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Ricketts dismisses calls from two Nebraska state senators to lift coronavirus restrictions

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts on Monday rejected calls from two state senators to lift restrictions designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and he later disputed a characterization of the virus’s impact as “a nothing burger.”

“You can just look at New York City. It’s a real thing,” Ricketts told a caller on his monthly radio call-in show.

One of the state’s authorities on pandemics added that the social distancing steps taken by Nebraskans, while a hardship, have reduced the projected death toll here.

“Thanks to the sacrifice of Nebraskans, we can likely reopen safer and sooner than many in the rest of the country,” said Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

In a weekend commentary published by the Hastings Tribune, State Sens. Steve Halloran of Hastings and Steve Erdman of Bayard argued that the dangers of the coronavirus have been overblown and that the best, and fastest, way to defeat the virus is to let people become infected and build up “herd immunity.”

Steve Halloran

Steve Erdman

Herd immunity develops when enough people in a community, about 80%, come in contact with the virus and develop antibodies, thus limiting the number of people who can spread it to at-risk individuals. The virus could be defeated in four weeks, the senators said.

“All life is sacred and valuable, but Nebraskans also need to re-open their businesses, go back to work, go back to school, and get the elective surgeries they need,” the senators wrote.

But when asked about the commentary Monday, Ricketts said that herd immunity really isn’t a plan and that allowing schools to reopen and the virus to spread unchecked would quickly overwhelm the state’s hospitals.

The explosion of cases in the Grand Island area, he said, is an example of how quickly the virus can spread — a week ago, the local hospital needed only four or five of its intensive care unit beds for COVID-19 patients; now, 14 of the unit’s 16 beds are occupied, and the local health director is worried that Grand Island’s health care system will be overwhelmed.

The goal of social distancing and staying home, Ricketts said, is to slow the spread of the virus so there’s not a dramatic surge of cases that swamp hospitals.

“I think the senators would agree: We don’t want to overwhelm the health care system in our state,” the governor said at his daily coronavirus press briefing.

“We’re trying to avoid that happening here,” he said later on his radio call-in show, “so that anyone who needs a hospital room, that ICU room or a ventilator can get it in Nebraska.”

Ali Khan

Khan said infecting 80% of the U.S. population with COVID-19 would have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

The disease is not limited to the elderly, he said, or those with chronic illnesses. About 55% of those who are hospitalized are under 65, Khan said, and 20% of those who die are under that age.

The caller to the radio show said one of the most recent projections of deaths from COVID-19 in Nebraska is 281 by Aug. 4. That would be fewer deaths than those from cancer or heart disease (about 3,500 each in 2017), and yet the government doesn’t ban smoking or “regulate our diet,” the caller said. Even deaths from flu and pneumonia were higher, at 393, during 2017, he said.

“You’re strangling the economy. And for what?” the caller asked.

But Ricketts said the main difference between flu and the coronavirus is that so much is unknown. He noted that in January, the World Health Organization and China were saying it couldn’t be transmitted from person to person, which proved untrue.

One thing that is known is that it is “very transmittable” and can be spread by someone who doesn’t show any of the symptoms, such as a fever and a dry cough.

Khan said critics have a point: The nation could have attacked the outbreak “much better” with earlier testing of cases and isolation, better protection of high-risk groups and health care workers, and adequate treatment capacity at hot spots.

“But we had not the imagination, testing, public health workforce, PPE or equipment for the job,” he said.

Ricketts said that he’s always reevaluating the data but that the goal is to “strike a balance” between encouraging people to continue working yet urging them to stay home to avoid spreading the virus.

The governor added that he “100% agreed” with Halloran and Erdman that he wants to reopen the state as quickly as possible.

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The herd immunity idea has been advanced by Dr. Knut Wittkowski, a former biostatistician at Rockefeller University in New York City. He has argued that “flattening the curve,” as social distancing is designed to do, only prolongs the inevitable spread of the virus through the population.

On Monday, Rockefeller said Wittkowski’s views do not represent the views of the university, its leadership or its faculty.

The two senators said a better approach would be to allow less vulnerable groups, like school kids, to get COVID-19 so they can build up mass immunity. Rather than “lockdowns,” they said the state should allow school and work to continue, while isolating only those people most at risk, banning large gatherings and focusing on hot spots.

Both Halloran, 71, and Erdman, 70, are among the at-risk population. In their essay, the two Republicans in the officially nonpartisan Legislature predicted that “civil unrest” is inevitable.

“We cannot afford to go another day with this current, failed policy,” they wrote. “You may not agree with our analysis, but we believe this is the conversation we should now be having.”

Ricketts sidestepped a question about whether such commentary undercuts his efforts to encourage Nebraskans to remain vigilant with social distancing.

In other developments Monday:

  • The governor highlighted the impact on the state’s food pantries during his daily briefing.

Scott Young of the Food Bank of Lincoln said “food insecurity” is expected to increase by 45% because of the joblessness caused by the coronavirus crisis. That would translate to 100,000 more people in the state needing assistance.

At the same time, Young said, sources of excess food are drying up. Grocery stores are selling out, leaving less to be donated to food banks, he said, and purchases of food by his organization are being delayed by logistical problems. At a drive-thru food distribution site in Grand Island over the weekend, 1,000 people showed up for 750 prepacked food bags, Young said.

“It’s rough right now, and we anticipate it’s only going to get rougher,” he said.

Donations can be made at foodbankheartland.org or lincolnfoodbank.org.

  • Ricketts said that unemployment insurance checks are typically delivered within 21 to 28 days and that the state is trying to maintain that standard amid a deluge of new requests for assistance.
  • Guidance from Washington, D.C., on when to relax restrictions will be among “a wide net” of advice Nebraska will consider before taking such steps, the governor said. He said he would talk to local health officials and the state’s chief medical officer and would look at what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests and what’s happening in other states before making that decision.
  • Ricketts commended the staff at a Greeley, Nebraska, nursing home, who have been living at the facility to avoid contact with the coronavirus.
April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

As nations talk of reopening, health officials fear flare-ups

WASHINGTON (AP) — New York's coronavirus death toll topped 10,000 even as the lack of fresh hot spots in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world yielded a ray of optimism and fueled discussions Monday about how some places might begin to reopen.

The brunt of the disease has been felt most heavily in New York, Italy, France, Spain and the United Kingdom, but grim projections of a virus that would spread with equal ferocity to other corners of America and the world have not yet materialized after more than a month of measures meant to blunt its impact. Even so, the worldwide death toll surpassed 2 million Monday.

The death toll in populous states such as Florida and Pennsylvania was on par with some individual counties outside New York City. Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city and a hub for immigrant communities and business travelers in the energy industry, has been largely spared compared to other parts of the U.S. As Colorado deaths surpassed 300 Monday, Gov. Jared Polis compared that figure to New York's thousands and called it "a tragic indication of our success in Colorado."

Officials around the world worried that halting quarantine and social-distancing measures could easily undo the hard-earned progress that those steps have achieved in slowing the spread.

Still, there were signs that countries were looking in that direction. Spain permitted some workers to return to their jobs, while a hard-hit region of Italy loosened its lockdown restrictions. Governors on both coasts of the U.S. announced that they would join forces to come up with a coordinated reopening plan at some point, setting the stage for a potential conflict with President Donald Trump, who asserted that he is the ultimate decision-maker for determining how and when to reopen.

Trump continued those assertions during an afternoon White House briefing Monday, pushing back against reporters' questions about whether the president or governors have the authority to ease the restrictions. He said that his administration has "a very good relationship" with the governors but that "the federal government has absolute power" in that decision-making process if it chooses to exercise it.

Trump can use his bully pulpit to pressure states to act or threaten them with consequences, but the Constitution gives public health and safety responsibilities primarily to state and local officials.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said, "Seeing how we had the responsibility for closing the state down, I think we probably have the primary responsibility for opening it up."

Wolf joined governors in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island in agreeing to coordinate their actions. The governors of California, Oregon and Washington announced a similar pact. While each state is building its own plan, the three West Coast states have agreed to a framework under which they will work together, put their residents' health first and let science guide their decisions.

At Monday's briefing, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he expects more than 80 million Americans will have tax rebates directly deposited into their bank accounts by Wednesday. Under the program, single filers will receive $1,200 and joint filers $2,400, though the payments phase out at higher incomes. The rebates are aimed at boosting the economy as the country responds to the coronavirus.

New York saw a few positive signs Monday even as it reached another bleak milestone. It marked the first time in a week that the daily toll dipped below 700. Almost 2,000 people were newly hospitalized with the virus Sunday, though once discharges and deaths were accounted for, the number of people hospitalized has flattened to just under 19,000.

"This virus is very good at what it does. It is a killer," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday.

In the U.S., about half of the more than 22,000 deaths reported are in the New York metropolitan area. Meanwhile, tracking maps maintained by Johns Hopkins University showed a dense patchwork of coronavirus cases along the Northeast corridor, as well as significant outbreaks corresponding to other major metropolitan areas — though nothing on the scale of what New York has endured.

Houston's 18 total deaths since the start of the outbreak make up a tiny fraction of the one-day toll in New York City, prompting Mayor Sylvester Turner to say the city was achieving its goal of slowing "the progression of this virus so that our health care delivery system would not be overwhelmed."

Dr. Sebastian Johnston, a professor of respiratory medicine at Imperial College London, said it appeared that COVID-19 had peaked in much of Europe, including France, Spain, Germany, Italy and the U.K. He was worried the virus might now start to take off in countries across Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. There's also concern about Russia.

Hot spots may yet emerge as states lift stay-at-home orders, said Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the University of Washington institute that created widely cited projections of virus-related deaths. He pointed to states where the number of COVID-19 cases is still climbing: Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida.

"Don't consider relaxing social distancing in the near term," Murray said he'd advise leaders in those states. "You need to stay the course."

To date, infections in some areas of the U.S. have taken off like sparks starting fires, while others have sputtered out. Trevor Bedford, whose lab at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has been tracking the pandemic using the virus's genetic code, acknowledges it's a "dice roll" that makes it hard to predict hot spots.

And when restrictions are eased, people will not immediately dive back into their social connections, at least not without precautions, Bedford said.

A study released Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, relying on data from mobile devices in New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco and Seattle, suggested that social-distancing policies prompted more people to stay at home in March and probably curbed spread of the virus.

Researchers say people increasingly left their devices, and themselves, at home as cities, states and the federal government adopted increasingly restrictive closures and social distancing policies.

The report "provides some very early indications that these measures might help slow the spread of COVD-19," the authors said.

In some European countries, officials pointed to positive signs as they began prepping for the reopening of largely shuttered economies and industries.

Italian authorities said Monday that the 3,153 new coronavirus cases were the fewest in weeks.. The daily death toll of 566, however, was up from the 431 new deaths registered on Sunday.

Slightly eased restrictions were about to take effect in some parts of Italy, such as allowing stores selling necessities for newborns to reopen.

The hard-hit Veneto region, which has been credited with a rapid response to the virus that has helped limit the number of fatalities. is entering a phase the governor, Luca Zaia, termed ''lockdown light.''

Zaia is allowing residents to go venture about 200 yards from home for physical fitness and permitting open-air markets, under a new ordinance taking effect Tuesday. The ordinance makes masks or other face coverings mandatory everywhere outside the home.

'Our resources are being tested': Grand Island hospital's ICU is filling up fast

The health director overseeing the response to the coronavirus outbreak in Grand Island said she fears that the local health care system could be overwhelmed in the coming weeks.

“Our resources are being tested, and we’re going to find at some point that folks who are sick will have to be transferred to other hospitals,” said Teresa Anderson, the director of the Central District Health Department, at a Monday press conference.

Her remarks came as the number of known coronavirus cases in the Grand Island area continued to spike, doubling since Thursday from 103 cases to 211.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday that St. Francis Hospital in Grand Island counted four or five patients in its intensive care unit one week ago. Now, more than a dozen of its ICU beds are occupied.

Hospital President Edward Hannon said that as of 4 p.m. Monday, 21 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized there, including 13 who are on ventilators to help them breathe. Last week, the hospital said it had 13 ventilators in its ICU and two more in its neonatal intensive care unit, plus several anesthesia and CPAP machines that could be used in a pinch.

Most people with COVID-19 will experience mild-to-moderate symptoms, if any at all. Others, including those who are older or have underlying health conditions, may require more medical care or breathing support.

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St. Francis has erected a negative-pressure respiratory care unit in a tent outside the emergency room, and Hannon said the hospital could add 28 beds, expanding to a capacity of 157 beds, to care for additional patients.

Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska’s chief medical officer, said Monday that patients could be transferred to hospitals in Kearney, Lincoln, Omaha or other parts of the state if St. Francis sees a significant surge in the number of patients requiring hospitalization.

Another Grand Island hospital is under construction but isn’t scheduled to open until this summer.

Hannon said St. Francis, which is part of the CHI Health system, can rely on other hospitals to help with staffing, medical equipment and personal protective equipment like masks and gloves. While more COVID-19 patients are requiring treatment, fewer people are in the hospital for other treatment because many elective surgeries have been postponed. The hospital was at about 50% of its total capacity last week.

“CHI Health, spanning from Kearney to Corning, Iowa, has 15 hospitals,” Hannon said in a statement. “While St. Francis has 150 beds in Grand Island, our system overall has more than 2,000 beds, and more than 350 machines that can be used as ventilators.”

“I’m confident our skilled and dedicated staff, and the hospital that’s been here for the community for the last 133 years, can weather this storm,” he continued. “But I’m also reassured that we don’t have to do it alone.”

The Central District Health Department oversees Hall, Hamilton and Merrick Counties, where, as of Monday afternoon, 211 people had tested positive for the coronavirus. That’s a whopping threefold increase from a week earlier, when 68 cases were counted. Four people in Hall County have died.

Most of the cases are clustered in Grand Island, where the Nebraska National Guard collected specimens for testing at a drive-thru site last week. Health officials have said the number of confirmed cases will rise as more people are tested.

The ages of those with the coronavirus range from 11 to 88, with an average age of 45, the Health Department said.

Hall County is second to only Douglas County in the number of coronavirus cases in Nebraska.

Only 559 people had been tested in Hall County as of Monday, out of a population of roughly 61,000, according to figures from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. But 35.5% of those swabbed are testing positive. That’s far higher than the 7.65% positive rate statewide.

Testing has been very limited so far, so those numbers may be skewed by the priority given to people exhibiting serious symptoms and to health care workers and first responders who may be exposed to the virus.

But Anderson has warned residents that the coronavirus threat may not peak there for another month or two.

“We will continue to report on the numbers, but they are not going to be good,” she said.

She asked residents to wear masks when they leave the house and said local seamstresses are working on making reusable, washable face coverings.

“Using these masks helps us to preserve health-grade masks for heath care workers,” she said.

Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele said the city will not be able to ease restrictions on businesses and social gatherings until it can get a handle on the virus.

“When we are able to return to normal depends on our compliance with social distancing, hand-washing and only making essential trips” to places like the pharmacy and grocery store, he said. “I need your compliance now.”

World-Herald staff writers Nancy Gaarder and Paul Hammel contributed to this report.

Storm Chasers have fallen behind on bills during coronavirus, but federal stimulus will help

Werner Park on Tuesday evening should be abuzz with the excitement of Opening Night: hot dogs and popcorn, the crack of a well-timed hit and the euphoric feeling that summer is around the corner.

Instead, the home of the Storm Chasers minor league baseball team will sit quiet, another reminder that the novel coronavirus has shut down large parts of life.

And like many businesses, the team is feeling the economic squeeze, at one point expressing concern about its ability to make payments to Sarpy County for the use of its ballpark.

Without revenue from games and the fans who attend them, some team employees have been laid off and all remaining staff members have had their salaries or hours cut.

The organization leases Werner Park from Sarpy County, which spent some $29 million to build the ballpark. To do so, the county issued bonds, which are projected to be paid off in 2035.

A letter sent this month to the county from Martie Cordaro, the Chasers’ president, indicated that the team was making contingency plans because of lost revenue. The letter, dated April 3, requested a delay in two payments: a $238,230 semiannual lease payment due June 1, and a $40,000 payment due April 1 for a scoreboard that was installed in 2015. An $11,000 payment related to stadium improvements for Omaha’s new professional soccer team also was due April 1.

But delaying the lease payment probably won’t be necessary. The Storm Chasers have been approved for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan that helps small businesses pay for expenses like employee pay, rent and utility bills, Cordaro said. The county has given the team until May 7 to make the payments that were due April 1.

The team is applying for other federal money, too. Dan Hoins, Sarpy County’s administrator, said the organization has indicated that it has the capacity to make upcoming payments even without federal funding.

“At this point, I don’t anticipate it being a problem,” Hoins said. “They’ll either pay it with their funds, or they’ll pay it with a disaster loan.”


The Werner Park lot would be full tonight for the Storm Chasers’ home opener if COVID-19 hadn’t disrupted life. The team has laid off six of roughly 30 staff members. The Omaha Union soccer team also has laid off six of its 15 staffers.

The pandemic struck during a period when baseball teams spend a lot of money to prepare for the season ahead — expenses typically increase in February and taper off in October. Purchases like items for promotional giveaways, staff T-shirts and gifts for clients are usually bought in February and March, Cordaro said. The team begins ramping up its seasonal staffing in mid-January.

Cordaro said the pandemic has affected every Storm Chasers staff member as well as every employee of Union Omaha, the USL League One soccer team that was slated to play its inaugural season this spring.

Of the roughly 30 Storm Chasers staff members, six were laid off, as well six of 15 Union Omaha employees, said Cordaro, who is also president of the soccer team. All remaining staff members have had their salaries or hours reduced. The team intends to bring back its staffing in full once it knows when play can resume.

All minor league baseball teams have been affected by the coronavirus. The Memphis Redbirds and their sister USL Championship League team announced layoffs and furloughs last month, according to Ballpark Digest. The Storm Chasers would have started their season on the road against Memphis last Thursday.

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It isn’t clear when professional sports will return. That timeline will depend in part on how well people follow social distancing guidelines. Cordaro said he’s hopeful that it’s soon.

“We don’t have a specific target as to when that may or may not be,” he said. “We’re in a waiting period, just like everyone else in the country is right now.”

In the meantime, the Storm Chasers have been planning fun, safe events. To commemorate Opening Night, fans were able to preorder a box of ballpark food to be picked up Tuesday. On Saturday, people can park their vehicles at Werner Park to catch a free 8:30 p.m. fireworks show.

Hoins said the Storm Chasers have been a good partner to the county over the last decade. “They’ve invested in us, and we’ve invested in them.”

An earlier version of this article listed Martie Cordaro's title incorrectly. This version has been corrected.

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus