value Pharmacy in Auburn — he vowed to create this product to help people with stretch marks and other scars.

“They’ve been using it down in Brazil for many centuries,” Wilson says of the oil.

In turn, he put it in his online-only skin care line, Scargenix.

Scargenix apparently didn’t go gangbusters. So, federal prosecutors allege, Wilson and Burgamy soon turned to a different online venture: NeverPressedRx.

According to two federal criminal complaints: From August 2019 through April, Wilson, 41, supplied Burgamy, 32, with thousands of painkillers that Burgamy then turned around and sold, without a prescription, on the Darknet, the Internet’s shadowy cousin. As demand increased, prosecutors allege, Wilson and Burgamy hatched Operation Firewood — a plot in which Wilson would burglarize his only competitor in Auburn, Cody’s U-Save pharmacy. After stealing painkillers from there, Wilson would then firebomb it with Molotov cocktails.

That way, Wilson would have all of Auburn’s business and federal regulators wouldn’t become suspicious of any increase in his distribution of painkillers.

“If we could somehow get access to an unlimited amount, Hyrum, we would be able to retire,” Burgamy texted Wilson, according to prosecutors.

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At another point, Burgamy shared a picture of the masks that he and a purported third accomplice would wear to ransack Cody’s pharmacy.

Now, instead of sharing a couch with Ireland, Wilson and Burgamy are in jail awaiting trial over the scheme.

During the 10-minute infomercial, Wilson talked about a different kind of mask: a hydration facial made of Amazon jungle juice.

It gets even better.

Burgamy claims in the video to have been in a car accident 10 years ago, one that left a scar on his face. (Photos from his Facebook page in 2012 show no visible facial scars.)

That didn’t stop Burgamy from proclaiming the lotion a miracle cure. While staring into a mirror and rubbing lotion on his cheek, Burgamy sings the praises of how the lotion is light compared with others he’s put on his face.

“I’ve been using it for about 45 days now, and the lines have completely blended in with my skin tone,” Burgamy said. “And you can’t even see it anymore.”

As for Wilson, the chemistry between him and the supermodel wasn’t exactly natural, such as when Ireland asked him: “Hyrum, can you tell us about the Immacuderm Radiance Restored Collection?”

Visibly nervous, Wilson seemed to swallow hard with his answer. “Absolutely. As with most of my good ideas, this one came from my wife.”

At two different points, a random camera guy walked through the background with a sound guy behind him, perhaps to give a sense of the bustle of Ireland’s infomercial business. Among other businesses featured on the supermodel’s YouTube channel: Jewelry. Pet food. A dollar store. A food-waste disposal manufacturer.

As for scar disposal, Wilson told Ireland that skin care is a “very hard industry” that boils down to trust.

“If I ask somebody to put a product on their face, they’re gonna have to trust you that it’s going to do what it says it’s going to do,” Wilson said. “I was getting to the point where I thought you know, maybe, maybe, I was wrong — maybe this is not something that people are really that interested in ... I (eventually) realized this is, this is helping people.”

Random people like William Burgamy IV.

“I’ve already recommended it to my mother,” Burgamy said, eyeballing the camera. “So I think if I were to recommend it to my mother, I would pretty much recommend it to anybody.”

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Meatpacking plants are Nebraska's newest battleground in war against coronavirus

Coronavirus cases are emerging at several more meatpacking plants across Nebraska as workers in rural communities like Madison, Lexington and Dakota County become infected.

“We’re worried this is getting worse fast,” said Darcy Tromanhauser, immigrants and communities program director at advocacy group Nebraska Appleseed. “We need to be getting ahead of this.”

Coronavirus cases are spiking in Hall, Adams, Dawson and Dakota Counties, areas with large meat processing employers like Tyson Foods and JBS USA.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday that more than 2,000 coronavirus test results came back over the weekend. Almost half of those who tested positive lived in either Hall or Dawson County. Officials have warned that cases will naturally rise as more people are tested.

Roughly 237 confirmed cases in the Grand Island area are tied to the JBS plant, the local health director said. That's a worrisome trend — just over two weeks ago, on April 3, only 10 JBS workers had tested positive. 

Outbreaks, if they are not contained, threaten workers, the communities where they live and the food supply chain, including farmers and grocery stores. Plants that employ thousands of workers and slaughter thousands of cattle, hogs and chickens have temporarily closed in states such as Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota after workers became sick and several died.

In a Facebook Live chat Sunday night, Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical officer, said Nebraska’s current hot spots are typically associated with large manufacturing facilities, primarily meat processing operations.

He believes that coronavirus clusters at nursing homes and long-term care facilities are slowly being extinguished. Outbreaks at meatpacking plants are the emerging problem.

“If there’s one thing that might keep me up at night, it’s the meat processing plants and manufacturing plants,” he said.

Cases have risen sharply in three Nebraska counties with meatpacking plants in the last 10 days.

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Hall County, home to Grand Island, has the most coronavirus cases in Nebraska, with 531 as of Monday. Dawson County counted 172, behind only Hall and the much more populous Douglas County, dominated by Omaha.

At least eight workers at the Tyson pork plant in Madison have tested positive, the Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health Department reported on Monday.

An undisclosed number have tested positive in Omaha-area facilities and the Tyson beef plant in Lexington, in Dawson County. A Tyson Fresh Meats executive confirmed cases at a Dakota City plant in an interview with a local TV station.

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department said a person who lives there but works at the Smithfield pork plant in Crete has COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

That’s in addition to previously reported cases at the JBS beef plant and McCain frozen appetizer plant in Grand Island, the Costco chicken plant in Fremont — which reported a total of six cases on Monday — and the Western Reserve processing center in Hastings. Twenty-six Western Reserve workers had tested positive as of Sunday, plus four food inspectors who have since recovered.

The Nebraska National Guard has been sent to Grand Island, Hastings, Madison and Lexington to swab people for testing.

“If food processing facilities continue to shut down, the meat supply in this country will rapidly dwindle,” said Jessica Kolterman, spokeswoman for Lincoln Premium Poultry, which runs the Fremont chicken plant. “We are working hard to implement interventions to prevent that from happening.”

Working from home is not an option at these facilities, and the demands of the fast-moving production line make social distancing difficult, too. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of workers in shifts slaughter animals and slice and package meat standing nearly elbow-to-elbow.

In Nebraska, many of these workers are Latino, Sudanese, Somali or Burmese, and officials say they must do a better job of translating health news and alerts into languages like Spanish and Arabic.

In places like Lexington, population 10,000, it is difficult to decipher whether the virus is spreading inside the plant, where 2,800 people work, or if workers testing positive have contracted the virus out in the community, said Jeremy Eschliman, director of the Two Rivers Public Health Department.

Tyson, Smithfield Foods, JBS and other plants say the companies have instituted extensive safety precautions, installing clear plastic dividers in cafeteria and common areas, giving workers masks and taking temperatures before shifts.

Ricketts said Shelly Schwedhelm, executive director of emergency management and biopreparedness at Nebraska Medicine, is touring plants and giving companies pointers on infection control.

Some employers are paying higher hourly rates or bonuses for good attendance. Lincoln Premium Poultry is offering paid leave for workers over 65 who fear being exposed to the virus at work. At some plants, absence rates have climbed as worried workers call in sick.

Workers’ advocates say that these steps aren’t enough and that the growing number of cases proves it.

Gladys Godinez lives in Lexington and is a community organizer for the Center for Rural Affairs. Tyson workers have complained to her about inconsistent temperature checks and dividers that weren’t installed on the production line until Monday. The workers who have COVID-19 are finding it difficult to arrange testing for their family members who have been exposed, she said.

Some want to see the plant shut down for two or three weeks to get a handle on the outbreak, while others fear being out of work if production stops.

“We know they’re working paycheck to paycheck and trying to earn their living, eat, pay rent,” Godinez said. “(Tyson has) the capacity, they can pay them sick time, they can choose to protect their workers, but they’re choosing not to at this moment.”

Tromanhauser, of Nebraska Appleseed, said spacing out workers in the cafeteria doesn’t matter much if they’re not standing 6 or more feet apart on the production line.

“No one is saying don’t produce food, but we have to find a way to produce food that distances people and keeps them safe, otherwise food production is going to stop,” she said.

The Elkhorn Logan Valley Health Department received more testing kits through the state and decided that Tyson workers and their families in Madison should be tested. Local and corporate Tyson officials were initially supportive, the Health Department said in a Monday press release.

Late last week, Tyson apparently changed its mind, with an executive writing to the Health Department to say the plant would not provide a list of workers’ names for testing, the release said.

The department has requested that Tyson take a number of preventive steps, including letting high-risk workers who are older or have underlying health conditions stay home without losing their jobs, providing masks to be worn at all times, and screening workers for symptoms before they enter the plant and during the middle of their shift.

A Tyson spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In an update Monday night, the Health Department said that it met with local Tyson managers Monday and that “we are confident in the progress that was achieved.”

Iowa officials are asking businesses to tell them when 10% of their workers are absent or have confirmed coronavirus cases. This includes meatpacking plants, food and beverage plants and other warehouses, said Sarah Reisetter, the deputy director of the Iowa Department of Public Health.

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“What we’re seeing is confirming what we know about the virus, it spreads easily in places where people are close together,” she said.

Anthone said Nebraska has been tracking cases at nursing facilities, but not meatpacking plants.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said that Iowa farmers provide a third of the nation’s pork supply and that if plants can’t function, farmers may be forced to euthanize their hogs, which would affect prices and food supply.

“These processing plants are essential, and these workers are an essential workforce,” Reynolds said, adding that plants operating with fewer workers would be better than shutting down the operation entirely. “We must do our part to keep them open in a safe and responsible way.”

