Gov. Pete Ricketts has signed an executive order allowing county election commission offices and county clerk's offices to close to in-person early voting for all but people with disabilities.
The challenge facing the Food Bank for the Heartland from this year’s coronavirus outbreak far exceeds the difficulties posed by last year’s historic flooding.
“It is absolutely a perfect storm, what we are facing,” said Brian Barks, president and CEO of Food Bank for the Heartland.
The Food Bank’s need has doubled while purchasing costs have risen almost tenfold as grocery stores donate half the food they normally do.
Usually, the Food Bank spends $73,000 per month to buy food. In March, the nonprofit spent $675,000.
Barks said April’s food and operational costs could top $1 million.
“While we can buy food, it takes longer for us to get it,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition out there for that food.”
The situation is similarly dire across the country. As public school systems shuttered, students who rely on receiving meals there were in many cases left in the lurch. Many churches, schools and community organizations that had once distributed food were forced to close. All of that has led to greater demand at food banks and pantries.
Even as donations of money have increased across the nation, many orders placed by food banks were canceled as suppliers struggled to keep up with panic-buying.
The Food Bank for the Heartland distributes food to 600 pantries, shelters and partners across Nebraska and western Iowa. It receives food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and buys it through Feeding America, which works with 200 food banks across the country.
Wednesday, Feeding America notified its food bank partners that half of the usual 50 vendors removed themselves from the donation program, Barks said. Normally, food banks can choose from among 1,000 food items, but the list is down to 600, including duplicate or undesirable foods, Barks said.
The Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church food pantry is one of the hundreds of smaller pantries that buys food from the Food Bank for the Heartland. While the pantry used to be “guest choice,” meaning attendees could shop and pick out their food, organizers now put various items in bags and distribute them to people.
The pantry is professionally sanitized twice a week, and volunteers wear homemade masks sewn by a church member, said Susann Henry, the director of the pantry.
So far, the pantry hasn’t seen a huge change in demand. It usually assists about 400 people, and it has been fortunate because donations from the congregation and food sources have been plentiful enough that it hasn’t had to turn anyone away.
“If (congregants) had to get the food out of their refrigerators, they wouldn’t be turned away,” Henry said.
The pantry usually is open Mondays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., but in light of the pandemic, organizers have added a Friday evening pickup time. Because the pantry isn’t open the day after Easter, Good Friday visitors received extra food to last the week.
The Food Bank’s 25 to 30 mobile pantry events are now drive-up, where volunteers give 28-pound packs of nonperishable food items, plus additional produce or bakery goods. They also provide grab-and-go breakfast and lunch for children at several schools across the metro area.
While Food Bank leaders appreciate volunteer help and food donations, Barks said, the organization can better stretch a dollar than a regular consumer can. One dollar can provide three individual meals, and the need is greater than ever, he said.
“Yes, we are grateful for food that comes to us by the grocery sack, but what we need right now is food by the semi,” he said. “This is statewide. Every county in Nebraska and every county in Iowa is experiencing the exact same thing. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the metro area or a rural community, we are giving the same message: We need more.”
To donate to the Food Bank for the Heartland, go to foodbankheartland.org.
This report includes material from the Washington Post.
Hazel Hanson usually has the whole brood over for Easter and Christmas, too, her seven kids and their spouses, 17 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren and 10 great-great-grandchildren.
Back in the day, before she had to go to the nursing home at the Douglas County Health Center, Hanson always made sure there were plenty of Swedish meatballs and ham and mashed potatoes and scalloped corn for everybody, and a brimming Easter basket for every child that they could top with goodies they garnered in an Easter egg hunt in the yard.
She and her husband, Duane, started the tradition when the grandkids started arriving. She continued it after he died, even after she hit her mid-80s and had to downsize from their house near 46th and Center Streets to an apartment. Grandma is in her glory when everyone gathers around.
They’ve continued the traditions after multiple strokes caused Hanson to move to the health center in 2018. Last year, her family brought the holidays to their 88-year-old matriarch at the nursing home.
For Easter, they put on a feast for their mom and grandma and her new friends at the health center, complete with an Easter egg hunt for the kids outside.
Even with visitors banned and nurses wearing masks at the health center, Hanson has been looking forward to another big family Easter this year. So the news hit hard when Hanson’s daughter Diane Rathbun had to break it to her.
“I told her ‘Mom, they canceled Easter this year,’ ” Rathbun said. “Then it got real quiet.”
After a long pause, Hanson said, “Well who the hell did that?”
Of course, Easter isn’t canceled. The religious holiday will still happen. Families can still observe it at home. They just can’t all gather like they’re used to doing. Hanson won’t be able to go to Easter services at her church, Kountze Memorial Lutheran. She can’t have the family all around. That’s especially tough on people in nursing homes and assisted living and their families, who haven’t been able to visit since early March, don’t know when they’ll be able to again and can’t be certain that they ever will.
That last thought is especially on the minds of people with frail family living at the Douglas County Health Center and other places that have been invaded by the coronavirus.
“We might not get to see her physically again,” said Terri Rohmeyer, whose mother, Carol Coffey, is Hazel Hanson’s sister. “It’s hard on the patients and the employees, but it’s hard on the families, too. You don’t get to wrap your arms around her and give her a hug.”
But her family is finding ways to stay connected. Calling has not been enough. On a recent evening, they did one of those window visits that have become a phenomenon of the pandemic. More than 20 members of Hanson’s family met in the parking lot of the county health center in midtown Omaha. They had signs. Someone brought a flag. A nurse wheeled Hanson to a window and helped her stand up so she could see her big family waving, from a social distance.
“We wanted her to know that we’re thinking of her and we love her and we’re here,” Rohmeyer said.
Later in the week, Diane Rathbun called her mother.
“What are you up to today?” Rathbun asked.
Her mother gave the usual answer.
“Oh, about four-foot-seven,” Hanson replied.
That is her height. Hanson, who cleaned wealthy people’s housing to help her salesman husband support their big family, is tough. She’s keeping her chin up. Her family is trying to keep her, and themselves, focused on hope for a brighter future. Hanson is still asking about the big family Easter.
“We’ll try next year, Mom,” Rathbun tells her. “We’ll try to get it all back the way it’s supposed to be next year.”
Nebraska officials have taken some knocks because the state has trailed some neighbors in the number of people who have been tested for the novel coronavirus.
The state ranked 44th among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., on Thursday in the number of tests it had performed per capita, according to a World-Herald analysis of data compiled by the Covid Tracking Project, a volunteer effort of journalists and scientists.
But at the same time, the state ranked 49th in confirmed cases of COVID-19 per capita, and 40th in deaths. Put another way, Nebraska’s testing rate stood about 60% below the national rate while confirmed cases were 360% below the national rate.
Iowa, ranked 43rd in per capita testing, was 38th for cases per capita and 35th in deaths.
Undoubtedly, lower rates of testing in Nebraska mean some cases are being missed, contributing to the state’s lower case counts. But deaths and hospitalizations, which denote more serious cases, tell a starker tale. By Friday afternoon, 17 Nebraskans had died from complications of COVID-19.
Forty-three patients with COVID-19 were hospitalized at the end of the day Thursday in the Omaha metropolitan area, which includes Douglas, Sarpy, Saunders, Pottawattamie and Washington Counties. In Nebraska, a total of 102 people have been hospitalized with the disease from February through Thursday, the state said.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said again in a town hall meeting Thursday night that state officials recognize the need to expand testing.
“No governor feels like they have enough tests for the people in their state,” he said, repeating a refrain from recent weeks.
The state initially prioritized high-risk groups, including those hospitalized with symptoms, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, and those with a history of travel to coronavirus hot spots. Initially, the travel list stopped at China. It later expanded to include all international and Interstate travel. Also added to the list were health care workers, first responders and residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. All, if they became ill, could seed outbreaks that could be difficult to control.
Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s infectious diseases division, said that out of necessity, the state has had to reserve and prioritize tests for where they will make the most difference.
By the time health officials get through those lists, few tests are left for the young and healthy. Health officials, he said, would love to know whether all those who report symptoms have the virus.
“But we can’t just open the floodgates and test everyone we’d like to,” Rupp said.
Nebraska’s test numbers have increased significantly in recent weeks as the state’s public health laboratory, hospitals and commercial testing companies have ramped up testing.
In the two-week span that ended Wednesday, the total number of tests conducted increased by nearly 5,800. The number jumped again from 8,067 on Wednesday night to 9,474 by Friday evening, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
As Nebraska has ramped up testing, it has been competing with other states for scarce supplies all along the testing pipeline. Ricketts said Thursday that he had been calling manufacturers seeking reagents, the chemicals needed to run the tests. It takes a total of 15 of them.
Working against the state is its relatively low rate of positive tests, which suppliers are considering as they fill orders. Nebraska’s rate is about 6.5%, Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical officer, said in a briefing Thursday. New York’s, by comparison, is about 41%, according to the COVID Project data.
Said Rupp, “I’d love to be able to test thousands or tens of thousands a day. But that’s just not the reality of the situation on the ground.”
Whether tens of thousands of tests eventually will be conducted isn’t clear. But state officials can think about beginning to test more of the general population.
“We’re now at a phase where more broad testing is appropriate,” said Dr. Steven Hinrichs, chairman of UNMC’s pathology and microbiology department.
The department includes the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory; a clinical lab jointly operated by UNMC and its clinical partner, Nebraska Medicine; and a research lab. Together, the three labs on the UNMC campus can run between 500 and 600 diagnostic tests a day, Hinrichs said.
CHI Health, which recently launched its own testing, can conduct about 270 a day. Commercial labs also are testing.
Within the past week, Ricketts has deployed the Nebraska National Guard to collect samples for testing from specific groups in areas with flare-ups — Grand Island, Kearney and the Panhandle. Guard members initially swabbed about 150 health care workers and first responders in Grand Island. But local officials announced Thursday that collection would continue through Saturday with the goal of testing 75 people a day.
Hinrichs said the initial goal of testing wasn’t to test every Nebraskan with possible symptoms or catch every case of COVID-19. Instead, he said, the intent was to identify at-risk people and strategically reduce the spread of disease.
Only now, he said, is the state at the stage where public health officials can begin to look at broadening testing, which could help find those without symptoms who are spreading the virus.
“That’s where you begin to turn your resources to that question, after you’ve absorbed the acute blow of the epidemic,” he said.
Officials in Los Angeles this weekend planned to begin to test 1,000 randomly selected residents using one of the new antibody tests that are becoming available, the Washington Post reported. The National Institutes of Health on Friday announced plans to test up to 10,000 volunteers from across the country.
Such “serology” tests look for antibodies in blood that the body produces when it’s fighting an infection. While not considered as definitive in diagnosing the disease, they’re being eyed as screening tools that could give researchers a better idea of how widely the virus has spread.
One factor initially limiting testing in Nebraska was a shortage of supplies — first the extraction kits used to pull out the virus’ genetic material from specimens and then the swabs used to collect the samples from the back of the nose. It’s a complex process and requires accuracy from start to finish, starting with properly collecting samples of cells at the back of the nose where the virus may be replicating.
Dr. Jana Broadhurst, director of the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit clinical laboratory, said more than 30 tests that look for the virus’ genetic material have received federal approval for emergency use.
But questions about who should be tested have to be balanced with the availability of resources, Broadhurst said. That has varied by state and even within states. Uncertainty around availability of supplies has, in turn, made it difficult to project testing strategies more than a few weeks out.
To help ease the crunch at the medical center, lab teams started making the liquid used to sustain any virus on the swabs until it gets to the lab.
Tethon 3D, an Omaha 3D printing firm, recently shifted its production and began printing swabs. The firm donated 1,000 to the medical center and now is selling them at the cost of producing them, said Karen Linder, the company’s CEO.
With the limits on testing, government officials have layered on measures intended to contain the virus and keep hospitals from getting overwhelmed, including asking all but essential workers to stay home, limiting crowds to 10 or fewer and even closing Omaha’s parks.
Hinrichs said he understands that people would like to exchange social distancing for wider testing.
But that’s not a good trade, he said. On a given day, officials could test a group of people and get all negative results. The next day, some of those people could become positive. People who were positive one day also could test negative the next, particularly as they near the end of their illness.
And as with any lab test, he said, health officials also consider whether testing will mean a different course of action for patients. With no treatments approved for COVID-19, those with mild illness have been instructed to isolate and recover at home.
Dr. James Lawler, co-director of the Global Center for Health Security at UNMC, said during Ricketts’ town hall Thursday that wider testing will be key to determining when the state can dial down some of the stricter social distancing guidelines now in place.
Testing also is important for understanding how to isolate people, even at home, and to trace and isolate their contacts, moves that will be a mainstay in keeping the disease in check.
Hinrichs said Ricketts has pushed hard to get new, faster testing equipment, a device made by Abbott Laboratories that can produce results — one test at a time — in 15 minutes. Lab personnel still are evaluating its accuracy.
UNMC also is evaluating serological or antibody tests, which would allow officials to determine whether people have been infected in the past and whether they have acquired some immunity.
Those, however, probably are about two weeks away. Like the diagnostic tests, they would require a doctor’s order.
“Every disease has a progression,” Hinrichs said. “You have to do certain things at a certain time.”
World-Herald staff writers Henry J. Cordes and Erin Duffy contributed to this report, which also contains material from the Washington Post.
This week, the world watched as Wisconsin voters stood for hours in long lines to cast ballots during a pandemic.
Nebraska is next in line May 12, when polling places open for the state’s primary election. Officials are pressing Nebraskans to vote early by mail, but they still expect thousands to head to the polls on Election Day.
The Cornhusker State remains an outlier by proceeding as scheduled with in-person voting. At last count, 16 states had postponed primaries due to COVID-19.
Nebraska Democratic Party chairwoman Jane Kleeb criticized the state for moving forward with in-person voting, calling the decision “reckless.”
“We shouldn’t put us in the position of Wisconsin, where we have to make a late decision (about voting) and there is confusion,” Kleeb said.
Gov. Pete Ricketts said late Friday afternoon that Nebraskans have voted through wars and previous pandemics. The state is not going to disenfranchise voters, he said. It will let them vote. State Republican Party leaders agreed.
Secretary of State Bob Evnen said Nebraska will not face the same fate as Wisconsin.
Nebraska has a month longer to prepare and faces no similar confusion from state leaders about whether its May election will happen.
Wisconsin scrambled to staff and open polling places after the state’s conservative-led Supreme Court declined to delay the election, despite a stay-at-home order and changes sought by the state’s Democratic governor.
In Nebraska, most of the state’s regular polling sites will be open and staffed, Evnen said. Part of Wisconsin’s problems on Tuesday involved its need, at the last second, to condense polling sites serving towns the size of Grand Island into one or two sites.
“That’s not going to happen here,” Evnen said.
A big reason: Nebraska’s county clerks and election commissioners have been working diligently to recruit the three-plus poll workers each precinct needs, he said.
In addition, Ricketts and Evnen are asking as many people as possible to vote by mail.
The State of Nebraska, following efforts by Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster Counties, has mailed every registered voter in all 93 counties an application to request a mail-in ballot.
About 200,000 registered Nebraskans have already responded with ballot requests, Evnen said. That puts the state on pace for a high-turnout primary, from home.
In Douglas County alone, more people have requested ballots this year than have voted in any Omaha-area primary election on record, Election Commissioner Brian Kruse said.
“The numbers are indicating that the vast majority of individuals are going to be voting by mail,” Kruse said. “It is our hope that it’s a very, very quiet Election Day at the polls.”
Nebraska also has the ability under state law to draft poll workers, just as it can draft jurors for jury duty. No other state has that power, based on legal research by the National Conference of State Legislatures, spokesman Matt Bullock said.
Drafted poll workers make up nearly half of the 1,400 people needed for a typical primary in Douglas County. The rest sign up to help. Kruse expects a similar split this year.
Before COVID-19 hit, Sarpy County had already decided to draft poll workers for the first time in years, said Michelle Andahl, Sarpy’s election commissioner. The growing county needed more help, she said, so it sent notices in early March to roughly 100 people.
Sarpy expects to need about 500 workers to staff polling sites in places like Papillion, La Vista, Bellevue and Gretna, she said.
Counties across the state are asking people to sign up to be poll workers because as many as 1 in 3 poll workers are bowing out in some locations, The World-Herald has learned.
Retiree Bob Monaco has been a poll worker for a quarter-century. But this May, Monaco won’t report to the Bellevue polling place near Fontenelle Forest where he regularly worked.
The 80-year-old has an autoimmune disorder, the kind of secondary health condition that public health experts say puts him at greater risk of the novel coronavirus.
“We want to be real careful about preserving the right to vote,” Monaco said. “By the same token, it’s tough to put yourself at risk for such a devastating illness.”
Evnen said he’s hopeful most counties won’t have to draft poll workers because Nebraskans are looking for ways to help their neighbors.
“This is an opportunity for us to begin developing the next generation of poll workers,” Evnen said.
Gov. Pete Ricketts has signed an executive order allowing county election commission offices and county clerk's offices to close to in-person early voting for all but people with disabilities.
State and local election officials are pushing for help from younger, healthy poll workers, and many officials say they are seeing a bumper crop of first-time volunteers.
One of those new poll workers is Elkhorn-area resident Isabelle Lu, an 18-year-old freshman psychology major who is home from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Her mom mentioned the state was looking for poll workers to help replace people from more vulnerable groups, including the elderly and those with health conditions.
Lu contacted the Douglas County Election Commission and found out how to apply and train as a poll worker online. This May, she will work at an Omaha polling site.
“It makes me feel really proud,” Lu said. “It’s a reminder that the younger generation and the younger people have more importance than some people say they do.”
Poll workers are protected under state and federal law from having to use sick or vacation time to participate. Most will work a long day, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., officials said.
Nebraska pays its poll workers at least an hourly minimum wage. Potential volunteers can contact their local county’s election office, officials say.
But not everybody has a choice of whether to serve.
One of the people summoned this year was Gretna resident Andy Herrmann, 37, who sells medical equipment for cancer patients. He said most times he would be happy to help.
But during a global pandemic, Herrmann faced a choice between serving and risking his family’s health, or not serving and facing a possible misdemeanor conviction.
Herrmann helps care for his father-in-law, who is recovering from surgery for oral cancer. He brings him groceries, helps him up when he falls, he said.
“I think the importance and need to hold timely elections is universally recognized,” he said. “But that need does not supersede a person’s right to safety and health.”
State law gives county election officials some latitude to release drafted poll workers due to ill health or for another good reason.
Herrmann said he learned from Sarpy election officials on Friday that his service would be deferred to a future election.
Evnen said the state will provide poll workers with safety kits, including N95 masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Monaco, the longtime poll worker, said he’s impressed with the efforts being made.
But for Herrmann, the state kits don’t comfort him. They confirm the risk.
Here's the big challenge of the 2020 primary election: How do you campaign in the era of social distancing?
“The act of supplying the kit is an admission that the work will not be safe,” Herrmann said.
He said he’d like the state to do one of three things: postpone the primary election, move it to all mail or drop-off, or remove the legal requirement that people work the polls.
Ricketts, through spokesman Taylor Gage, said Friday that he has no plans to waive the poll worker draft statute and he supports the secretary of state’s work.
Michael Cich-Jones, who oversees Douglas County’s election board, acknowledged poll workers’ anxiety, but said people who don’t vote by mail should have the opportunity to vote in person.
Election leaders said they are still discussing how best to preserve public health at the polls. Among the steps expected: putting voting booths at least 6 feet apart, cleaning voting stations between uses and marking places on the floor for voters to stand.
Kleeb said the state, if it’s determined to hold the May 12 primary, should consider other options, including working with local banks to offer drive-thru voting or expanding curbside voting beyond the elderly and people with disabilities.
Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour said Friday that she would prefer voting by mail but said she understands the importance of in-person voting. She stopped short of calling in-person voting a public health concern.
Nebraska election officials say they expect a much better situation than in Wisconsin.
Nebraska plans to move or consolidate only a handful of polling places, mainly to accommodate requests by hosts that sites be moved and to address public health concerns, officials said.
For example, polling sites will move out of senior centers and public housing towers to nearby schools, which are closed, and churches. One new site will be Omaha South High School.
Schools and most other public facilities are required under state law to allow voting. Churches volunteer to serve as polling sites.
“I think we’re going to have an orderly, successful, fair and secure election,” Evnen said. “Our voters will be protected, and so will our poll workers, and we’re going to be proud of our state.”