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COVID-19 cases continue to decline, but officials warn to continue taking precautions

Nebraska and Douglas County continued to see a decline in COVID-19 cases during the latest seven-day period.

It hasn’t been a swift decline in either case, but it has been steady. The state added 931 cases during the seven days that ended Thursday, according to a state dashboard, an average of 133 cases a day. That was down from about 157 a day during the preceding seven-day period and 170 a day during the seven days before that. The state recorded a peak of 677 cases in one day on May 7. Totals on Friday stood at 18,524 cases, with 22 new deaths reported since last Friday, bringing the number of deaths to 266.

Douglas County added 524 cases during the seven-day period ending Friday, an average of 75 new cases a day. That was down from an average of 93 during the preceding seven days. The county’s weekly tallies have been declining since a peak of 1,112 during the week ending May 30, according to the county’s data dashboard. Totals on Friday stood at 6,764 cases and 86 deaths related to COVID-19, with 10 of those reported within the past week.

But health officials continued to warn that the virus is not gone. Nebraska’s numbers remain higher than a threshold at which they would consider them contained. Meanwhile, cases have surged at alarming rates this week in states such as Texas, Florida and California.

Gov. Pete Ricketts cautioned Nebraskans on Thursday that while the state is in a good position, with hospitalizations statewide down from a high in late April, it’s not time to get cocky. “We’ve got to continue to manage this,” he said at a press conference.

Dr. Cliff Robertson, the chief executive of CHI Health, noted the downtrend in hospitalizations at a press conference Wednesday.

On that day, the health system had 61 COVID-19 patients across its 14 hospitals in Nebraska and Iowa, he said. That’s down from a peak of 167 patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 on April 28. As of June 10, the health system had cared for 621 COVID-19 patients in Nebraska and southwest Iowa.

On Friday, 100 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the metro area. Last week, there were 104.

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Some states with surges of cases are seeing more cases among younger people. In Nebraska, 20- to 34-year-olds make up the largest proportion of positive cases since the pandemic began at 29.5%.

Phil Rooney, a spokesman for the Douglas County Health Department, said the county has seen a few more cases among younger people in the past week and a half but no major shifts.

Thirty-one percent of the county’s cases since the pandemic began have been among 20- to 34-year-olds and 11% among those under 20.

Dr. Doug Moore, director of critical care at CHI Health, said the health system has seen some downtrend in ages. But one surprise has been the impact of diabetes and obesity among younger patients who become ill.

Officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday noted that younger people are not immune to the virus and that risk rises with age, rather than being confined primarily to those over 65. The agency also broadened its warning about who is at risk of developing severe disease, noting that people of any age with conditions such as chronic kidney disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes are at increased risk.

Robertson said CHI Health is using the lessons it learned during the first months of the pandemic to prepare for fall and winter. The large health system was able to avoid shortages of staff and supplies because it was able to move resources among its facilities and those of its parent, CommonSpirit Health.

To ensure an adequate supply of protective gear in the future, CommonSpirit has joined other health systems in investing in a domestic manufacturer in Texas.

To prepare for continued demand for testing and a possible second wave of the virus, CHI Health’s core laboratory at Creighton University Medical Center-Bergan Mercy plans to double its testing capacity by August, bumping daily capacity to 1,000 tests a day.

Dr. Stephen Cavalieri, a professor of pathology at Creighton University School of Medicine, said the health system’s clinics want to do more testing, and it’s also had requests from schools and nursing homes.

CHI Health, Creighton’s clinical partner, began conducting its own testing on two existing testing platforms in late March.

By Wednesday, the health system had conducted 20,000 tests, with some additional testing at hospitals in Grand Island, Lincoln and Kearney. That’s separate from a testing lab at St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center in Lincoln that continues to perform for TestNebraska, the state-run program.

The core lab was validating a third existing testing system this week and is also pooling samples, which conserves testing materials. Later this summer, Cavalieri said, the lab will add a new, automated, high-volume system. Lab staff have also validated an antibody test and are exploring the best way to use it.

But CHI officials also stressed the need for Nebraskans to continue to take precautions to avoid infection by keeping their distance and avoiding large groups, wearing masks when they’re in public and can’t maintain the proper distance, and practicing proper hand hygiene.

“We’ve done pretty well so far,” said Dr. David Quimby, an infectious diseases physician with the system. “We’re doing pretty well now, virus-wise. But it’s not gone from our communities. We need to do what we can so that it stays controllable.”

Photos: Nebraska's coronavirus helpers

Proposed police reforms are praised, criticized as some Omahans worry over lack of accountability

Black and Latino Omahans responded with a mix of praise and criticism for police policy proposals announced by Omaha’s mayor and police chief Thursday.

And some offered advice on how to make the proposed changes into real reforms and not mere window dressing to calm a crisis.

The city’s policy changes on use of force and more ongoing anti-bias training reflect community desires expressed in forums led by the NAACP, Urban League of Nebraska, the Empowerment Network and other groups, said Willie Barney, the Empowerment Network’s founder and president.

He said the close work between Police Chief Todd Schmaderer and Omaha 360 has played a role in a sharp reduction in officer-involved shootings recently, and that previously adopted expansion of body cameras and mental health response teams were among several measures in the forums’ top 10 desires.

“For the last couple of weeks people have been saying what’s the next 10,” Barney said. “So it’s encouraging to see the chief of police here in Omaha step out on a number of those things that would be in that top 10 based on what we’re hearing from the community.”

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Making sure that officers are required to intervene and report when they see something go wrong, he said, and banning chokeholds and knee-to-neck pins “are some of the more specific things that the community has been asking for.”

District 2 City Council member Ben Gray also praised the proposed changes as extending the progress that he believes the Omaha Police Department has made in community policing and community relations, including training and diversifying the department.

“They’ve come a long way,” Gray said, adding that Omaha’s department differs from those in some other cities with high-profile incidents. “We’re not Minneapolis. We’re not New York.”

Ja Keen Fox, one of the leaders of recent protests in Omaha, sees it differently. He said some of the policy changes appear good, but lack specificity.

“The biggest failure here is that there is no conversation about accountability and how the policy changes actually impact interactions that police have with their citizens,” Fox said. He noted that Omaha’s existing ban on chokeholds, for example, has an exception for when officers are attacked or face deadly force.

“We know police often use the line that they fear for their lives, and that alleviates them of all accountability in the interaction,” he said.

When policies have such caveats, “there is no real impetus for change, or behavioral change,” said Fox, who is a member of Mayor Jean Stothert’s LGBTQ+ advisory board.

Fox also questioned proposals that will require additional police spending, such as more training on Taser usage, at a time when some in the community want to shift funding away from police and into community services.

Sergio Sosa, executive director of the Heartland Workers Center, said the mayor’s announcement included “modest improvements” to police use of force policy that are encouraging.

“But there is no apparent increase in police transparency, accountability, or liability for misconduct under that policy,” Sosa said. And he said the proposed new training would not address “systemic problems in policing” such as profiling and military-style training.

Precious McKesson, president of the North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance and secretary of the local NAACP chapter, said the mayor’s diversity and inclusion focus and anti-bias training for police officers “are a step in the right direction.”

“It’s sad that it took this long for them to realize that this is what people have been asking for for many years, since before George Floyd,” McKesson said. “We’ve been asking of this, to be more diversified. So, glad you’re listening, but what took you so long to understand?”

She welcomes Stothert’s pledge to diversify city boards, commissions and city government in general, but said that needs to be a priority. She said the mayor and others need to find “fresh faces, new voices” of people involved in the community, including Black Lives Matter activists.

Gray welcomed Stothert’s plan to hire a diversity and inclusion manager, and said that position should have the same standing as the police and fire chiefs, as well as civil service protection against being fired for political reasons.

Peaceful protests mark an emotional night in Omaha

Photos: Peaceful protests mark an emotional night in Omaha


OPS outlines plan for fall school reopening with only half of students in buildings at a time

Omaha Public Schools officials unveiled a fall reopening plan Friday that would divide students into two groups who would each attend school in-person part of the week.

Half of students districtwide would attend school Monday and Tuesday, the other half Thursday and Friday. They would rotate attending Wednesday.

The result would be fewer students in a school building on a given day, creating the elbow room officials say would be needed for social distancing in classrooms and cafeterias and on buses.