World-Herald staff writer Alia Conley contributed to this report.

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

Ricketts sticks to coronavirus plan as Hall, Dawson Counties emerge as national hot spots

Gov. Pete Ricketts continued to stay the course on his coronavirus plan Monday even as the state has become home to two of the nation’s biggest hot spots for the virulent virus.

Hall and Dawson Counties in Nebraska are among a number of major meatpacking communities across the Great Plains that have emerged as hotbeds for the spread of COVID-19.

A similar outbreak in Black Hawk County in northeast Iowa last week prompted Gov. Kim Reynolds to step in, effectively imposing a regional shelter-in-place order. The Iowa Republican’s emergency proclamation decreed that residents could gather only with people who live in their household, and it told businesses to keep all but essential workers home.

Ricketts on Monday said he had no plans to alter the state’s social distancing requirements, even on a regional basis.

“I really don’t know that you necessarily get a lot from the shelter in place,” Ricketts said.

The governor still judges the success of Nebraska’s pandemic plan on whether hospitals are being overwhelmed. As of Monday, the hospital in Hall County seat Grand Island still had two open beds in its 16-bed intensive care unit, with 12 of the beds filled by coronavirus patients.

The fast-rising figures in Hall and Dawson Counties have quickly and dramatically altered the face of the coronavirus pandemic in Nebraska. The state has seen a 155% spike in cases in the last 10 days — the third-highest growth in the U.S.

As recently as April 9, the state ranked 48th among the states in coronavirus cases per capita. But as of Monday, it had moved up to 34th. And it figures to move up even more as daily numbers in many states fall off to a point there’s talk of removing stay-at-home orders and other distancing restrictions.

The vast majority of Nebraska’s growth has been fueled by Hall and Dawson Counties, which together account for almost 60% of the state’s recent new cases.

Just since April 8, Hall has seen cases grow from 69 to 531 and Dawson from one to 172. Dakota County, another major meatpacking center, is also emerging as a troubling area, in that time going from zero cases to 69.

Hall and Dawson also are beginning to stand out nationally.

According to a World-Herald analysis of national data, among counties with at least 100 cases, Dawson as of Monday morning was No. 2 in percentage growth in the past 10 days — barely behind a rural Kansas county.

Hall was 13th, three spots ahead of a meatpacking county in South Dakota that has garnered much national attention for its huge outbreak. Three Iowa counties also cracked the top 15.

Indeed, the meatpacking industry appears to be a major driver in many of the hot spots. A number of the counties topping the list are farm-country centers of food production and food processing.

Many of those counties are also in states where governors have declined to issue statewide stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders, including Plains states Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota.

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Both Ricketts and Reynolds moved early on in the pandemic to limit public gatherings to 10 people, close schools and shut down bars, restaurants and some other businesses. But they declined more restrictive statewide measures, even as most other states adopted them.

Late last week, however, Reynolds did issue an order covering 14 counties in northeast Iowa after an outbreak that appeared to center on a Waterloo meatpacking plant. The outbreak helped raise the score for the region to a level that, under Reynolds’ planning matrix, called for more restrictions.

Her proclamation amounted to a regional shelter-in-place order. It barred all social and leisure gatherings other than those involving people who live in the same household. She called on law enforcement officers to assist in enforcing the restriction.

And it required all employers to evaluate whether any more of their employees could work remotely and then take steps to get them to work from home.

Two weeks ago as the Grand Island outbreak was just getting started, the city’s mayor, the local health district director and the city’s medical community said a two-week stay-at-home order could help the community. Some 45 doctors signed a letter asking the governor for more restrictive measures.

Ricketts maintained at the time such measures weren’t necessary.

Now the cases are firing up elsewhere, too.

“I think you’re going to see these numbers rise and skyrocket and potentially surpass Grand Island,” said Gladys Godinez, a community organizer with the Center for Rural Affairs who lives in Lexington.

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, who has called for a statewide stay-at-home order, said the right time to act in Grand Island was before it became one of the nation’s biggest coronavirus hotbeds. But she said something still needs to be done.

“Anything the governor would do would be better than what he’s doing now,” she said. “Even a regional stay-in-place for Dawson and Hall would be better.”

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While that might not be politically popular, she said, sometimes a politician needs to take heat for things that must be done.

Ricketts acknowledged Monday he has heard calls for more restrictions, but he also hears from those who feel it’s time to lift those already in place.

“There are two sides to that story,” he said.

He also noted that states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Colorado with shelter-in-place orders have still experienced outbreaks in their food-processing facilities. In all states, such plants are considered essential industries that must operate to keep the nation fed.

Rather than issuing new orders, Ricketts said he’s working with the meatpacking plants to try to limit the spread. He’s still convinced that his approach, based in collaboration and voluntary action, will get Nebraska through the pandemic.

“What we need is people to follow the (current) rules,” he said. “And that’s what we’re working on, is to get people to follow the rules.”

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus