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Crime
Feds: Nebraska pharmacist, Virginia drug dealer plotted to blow up rival pharmacy in Auburn

A plot involving a small-town Nebraska pharmacy sounds like it’s straight out of the Netflix series “Ozark.”

It’s got allegations of a computer wizard disguising financial transactions on the Internet’s shadowy cousin, the Darknet. It includes accusations of money laundering and drug dealing. And, oh, yeah, a purported plot to blow up a rival in order to hide the illicit activity.

However, the violent part of this nationwide drug scheme was supposed to take place in a stately town in southeastern Nebraska, not the lakes of southern Missouri.

Arrested Friday: Hyrum Wilson, 41, owner of Hyrum Family Value Pharmacy in Auburn. He is charged with conspiracy to use fire and explosives, conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and a weapons offense. Possible penalty: up to life in prison.

Arrested last week: William Anderson Burgamy IV, a 32-year-old Maryland man who is the alleged mastermind of the scheme.

Their alleged target: Cody’s U-Save Pharmacy, which sits five minutes from Hyrum Family Value in Auburn, a town of 3,200 on U.S. Highway 75 about 20 miles south of Nebraska City.

The reason federal prosecutors say the two men wanted to take out Cody’s U-Save: The Hyrum pharmacy’s increased drug sales, stemming from Burgamy’s Internet sales, would seem less suspicious to federal regulators if Hyrum’s was the only pharmacy in town.

“Wilson and Burgamy believed that the destruction of the Victim Pharmacy would cause Wilson’s own pharmacy business to flourish and that, in turn, Wilson’s distributor would increase the amount of controlled substances that Wilson could order,” Wilson’s indictment reads.

Wilson and Burgamy labeled the scheme “Operation Firewood.” Burgamy would use Molotov cocktails to burn down the pharmacy — and would carry numerous firearms during the attack.

At one point, federal prosecutors say, Wilson told Burgamy to relay a message to a third, yet-to-be-named person: “This is the last shipment he will get from me as long as the other pharmacy is still standing.”

The press release from U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger doesn’t name that “other pharmacy,” but the only other pharmacy in Auburn is Cody’s U-Save. Reached on a busy weekday afternoon, U-Save’s owner, Cody Kuszak, 36, said he was mystified by the alleged plot. He said he had met Wilson a few times. He thought he was a decent guy, with a decent business.

“I thought he was pretty normal, to be honest,” Kuszak said. “He didn’t come across any differently.”

The town, the last major stop on U.S. Highway 75 before southbound travelers get to Kansas, is abuzz.

“This is crazy,” one longtime Auburn resident said. “Honestly, this sounds like an episode of ‘Dateline.’ ”

Masks that officials say William Burgamy had available to wear in a planned attack on a pharmacy in Auburn.

Federal prosecutors in Virginia have broadly outlined the fascinating, ill-executed plot. It was a scheme borne of an apparent thirst for pure painkillers without a prescription, a demand heightened by federal officials’ increased scrutiny in recent years of the opioid industry. And it was a scheme of confounding contrasts: On the one hand, Burgamy, the alleged mastermind, claimed sophistication, marketing pure drugs and using cryptocurrency for transactions. On the other, he was caught in part because of his chosen mode of distributing the drugs: the U.S. Postal Service.

Little did he know, his trips to the post office were being monitored. As were his texts.

Burgamy “is a dangerous and volatile individual who schemed to blow up that pharmacy using Molotov cocktails,” prosecutor Raj Parekh, an assistant U.S. attorney, said at a hearing in Virginia.

Burgamy’s public defender, Elizabeth Mullin, said any talk about firebombing a pharmacy was simply hyperbole. She told a judge her client doesn’t have an appetite for violence.

His supposed Nebraska accomplice, Wilson, is married with young children. He graduated with a pharmacy degree from Creighton University before settling in Auburn in 2015. Other than a few credit card debt collections, his record is spotless.

It is not yet clear how the two men first connected. But from August through April, prosecutors allege, Wilson “regularly and unlawfully” mailed painkillers to Burgamy. Burgamy advertised and sold the drugs on the Darknet and “provided a cut of the illicit profits to Wilson through Bitcoin payments, wire transfers and bundles of cash through the mail.”

The indictment against Wilson said that because of “the success and profitability of the drug trafficking scheme, Wilson repeatedly hit limits, set by his distributor, on the amount of prescription drugs that he could obtain and provide to Burgamy.”

“Consequently,” the indictment says, “Wilson and Burgamy developed a scheme to break into, steal the opiate supply of and firebomb a competing pharmacy.”

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Wilson and Burgamy regularly discussed the firebombing plot in detail “from at least October through April 2020,” the indictment says.