“The only way we can practice distancing is by limiting the population of kids in the classroom and in the schools,” school board president Marque Snow said Friday.

Nebraska’s biggest school district has become the first in the metro area to roll out specific plans for coping with COVID-19 next school year.

Under the plan, all staff, students and visitors would be expected to wear a mask at school.

Exceptions would be made for children under age 2, those who cannot remove a mask without assistance and others with special needs. Exceptions also would be made for athletic activities, as long as social distancing is maintained, as well as while drinking and eating.

Superintendent Cheryl Logan, in a letter to staff, said the plan is “our best path forward right now.”

“We understand that no solution is ideal during this time, and we hope that conditions allow us to return at 100% in the future,” Logan said.

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District officials are expected to share more details about the plan at a special school board meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday. The board will consider a resolution to require masks in school. The board will consider starting school on Aug. 11 instead of Aug. 18 and extending winter break by a week.

The board meeting will be held by teleconference. It can be accessed via this link: https://district.ops.org/BOARDOFEDUCATION/OPSBoardStream.aspx.

Students would be divided into two groups based on the starting letters of their last names.

Students whose names start with A through K would attend every Monday and Tuesday. Those starting with L through Z would attend every Thursday and Friday. Wednesday would rotate between groups.

The plan would be for all grades across the district.

The recently purchased iPads for students would be incorporated into classroom learning, giving kids a blend of in-person and home learning.

The days when students are not attending school would not be days off, Snow said.

Students would have assignments, which could involve the use of the iPads, he said.

Board members previously approved buying 54,400 iPad computer tablets for $27.6 million and a wireless data contract for students to access the Internet.

Snow said students will be trained to use the devices remotely, so the district can shift to full-time at-home learning if health conditions require it.

Reducing the number of students in school would likewise reduce the number riding buses.

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“The same amount of buses will run, there will just be less kids on those buses,” Snow said. “The buses will still run their same routes.”

The cafeteria staff would still prepare the meals with social distancing, but the cafeterias would have fewer students eating, he said.

Breakfasts would be the grab-and-go type.

Reducing the number of kids in a building would result in smaller class sizes each day.

Snow said the average K-12 class size in OPS is about 27 students. That would be cut in half. In elementary schools, the daily class size would be even smaller, because elementary class sizes are normally kept smaller than at secondary schools.

He said the small sizes should help allay the fears of teachers concerned about the health risks of returning to the classroom.

“If you look at our staff age, we have a lot of teachers that are very vulnerable,” as well as support staff, he said. “The challenge is we need to make sure that they are safe and secure so they can come to work every day, because if they can’t come to work, there’s no instruction.”

He said families who want to keep children home, instead of sending them back to school buildings, have the option of enrolling them in the district’s virtual school.

Board member Lou Ann Goding said she has questions about the plan’s impact on working parents, who would have to find child care for the days their kids are not at school.

“I certainly have questions about how it will impact parents who are back to work after the start of the school year,” she said. “And I also still have questions on the masks.”

The Omaha Public Schools board has already approved the purchase of more than 360,000 cloth masks for students and staff.

The school board approved the $325,983 purchase June 15.

The plan calls for giving each child five masks at school open houses. Disposable masks would be available in schools and on buses, in case kids needed one.

This week the board heard from two health experts who recommended masks as an important tool in an array of practices to prevent transmission of COVID-19.

An OPS survey this month found parents and students were split on whether to require masks.

Under the OPS plan, cleaning and sanitizing would be stepped up. Hand sanitizer would be available at every entrance and in every classroom.

Our best staff images from June 2020

Look back at our best staff photos from June 2020


'We're just excited to get our family back': Big weekend may be ahead for bars, restaurants

For the first time in more than three months, patrons can make their way down the Dubliner’s stairs, take a seat at the bar and listen to live music.

The iconic Old Market pub had a limited reopening June 15, and beginning Monday the coronavirus restrictions were further relaxed statewide. In 89 counties — including the Omaha and Lincoln areas — bars and restaurants were allowed to open dining rooms to 100% of their capacity. And maintaining a 6-foot distance between tables became a recommendation, rather than a rule enforceable by a possible misdemeanor charge.

The Dubliner’s owner, Frank Vance, said it’s too early to tell how much business will pick up with the relaxed restrictions. This weekend will be the true test.


Billy Palmer has a drink at Sippin' Sirens in Omaha on Thursday.

“We’ve got live music like we always do on the weekends,” Vance said. “This will be the first weekend back with that. I don’t know how much (fully reopening) will actually change things.”

Because the pub at 1205 Harney St. doesn’t offer food, it couldn’t join restaurants in offering limited dine-in services starting May 4. The pub also decided against providing drinks for pickup. “Because the bar is in a basement in the Old Market, we didn’t feel like it would be a great offering,” Vance said.

The first day of June brought patrons back to many Omaha bars as Gov. Pete Ricketts began to lift restrictions on bars and lounges, allowing no more than 50% capacity, with patrons at tables spaced out by at least 6 feet and no one sitting at the bar. However, Vance wasn’t able to reopen that day.

A Black Lives Matter protest that began May 29 at 72nd and Dodge Streets spilled into the Old Market on May 30. Harney Street, which was already under construction, was further shut down for more than a week due to a shooting death that occurred during the protests.

“Once we got the chance to open, then the streets closed,” Vance said. “It was like there was this temporary bit of excitement as you drive down, then you see the street closed.”

The police cars and crime scene tape are now gone. A sign sits on the sidewalk outside the Dubliner, directing people to the pub below.

“We’re open,” Vance said. “We’re just excited to get our family back.”

Bar owner Angela Honig was also excited to welcome back friends and family to Sippin’ Sirens, her bar at 4302 S. 42nd St.

“Business is definitely up,” Honig said. “People are ready to come back out and have their beers. It’s great to see everyone and see that they’re doing OK.”

Honig said allowing customers at the bar actually spreads people farther apart because instead of sitting six to a table, they can go back to seating four.


Stella McAfee pours a beer at Sippin’ Sirens in Omaha. “Business is definitely up,” bar owner Angela Honig said. “People are ready to come back out and have their beers. It’s great to see everyone and see that they’re doing OK.”

“It’ll make tables a little more roomy,” she said.

While bars across the city gear up for their first weekend back at 100% capacity, restaurant owner Gladys Harrison is taking a cautious approach and sticking with takeout.

Harrison’s restaurant, Big Mama’s Kitchen, was just getting settled at its new location in the Highlander Accelerator building near 30th Street and Patrick Avenue when the coronavirus shut things down. But even with the rollback on restrictions, Big Mama’s dining room will remain closed.

“All the reports that you see from the health department said that we’re not over the worst of this yet. So we’re going to continue to offer curbside takeout and catering, at least through July, and we’ll reexamine in a couple of weeks,” Harrison said. “We might consider reopening our dining room in August.”

In the meantime, Big Mama’s Kitchen will continue to offer take and bake, curbside pickup and catering options.

“We still want to provide great food,” Harrison said. “We still know that people need to eat, even though we’re in one of the worst crises that we have experienced in our lifetime. People need services that can take some of the burden off them.”

Harrison said it’s been a difficult year for everyone.

“I don’t care what kind of business you have, this has been a real challenge, but human beings we are the most unique creations and we have the ability to adapt and that’s what we’ve been doing at Big Mama’s.”

Safety concerns are also on Colin Duggan’s mind.

Duggan and his wife, Jessica, own Kitchen Table at 1415 Farnam St. He said one of the biggest challenges over the past few months has been a lack of predictability.

Big events at the CHI Health Center, TD Ameritrade Park and the Orpheum used to provide the restaurant with an idea of how much business to expect.

“With all these things canceled, all those things you could kind of look to as beacons for what’s coming up are missing, so you never know when you’re going to have a busy day and when it’s going to be a slow day,” Duggan said.

Though Kitchen Table has a few tables open and plans to utilize patio space, Duggan said the restaurant still isn’t open at 100% capacity.

“As far as opening wholly, we haven’t really gotten there yet, at least not comfortably,” Duggan said. “I think conceptually it’s a good idea, but I think everybody realizes that no matter what the rules are, we’re not ready as a society to really go back to normal.”

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