Burgamy told Wilson he “intended to carry at least one rifle and at least one handgun while breaking into, stealing from and firebombing the victim pharmacy,” the indictment says. “He also discussed with Wilson his intended use of Molotov cocktails, enhanced with Styrofoam as a thickening agent, to burn the victim pharmacy down.”

Text messages showed that Burgamy made a list of equipment that would be needed to pull off the plan, a list that included body armor, weapons, bottles, lighter fluid and other materials.

Agents later found eight loaded weapons at Burgamy’s Maryland residence, including two AR-15 style semiautomatic rifles.

According to prosecutors, Burgamy’s and Wilson’s business was brisk — and brief. It lasted just seven months, starting in late August and ending with Burgamy’s arrest April 9.

According to the federal indictment and a two-hour-long detention hearing last week:

Burgamy set out to build an underworld drug ring known for having pure painkillers. He created a business name: NeverPressedRx.

NeverPressedRx was a direct reference to street opioids — and the dangers associated with black-market painkillers that are mixed and molded into pill form with a smuggled press.

In December, an FBI computer expert was digging around the Darknet, an Internet that operates on only certain computers with hidden IP addresses. The agent found that an account, NeverPressedRx, had been operating on two Darknet markets, Empire and Apollon, since Aug. 21, 2019.

As if it were a legitimate business, NeverPressedRx marketed itself relentlessly on the Darknet.

“All of our stock comes directly from a US Pharmacy,” one post boasted.

Another: “Thanks for taking the time to stop by NeverPressedRX, as stated in our name, we will NEVER sell pressed pills.”

And, of course, customers would never need a prescription. The branding was black-market rudimentary — the business name written in marker, on construction paper, with pill bottles pictured near it.

But the results were staggering. On one of the dark web markets, the agent found at least 2,543 sales, with 99.95% positive reviews.

Not all the purchases were from users. An undercover FBI agent set up his own account and contacted NeverPressed on Jan. 3.

NeverPressed sent him an encrypted inventory sheet, listing for sale 10 different drugs, from Xanax to Adderall to Percocet. The undercover FBI agent ordered 20 Percocet pills. NeverPressed sent a message relaying that he had to pay in bitcoin, the 21st century choice of payment among some Internet businesses. And the agent agreed to transfer .02400203 bitcoin, roughly $190 at the time.

His package arrived two days later. On Jan. 15, another encrypted email arrived, saying prices would go up.

“Price increase due to the risk we are taking with possible exiting (of customers),” it read. “We are just updating all of our loyal clients and attempting to be fully transparent … We don’t (expletive) around or play games, this is a business for us and we run it as a five-star business should be run.”

A day later, another email explained that oxycodone was moving “extremely fast,” putting pressure on the business.

“This is not an easy task due to the fact that we guarantee all of our products are sourced directly from manufacturers in sealed bottles and authenticity is never a question,” the email read. “We will never succumb to purchasing drugs off the street that could be potentially tampered with for your safety and will not jeopardize our reputation just because demand is higher than current supply.”

As time wore on, supply problems persisted. The unsigned emails talked about new suppliers coming on board, including pharmacies that would supply “old-school oxycontin,” Xanax bars and “the pink oxycodone.”

By late March, NeverPressed (going simply by the initials NPRX) seemed to be panicking. NeverPressed claimed that the coronavirus was curbing supply.

“We’re waiting for a lot of (expletive) to arrive,” one email stated. “This corona virus is (expletive)-ing up inventory.”

In reality, Burgamy had only one supplier: Wilson. And Wilson was putting the clamp on Burgamy.

A trunkload of weapons that federal officials say were found in William Burgamy’s possession.

Federal agents were able to decode several messages sent through encrypted software.

At one point in those exchanges, Burgamy asked Wilson “if operation firewood … would help the amount you are able to process.”

“I hit my limit again this month, and that’s with just my customers,” Wilson wrote back. “And while operation firewood would help my volume, I can’t give … anything up front.”

Wilson did dispense advice, though. Wilson told Burgamy that the other pharmacy’s drugs should be laid out in alphabetical order.

“Hit the H’s and the O’s,” Wilson advised, apparently referencing hydrocodone and oxycodone.

At another point, Wilson and Burgamy discussed whether Wilson should try to open a satellite pharmacy outside of Auburn — like maybe in Mexico.

Burgamy: “What would it take for us to open a pharmacy in mexico. Because that would give us access to the old Oxys and we should be able to make much more money.”

Wilson: “My guess? Mexican citizenship. Plus bribes to the cartel.”

Burgamy: “Plus if you moved to california, the border is right there. Baja Mexico. And if we could somehow get access to an unlimited amount, Hyrum, we would be able to retire.”

But first, they agreed, they had to pull off Operation Firewood.

In addition to his texts to Wilson, Burgamy wrote notes to himself, inside a black leather-bound notebook agents found in a search of his home. In one entry, Burgamy scrawled: “Hyrum responded w/no more orders until Operation Firewood is complete. (Expletive)!!! Make plans ... extremely thourough (sic) to fullfill (sic) the (expletive) plan”

This list of supplies was included in the documents filed with the federal indictment of William Burgamy.

On the adjoining page, Burgamy wrote “Nebraska” in large letters and this: “Make the Plans & Set A (expletive) Date. List of items needed: cans of duster, hammer, rental car, two sets of stolen plates, duffel bags, rubber gloves, at least 2 spare pistol mags, at least 6 spare rifle mags, map with plans, color contacts …”

Burgamy later texted, asking for Adderall “for me personally if you can.” Wilson said he could.

Burgamy: “You are for sure … good with firewood right? I can’t get caught doing this (expletive) bud.”

Wilson: “It’s fine if you think it’s too high risk. I never expected you to be the one doing it.”

Burgamy: “Me neither but I’ll do it for you.”

They referenced a third person — a purported partner of Burgamy who authorities have not publicly identified.

Burgamy: “I told him if he (expletive) around and is in there for longer than 2 minutes I’m leaving him. I’m not a bitch. I’ll do what I have to for us.”

On a satellite image, Wilson drew a map of a possible getaway route and sent it to Burgamy.

“Unless Superman is in Nebraska,” Burgamy wrote back. “I think we should be fine. Only thing I worry about is cameras and them catching up to us further away.”

Wilson: “Our cops are pretty lazy. There are two ways out. The short way is 15 minutes, but you go all the way through town. The long way is maybe 30 minutes, going straight south.”

This map, submitted as evidence in a federal indictment, allegedly shows an escape route out of Auburn that someone could take after bombing the pharmacy. The mustache on the map represents Cody's U-Save Pharmacy and the glasses represent law enforcement.

Burgamy: “I’m not gonna surrender quietly god forbid anyone did show up I’m bringing my (semi-automatic rifle) and blasting my (expletive) way out lmfao … I’ll get away … I don’t think any hero is going to be chasing me down with those 308 Winchester (bullets) zinging by their head …”

Burgamy wrote about plans to spray-paint the front windows of Cody’s U-Save before he breaks in. Then he and his partner would bring in four Molotov cocktails.

“Hope that owner isn’t a hero,” Burgamy wrote, “and trie(s) to show up or he may have to go down too lmfao.”

Wilson: “Owner lives 20 miles away. He’s not an issue.”

Wilson went on to say Kuszak “should have a nice inventory. He does 3x the volume so he should have 3x the pills I do … Just hope that the (expletive) doesn’t try to bounce back too quickly ... He just needs to take the insurance payout and retire to a beach somewhere.”

Wilson tried to assure Burgamy that he wasn’t withholding supply as some sort of blackmail to get Operation Firewood rolling.

It’s just that “my wholesaler looks at my volume and determines how much oxy I can order every 30 days,” he wrote. “But if I get all the pharmacy business (in Auburn), they’ll bump my allotment up … and (I’ll) still have enough room left over for my legitimate patients.”

Toward the end of March, Burgamy and Wilson started wondering if a third, unidentified individual would turn them in.

Burgamy: “I’ll be honest I’m not studied in how that (expletive) works. All I know (is) the feds don’t charge unless their (expletive) sticks.”

Wilson: “I’m not worried. I’ll work double time to get my books in order … and if they do come knocking, those FedEx boxes were business books and gifts for your daughter.”

In early April, the two appeared to be ramping up. On April 2, a week before his arrest, Burgamy sent Wilson an image of his life insurance policy.

“Put this in a safe place for me ok bud,” Burgamy wrote.

“Ok,” Wilson responded. “Will do.”

Little did Burgamy or Wilson know, federal agents were tracking Burgamy’s every move. Postal inspectors retrieved every package that had been sent to the undercover FBI agent — and then sent the pills off to be tested.

An agent was able to use software to trace an encrypted NPRX email account to an IP address. The IP address registered at Burgamy’s Hanover, Maryland, home.

Agents then began following Burgamy as he drove his black Lexus SUV from his Hanover home to a post office in Odenton, Maryland.

In photos included in the indictment, a man wearing a hoodie drops envelopes containing drugs into a standard blue post office collection bin. Federal officials say that’s Burgamy. He made several of those trips, all within view of FBI agents.

William Burgamy

Beyond these allegations, Burgamy had portrayed himself on Facebook as an aspiring Leonardo DiCaprio. One photo has him in a tux, with greased-back hair, sunglasses, a handlebar mustache. Another has him standing with his girlfriend next to a prop plane.

His official mugshot, taken after his April 9 arrest, is a little less regal, with his hair mussed and him sporting a full beard.

Meanwhile, Auburn and the surrounding area buzzed last week. A pharmacy owner in a nearby town called reports of the plot “a real wakeup call.”

“I had a hard time sleeping last night … wondering what else I can do to protect myself (and) those close to me,” he wrote on Facebook.

Kuszak said the story has swirled through the community. He joked that the stories would be more outlandish if the bars weren’t closed because of COVID-19 concerns.

“I hope the whole story comes out soon,” he said. “But no, I can’t say it really has rattled me. We have security and everything and great customers …”

Eight years ago, Kuszak said, his pharmacy was one of four in town. One pharmacist retired. And one national chain moved out.

Wilson opened his Family Value pharmacy in 2015, on the second floor of an office complex housing doctor’s offices, and “seemed like a decent enough guy.” Kuszak said pharmacists “don’t like to talk about our numbers,” but Wilson seemed to be doing a steady clip and had a solid staff.

Put simply, Kuszak said, he never would have guessed the 41-year-old would be accused of anything this sinister. Fortunately, he said, federal agents foiled the plot.

A press release Friday said officials discovered the firebombing plot only after executing a search warrant of Burgamy’s Maryland home, following his arrest.

In Auburn, some locals have talked about how the scheme is straight out of the movies or a streaming service’s series.

William Burgamy and his girlfriend next to a plane.

Kuszak isn’t so sure. In this case, unlike “Ozark,” there will be no second season.

“I think the movies give criminals a little too much credit,” Kuszak said.

With that, he had to get going. He apologized, but he was a bit busy, handling what was perhaps the ultimate irony stemming from the half-baked scheme.

Now that Wilson is behind bars, Kuszak owns the only pharmacy in town.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Notable crime news of 2020

Livewellnebraska
Nebraskans here to help: How we stepped forward when coronavirus threatened

This is what Nebraskans do.

When floodwaters rise, Nebraskans rise with one another to meet the challenge.

When tornadoes rip apart what we have, Nebraskans pull together to rebuild what was lost.

When a pandemic threatens our health, tests our hospitals, limits our contact, cancels schools, closes businesses, puts tens of thousands out of work, endangers our very sources of food and alters our every routine, well, we can be excused for taking some time to figure out what just hit us.

But then as Nebraskans do, we step forward to help.

In the weeks since the worldwide crisis hit home, Nebraskans have sewn face masks by the thousands for health care workers, fired up specialized printers, organized food distribution lines, assembled virtual classrooms, watched over seniors in need and delivered groceries to neighbors.

The helpers are emerging, as they do in Nebraska.

In this new occasional series, The World-Herald shines a light on the helpers as beacons of hope through the pandemic.

The title is a reflection of Mister Rogers’ calming advice to children during times of catastrophe: Look for the helpers. It’s advice his mother gave him: “If you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

Take heart, Nebraska. Hope springs anew.

The coronavirus crisis shows why it’s critical to support local journalism


Local 3D printing effort takes shape to get vital equipment to hospitals

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

A 3D printer prints parts for face shields in Matt Van Zante's basement.

They’re like magic, these 3D printers.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a creation will appear. At first, just a little bit takes form, but then it grows, and builds, and takes shape until a virtual concept uploaded into this amazing piece of technology is made solid and real.

Generosity is like that. Kindness. Compassion.

It can start small — just a thought, an idea, a willingness to help. When someone acts on that, it tends to grow, and build, and take shape until its presence is unmistakable.

When 3D printing combined with a desire to help this time, the result has been powerful.

Omahans Matt Spaustat, Matthew Van Zante and Jordan Points had the 3D printers. As the coronavirus raged through Europe, makers from a company out of the Czech Republic devised a design for a 3D printed face shield and shared the digital file for anyone to use.

Recognizing the need here for health care workers to find protective equipment, Spaustat wanted to help: “We can do this,” he told his friends.

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Matt Van Zante prints parts for face shields in his basement.

Weeks later, a network of 3D printers has grown into a group known as PPE for NE, churning out more than 2,000 plastic face shields to deploy on the front lines in Nebraska’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

A digital file, an idea and a desire to help have formed into unforeseen assistance for Omaha hospitals, local clinics and care centers.

“It’s just an incredible opportunity for the community to pull together to do good,” Spaustat said. “It’s amazing.”

In our time of need, helpers are stepping forward around our community and state.

Local hospitals, flooded with so many ideas and offers of assistance, have formed committees to vet the overflowing suggestions.

Organizers of school food programs have quickly turned in-school meals into community food distribution programs.

Seamstresses across the state have become rapid-response manufacturers of face masks.

Local makers from PPE for NE, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Nebraska Innovation Studio and individual homes have made face shields, ear protectors for health care workers and other personal protective equipment.

Omaha’s Do Space made a few hundred face shields itself with help from its 3D printers, said Rebecca Stavick, the technology library’s executive director.

Do Space also has turned on 50 idle computers to join a global computing effort to analyze coronavirus proteins. Plus, the library is cranking out new educational webinars, offering tech help online and making its Wi-Fi available from the library’s parking lot.

“The community support has been extraordinary,” Stavick said. “We see the need, and the community responds.

“It might be scrappy and grassroots at the moment. But the need that’s being filled by the community, I see it as we’re buying time for the manufacturers to catch up.”

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Matt Van Zante is among a group making face shields for personal protective equipment for medical personnel.

The trio behind the grassroots face shield effort thought their idea had potential.

They had simple intentions: If mouth-covering masks were in short supply at hospitals, let’s make a shield to protect health care workers’ faces and extend use of what masks are available. Then they would provide them for free to hospitals and clinics.

To make the product work, they’d need to 1) 3D print a headband, 2) Affix a plastic face shield, then 3) Connect an elastic band.

With the first schematics in hand out of Europe, the group played around with the design and made some tests to see how quickly they’d print and how comfortable they’d be.

Van Zante even wore a printed shield for a day to try it out.

With a design down, they priced the market for pieces and found alternatives when items were out of stock.

Spaustat said they soon hit a sweet spot on the price: $1 to make one face shield.

So the group went public, first to Facebook on March 27, then to GoFundMe on March 28, looking to raise $1,000.

Said Spaustat, “We didn’t really foresee what would come next. We just wanted to do something.”

Facebook users shared the initial post 73 times. Health care providers responded.

By March 30, the group made its first delivery. MedExpress Clinic provided shields to its La Vista, Fremont and Lincoln locations. The Ralston Volunteer Fire Department and a Boys Town health clinic were among the first recipients.

Then CHI Health, Nebraska Methodist Health System, two Nebraska Medicine clinics.

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Matt Van Zante shows off one of the finished face shields he helped make.

The face shields are important equipment for health care providers caring for patients with COVID-19 to help the providers avoid exposure, said Greg Schardt, who works with CHI Health as its innovation section chief. The shields provide a barrier against a cough or other fluids, he said, and extend the life of other equipment by keeping it from getting soiled.

Schardt responded to the group as it went public. He asked things like: What designs are you using? What are your limitations? Do you need feedback?

The group has since delivered hundreds of shields to CHI locations.

In turn, CHI Health has supplied 12,000 PVC sheets for the face plate and 50 kilograms of filament to print the headbands.

CHI now is offering feedback to help improve the comfort.

“Everyone wants to help,” Schardt said. “There’s a groundswell of support.”

The World-Herald's complete coronavirus coverage

Methodist Health System has received 300 shields from the group.

The group’s effort says a lot about Omaha’s caring and generosity right now, said Karen Kresnik, director of supply chain for Nebraska Methodist Health System.

“It’s reassuring to know that people care about people,” Kresnik said, “and that they’re looking out for their neighbor.”

The 3D printing group itself has grown, bringing in individual printers and assistance from Iowa Western Community College, Metropolitan Community College and the Omaha organization Made New Makerspace. As of this week, about 50 printers are in the network.

And the shields keep going out.

Van Zante said a lot of people can feel helpless right now. But he said he feels good to be able to contribute somehow, to possibly prevent a health care worker from getting sick or make them more confident to do their work.

Said Spaustat, “What an incredible experience in two weeks.”

Photos: Nebraska's coronavirus helpers

UNMC med students now have time to volunteer

KENNETH FERRIERA/THE WORLD-HERALD 

A bottle of Purell sits on a kitchen countertop as UNMC med student Nate Mattison works on his laptop. Mattison is one of a handful of UNMC students who have stepped up fill various nonprofit needs. Mattison has signed up to be a Big Brother and is currently waiting to be paired up.

Medical students at the University of Nebraska Medical Center aren’t doing rotations, and plans for them to help with coronavirus care have been put on hold.

So many third- and fourth-year students have been eager to participate in a coronavirus-relief program called UNMC CoRe or other volunteer opportunities.

Almost 225 med students and people from other UNMC colleges are providing child and pet care and running errands for health care workers who are swamped. Others are collecting personal protective equipment.

So many have volunteered that third-year med student Taylor Kratochvil keeps track of everyone on a spreadsheet.

“We’ve been able to make an incredible impact in a short amount of time because of the enthusiasm of the students,” Kratochvil said. “It’s a way students feel like they can contribute to the health care team.”

Nate Mattison, a fourth-year student who hopes to go into emergency medicine, signed up with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Midlands.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while,” he said. “Now is a unique opportunity during med school. We have some free time.”

Mattison hopes to have kids of his own in a few years, so he thinks this will be good practice. He typically doesn’t get many chances to interact with adolescents because of his heavy class load.

There isn’t enough PPE and students lack the experience to be on the front lines in the fight against the virus, he said, so this is another way for him to help. He thinks it will be fun.

“It’s something that can be a very personal way to give back to the community,” he said, “and make a direct impact in a young individual’s life.”


Family’s mask making is helping Dundee eateries, too

ANDY KANE 

Ann Kane and her family are producing masks. Everyone has a job.

Ann Kane wanted to make masks for people but didn’t want to sell them.

Instead, she has been accepting donations that she’s using to buy gift cards from eating establishments in the Dundee area. Anyone who orders a mask is entered in a drawing to win one. So far, she has raised $750 for about 30 gift cards.

“Local restaurants are struggling, so it’s kind of a way to pay it forward and get my kids involved,” Kane said of her gift-card choice.

Kane and her family sewed about 200 masks last weekend.

Husband Andy does the ironing, daughter Madeline, a 20-year-old home from Loyola University Chicago, cuts the fabric. Camille, 10, attaches the elastic.

A spreadsheet helps them track orders, including pick-up.

Kane was surprised by the number of people who requested masks after she offered to make them in a Facebook post. The family even made 12 for the Nebraska Humane Society.

The consultant for a pharmaceutical company took a volunteer day to kick off the project.

“It was like a full-blown business while still being safe and social distancing,” she said.

The Kane family isn’t done. They planned to make kids’ masks this weekend if an order of elastic arrived.

Kane said it’s therapeutic to turn off the news, turn on the music and sew. It’s also good for her kids.

“I like to teach them to help the community and donate and all that good stuff,” she said.

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

Articles
3D PRINTING EFFORT QUICKLY TAKES SHAPE TO FILL NEED

They're like magic, these 3D printers.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a creation will appear. At first, just a little bit takes form, but then it grows, and builds, and takes shape until a virtual concept uploaded into this amazing piece of technology is made solid and real.

Generosity is like that. Kindness. Compassion.

It can start small — just a thought, an idea, a willingness to help. When someone acts on that, it tends to grow, and build, and take shape until its presence is unmistakable.

When 3D printing combined with a desire to help this time, the result has been powerful.

Omahans Matt Spaustat, Matthew Van Zante and Jordan Points had the 3D printers. As the coronavirus raged through Europe, makers from a company out of the Czech Republic devised a design for a 3D printed face shield and shared the digital file for anyone to use.

Recognizing the need here for health care workers to find protective equipment, Spaustat wanted to help: "We can do this," he told his friends.

Weeks later, a network of 3D printers has grown into a group known as PPE for NE, churning out more than 2,000 plastic face shields to deploy on the front lines in Nebraska's fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

A digital file, an idea and a desire to help have formed into unforeseen assistance for Omaha hospitals, local clinics and care centers.

"It's just an incredible opportunity for the community to pull together to do good," Spaustat said. "It's amazing."

In our time of need, helpers are stepping forward around our community and state.

Local hospitals, flooded with so many ideas and offers of assistance, have formed committees to vet the overflowing suggestions.

Organizers of school food programs have quickly turned in-school meals into community food distribution programs.

Seamstresses across the state have become rapid-response manufacturers of face masks.

Local makers from PPE for NE, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Nebraska Innovation Studio and individual homes have made face shields, ear protectors for health care workers and other personal protective equipment.

Omaha's Do Space made a few hundred face shields itself with help of its 3D printers, said Rebecca Stavick, the technology library's executive director.

Do Space also has turned on 50 idle computers to join a global computing effort to analyze coronavirus proteins. Plus, the library is cranking out new educational webinars, offering tech help online and making its Wi-Fi available from the library's parking lot.

"The community support has been extraordinary," Stavick said. "We see the need, and the community responds.

"It might be scrappy and grassroots at the moment. But the need that's being filled by the community, I see it as we're buying time for the manufacturers to catch up."

The trio behind the grassroots face shield effort thought their idea had potential.

They had simple intentions: If mouth-covering masks were in short supply at hospitals, let's make a shield to protect health care workers' faces and extend use of what masks are available. Then they would provide them for free to hospitals and clinics.

To make the product work, they'd need to 1) 3D print a headband 2) Affix a plastic face shield, then 3) Connect an elastic band.

With the first schematics in hand out of Europe, the group played around with the design and made some tests to see how quickly they'd print and how comfortable they'd be.

Van Zante even wore a printed shield for a day to try it out.

With a design down, they priced the market for pieces and found alternatives when items were out of stock.

Spaustat said they soon hit a sweet spot on the price: $1 to make one face shield.

So the group went public, first to Facebook on March 27, then to GoFundMe on March 28, looking to raise $1,000.

Said Spaustat, "We didn't really foresee what would come next. We just wanted to do something."

Facebook users shared the initial post 73 times. Health care providers responded.

By March 30, the group made its first delivery. MedExpress Clinic provided shields to its La Vista, Fremont and Lincoln locations. The Ralston Volunteer Fire Department and a Boys Town health clinic were among the first recipients.

Then CHI Health, Nebraska Methodist Health System, two Nebraska Medicine clinics.

The face shields are important equipment for health care providers caring for patients with COVID-19 to help the providers avoid exposure, said Greg Schardt, who works with CHI Health as its innovation section chief. The shields provide a barrier against a cough or other fluids, he said, and extend the life of other equipment by keeping it from getting soiled.

Schardt responded to the group as it went public. He asked things like: What designs are you using? What are your limitations? Do you need feedback?

The group has since delivered hundreds of shields to CHI locations.

In turn, CHI Health has supplied 12,000 PVC sheets for the face plate and 50 kilograms of filament to print the headbands.

CHI now is offering feedback to help improve the comfort.

"Everyone wants to help," Schardt said. "There's a groundswell of support."

Methodist Health System has received 300 shields from the group.

The group's effort says a lot about Omaha's caring and generosity right now, said Karen Kresnik, director of supply chain for Nebraska Methodist Health System.

"It's reassuring to know that people care about people," Kresnik said, "and that they're looking out for their neighbor."

The 3D printing group itself has grown, bringing in individual printers and assistance from Iowa Western Community College, Metropolitan Community College and the Omaha organization Made New Maker space. As of this week, about 50 printers are in the network.

And the shields keep going out.

Van Zante said a lot of people can feel helpless right now. But he said he feels good to be able to contribute somehow, to possibly prevent a health care worker from getting sick or make them more confident to do their work.

Said Spaustat, "What an incredible experience in two weeks."

jeff.robb@owh.com, 402-444-1128 twitter.com/jeffreyrobb

TELL US ABOUT THE HELPERS

The World-Herald wants to know: Who are the people stepping up in extraordinary ways to help our communities and our state through the pandemic? Tell us about them here: www2.dataomaha.com/coronavirus.


State_and_regional
special report
'Our normal activities have changed': Grand Island community is tested as coronavirus cases surge

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Firefighters in Grand Island expressed regret about failing to tell relatives of coronavirus patients that these might be their final words with their loved one.

So Battalion Chief Scott Kuehl last week talked with his firefighters, all of whom are paramedics or emergency medical technicians. If they have a bad feeling about a coronavirus patient as they work on him, they should feel free to tell loved ones: “You might want to say goodbye right now,” Kuehl said Friday.

The coronavirus surge has challenged standard practices in Grand Island and Hall County. Seven have now died of COVID-19 in the county. And this part of Nebraska has a virus rate per capita that’s much higher than any other Nebraska county and is similar to that of some of the most intensely hit states in the nation.

The contagious disease has created dread among many in Grand Island. To be cautious, some say, treat everyone as though they carry the virus. Others believe the problem has been exaggerated.

The disease also has tested the strings that hold Grand Island together as a community. About one-third of the city’s 51,500 residents are Latino.

The coronavirus crisis shows why it’s critical to support local journalism

Hall County Sheriff Rick Conrad had strongly recommended his deputies wear masks, gloves and protective eyewear when working in public. But Conrad said he issued a mandate last week that they must.

Conrad also said he tells his personnel that “if you’re stopping somebody” for a traffic infraction, “it better be something important.”

He has 32 sworn deputies, sergeants and captains. If the coronavirus swept through his department, his work shifts would be dismantled.

“I’m just saying for the safety of my deputies, our normal activities have changed a little bit,” he said.

Conrad said he hasn’t seen his 18-month-old granddaughter in more than a month because he doesn’t want to risk making her ill. Nor has he seen his elderly mother in Hastings since February.

But as of Friday, none of his personnel had tested positive for the disease.

Grand Island Capt. Jim Duering said Friday that one employee in his department tested positive, and that individual was not a sworn officer.

And Fire Chief Cory Schmidt said all tests on his personnel have come back negative. He tapped his knuckles on his wooden desk. One has had to quarantine for 14 days because a spouse had the illness, Schmidt said.

KENNETH FERRIERA/THE WORLD-HERALD 

A sign asks for a drive-by birthday parade for a child's ninth birthday on Friday in Grand Island.

The Fire Department has taken extra measures to protect firefighters, he said, including wearing special head and face devices when treating patients. They installed in ambulances a plastic barrier between the patient and ambulance driver, and firefighters get their temperatures checked twice during their 24-hour shifts. They disinfect vehicles and equipment almost constantly.

Kuehl, the battalion chief at one of four fire stations in the city, said one paramedic at a time assists a COVID-19 patient and wears a hazardous materials suit that is fully encapsulated. The patient wears a mask.

Kuehl said stress levels are higher than ever for firefighters and their families. As of about 10 days ago, he said, Grand Island firefighters started responding to an average of nine patients per day who have COVID-19 or are suspected of having it.

As of Saturday afternoon, the Central District Health Department reported 468 coronavirus cases in Hall County, an increase of 65 cases over Friday. Two new deaths also were reported, bringing to eight the total number of deaths in Hall, Hamilton and Merrick Counties.

In a video briefing last week, Edward Hannon, St. Francis Hospital’s president, said his hospital has transferred a few coronavirus patients to Lincoln and Omaha. Hannon said it’s not because his hospital or his intensive care unit are full. “But we also don’t know what’s next,” Hannon said.

KENNETH FERRIERA/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Most of Grand Island's COVID-19 patients are being sent to St. Francis Hospital in Grand Island.

Some in Grand Island wonder how seriously to take the outbreak.

Mike Lingeman, owner of the Old Town Boot Barn in downtown Grand Island, said he wished “the media would have something else to talk about” besides COVID-19.

Lingeman, 63, who repairs boots and holsters for law enforcement officers, said he didn’t fear the disease. “When my time’s up,” he said, “my time’s up.”

Taylor Roberts

Grand Island hotel clerk Taylor Roberts said she worries that younger people, especially, are cavalier about the disease. Roberts, 26, said she confines herself mostly to her apartment and her mother’s residence. But many high school- and college-age kids continue to live without concern, she said, despite warnings to stay home as much as possible.

Trucker Joshua Parmenter sat in his truck cab on a snowy Thursday night and awaited his next cross-country assignment. Parmenter, who lives in Iowa, said he used to be a Grand Island resident. Some of the loads he hauls are meat from JBS, a large Grand Island packing plant where some employees have tested positive for coronavirus.

Parmenter, 42, wore short sleeves that revealed many tattoos. He said he naturally strives to avoid taking the disease home to his seven children. He said he keeps his hands washed and keeps on trucking.

“I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” he said. But he said the situation has been overblown.

JBS, which has many employees who came from Mexico, Cuba, Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere, has been at the center of many conversations about the coronavirus in Grand Island. Hotel clerk Roberts said some people express frustration about the meatcutters officially being called “essential workers” and want the plant to be closed.

“Of course social media is fueling the fire a little bit,” she said. There are nasty comments online from time to time, she said, about the workers’ immigration status and origins.

“And I think everybody is super brave through a computer screen,” she said.

KENNETH FERRIERA/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Latino advocate Sandra Barrera says it’s a disadvantage when information about COVID-19 is printed only in English.

Sandra Barrera, an extension educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of the Grand Island Latino Network, said it’s a disadvantage when educational materials about the disease are printed in English and some of the workers still speak their native languages.

That prompts people, Barrera said, to comment that they should learn to speak English. Government agencies, local and beyond, have begun doing a better job of providing Spanish-language material, she said. The Central District Health Department publishes daily announcements about the coronavirus in English and Spanish.

Barrera, who came to the United States from Colombia 20 years ago, said immigrants arrive in Grand Island for the jobs, the reasonable cost of living, and the fact that people from their home countries are already there.

“It’s a good community,” she said.

Carlos Barcenas, who has his own consulting business in Grand Island, said rude comments pop up online because some people associate JBS with Latino workers.

Barcenas, who came to this country from Mexico in 1994, said Grand Island has a good school system and it’s a fine place. But the Latino community doesn’t get adequate recognition, he said. Immigrant-dependent businesses in the city are vital to its economic health, he said.

In the vast JBS parking lot Thursday night, a Latino man brushed snow off his wife’s vehicle as she worked inside the plant. He wanted to lighten her load when her shift ended. He declined to give his name.

His 13-year-old son expressed no fear of the coronavirus. But his father then pulled a mask and sanitizing liquid from his vehicle and said he didn’t want anyone to have the impression he and his family were uncaring.

He said: “We do our part.”

World-Herald staff writer Erin Duffy contributed to this report.

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus