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A true fish tale: How a railroad crash boosted Nebraska's fishing stock in the late 1800s

Salmon caught in the Platte and Missouri Rivers? Black bass and pickerel in the Elkhorn?

This fish story that dates to 1873 has largely been lost to the annals of time, and how it happened almost defies logic — what are the chances? — but trust us, it is true.

For almost a decade some of the best freshwater fishing anywhere in the country was in eastern Nebraska’s waterways. What made for an angler’s delight were a rainy spell, a railroad trestle collapse between Elkhorn and Waterloo and an aquarium car on a Union Pacific train bound for California. That’s right. An aquarium car.

Our yarn starts in 1873, when the California Fish Commission chartered a Central Pacific Railroad fruit car to be sent to New England to be fitted as an aquarium. The mission: Stock California’s waterways with non-native species. The man in charge: Livingston Stone of the United States Fish Commission.

It was front-page news for the San Francisco Examiner, which printed a letter Stone wrote to the fish commission and included this prophetic excerpt:

“I think I shall be able to start with a good supply of fishes, but the chances against getting them across the continent alive are enormous. Still, everything will be done that experience and care can dictate and while we will prepare for the worst we will hope for the best.”

He hadn’t counted on a rainy spring in Nebraska.

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In New England, Stone was collecting his living fish. From his account in a federal fisheries report published in 1876, upward of 60 black bass and 11 walleyes from Lake Champlain, 190 yellow perch and 12 bullheads from the Missisquoi River, 110 catfish from the Raritan River, 20 tautogs (blackfish) and 1,500 fresh-water eels from Martha’s Vineyard, 1,000 eastern trout from Charlestown and 162 lobsters and a barrel of oysters from Massachusetts Bay. The black bass, bullheads, catfish and some of the lobsters were “full-grown and heavy with spawn.”

All went into the aquarium car. It held a 5-ton covered tank that was the width of the car, 32 inches deep and 8 feet long. At the other end were an icebox and “the reserves of sea-water, six large cases of lobsters and a barrel of oysters.” Portable tanks were in the center of the car. Four passengers, including Stone, slept on top of the 5-ton tank.

At Albany, New York, 40,000 fresh-water eels from the Hudson River were loaded. At Chicago, 20,000 shad and shad eggs and perhaps some salmon were brought on board to stock the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

The train went on the U.P. line in Omaha on June 8. Aside from some eels and a few lobsters that had perished, Stone wrote, “everything was promising well.”

Until dinner time that Sunday afternoon. Stone:

“Suddenly there came a terrible crash, and tanks, ice and everything in the car seemed to strike us in every direction. We were, everyone of us, at once wedged in by the heavy weights upon us.”

A trestle over a flooding slough east of the Elkhorn River, 400 feet long and 12 feet high, had weakened from the soggy conditions. The front of the train, which included a mail car behind the aquarium car and then several passenger cars, tumbled into what the Omaha Republican newspaper called 10 feet of water in a rapid current.

The U.P. roadmaster riding in the engine, 35-year-old Michael Carey of Omaha, died in the wreckage. His was the first burial in the newly consecrated Holy Sepulchre Cemetery at 48th and Leavenworth Streets, and the only death from the accident.

Stone and the others in the aquarium car swam around the car and climbed on the engine to reach safety. All others on the train survived.

“Growing up in Gretna, I remember the old-timers talking about this,’’ said Greg Wagner, a longtime spokesman for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. “They’d refer to it as ‘The Wreck.’ ”

How about the fish in the aquarium car? Stone, in The Omaha Herald the day after the accident, said:

“The fish have all been lost in the Elkhorn River, which at the present time (is) very high and muddy, and no doubt, all of the fish soon perished in that water so that even Nebraska will not be benefited by the sudden fish planting.”

The tautog (blackfish), lobsters and oysters didn’t survive. The others apparently thrived, according to these newspaper accounts.

ILLUSTRATION BY MATT HANEY/THE WORLD-HERALD 

A trestle over a flooding slough east of the Elkhorn River, 400 feet long and 12 feet high, had weakened from the soggy conditions. The crash stocked eastern Nebraska rivers with fish during the late 1800s.

At the time:

Omaha Republican: “When the fish car went through the trestle work it sunk completely under water, where it toppled over and the fish escaped into the slough and thence to the Elkhorn. At least a million of small fry were then let loose into a Nebraska stream. The river is quite muddy now, so some of them will probably die but the greater portion will live, increase and multiply.

“It is not very joyful news to the owners of the fish or to those who may have to pay for them, but it is a big thing for the Elkhorn River, which is thus magnificently stocked free with the finest varieties of fish.”

Three years later, in 1876:

Kansas City Journal: “At Plattsmouth, some fishermen hauled a seine in the Missouri and among the fish taken were a large number of salmon from six to 18 inches long. These fish, it is believed, came from the Elkhorn. … So it will be seen that the accident is proving a benefit to Nebraska and it demonstrates that salmon will flourish in our streams, as muddy as they are.”

It should be noted that the salmon could have come from stockings by the U.S. Fish Commission along the Missouri from the Floyd River at Sioux City, Iowa, to Council Bluffs in 1875. Isn’t there a little wiggle room to every fish story?

Four years later, 1877:

Nebraska State Journal: “We are reminded of the great washout whereby $20,000 worth of ‘fish seed’ was spilled into the running waters by the sight of some of those very fish which have been caught by the boys in the river and lakes hereabouts. Black bass … trout, pickerel, pike and salmon, as well as eels, have been captured in sufficient quantities to demonstrate the fact that this whole water course has been well stocked with these beautiful and excellent fish.”

Omaha Herald: “Now we are beginning to realize on our home fisheries. Yesterday Sheely Bros. received a shipment of salmon taken from the Elkhorn at Waterloo. Our readers will remember that a few years ago … spaun (sic) went into the river. Nice thing, wasn’t it?”

Even seven years later, 1880:

Omaha Daily Herald: “Fishermen are catching large numbers of black bass, pickerel and other choice fish from the (Platte) river near Ashland, the progeny of those spilled into the Elkhorn river a few years ago by an accident to a car filled with live young fish from the Atlantic seaboard.”

Finally in the early 1880s, the great fishing dried up in Nebraska.

How did the hooks come up empty? We don’t know for sure. Certainly some of the exotic species fared poorly. Another contributory factor could be this concern of the Nebraska State Journal in 1879: “There are parties who own seines and drag the waters clean of fish at all seasons. Fishing with nets should be stopped at once.”

Did California ever get its fish? Yes. After the wreck, Stone returned to New England for an immediate retry, this time bringing only shad to California. On the trip west, he asked that the train be stopped at the wreck site so he could bring on 50 gallons of Elkhorn River water for the remainder of the trip to California.

A year later, he delivered a carload of the eastern species to California in eight days. His legacy is such that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s hatchery in Shasta, California, is named for him.

Since then, this story has been largely forgotten. Some details were included in a 1963 publication of the Game and Parks Commission, “A History of Fisheries Resources,” by David J. Jones with illustrations by Frank Holub.

In Nebraska, the wreck and the subsequent fishing boon spawned the interest to start a private hatchery near Gretna in 1877, so game fish no longer had to be imported, and a state fish commission was created two years later. That agency is now the Game and Parks Commission.

Transporting fish nationwide by rail continued until truck and air travel became more feasible and economical after World War II, as explained in a 1947 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service historical booklet.

Raquel Espinoza, Union Pacific senior director for corporate communications and media relations, found the booklet in the railroad’s archive. She said the Union Pacific Historical Museum in Council Bluffs had no mention of the 1873 wreck in its files.

The Fish and Wildlife Service history, interestingly, begins with Stone’s shad-only trip — the one after the wreck — and places it a year later in 1874.

It said the trip was made in Fish Car No. 2. But after reading this fish tale, you now know what happened to Car No. 1.

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State_and_regional
special report
'I'm scared to return': Nebraska meatpacking workers and their families speak out
SMITHFIELD FOODS 

A UNMC survey asks meatpacking workers, among other things, if they have access to masks, such as these at Smithfield Foods.

Dulce Castañeda knows what her Mexican immigrant parents have sacrificed — and what her family has gained — by working at the Smithfield Foods pork plant in Crete, Nebraska.

Her mother stopped working at the meatpacking plant when Dulce was a girl, after the repetitive hacking motions required to slice pork injured her wrist. Her father still works there after nearly 25 years, even as eight- and 10-hour shifts on the production line leave his back and hands aching.

“It’s been gruesome and hard and difficult, but it’s something he’s stuck with all these years,” said Castañeda, 26. “I definitely admire him for that. Even being such a back-breaking job, it’s gotten all of his children to really live out his version of the American dream.”

The steady employment and reliable wages have allowed her parents to own their home in Crete. Their children have been spared a similar life working on or near the kill floor — Castañeda and her sister went to college. Their brother joined the military.

Life as a meatpacking worker was never easy, and it has only grown harder during the coronavirus pandemic.

Inside the sprawling plants located on the edges of many rural communities — or the old stockyards in South Omaha — the work involved in slaughtering animals and cutting and packaging the bacon, steaks and chicken breasts sold to local grocery stores and restaurants is grueling, bloody and virtually invisible. The workers are often immigrants or refugees from Central America, Myanmar, Somalia and South Sudan drawn to work that doesn’t require much English and pays higher than minimum wage.

ANNA REED/THE WORLD-HERALD 

A discarded face mask sits outside the Tyson Foods beef plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, which was briefly closed for deep cleaning.

But now those workers face new risks and fears as the coronavirus spreads through meatpacking plants across the Midwest. Roughly 15% of Nebraska’s confirmed coronavirus cases and at least three deaths can be traced to meatpacking plants — 1,005 of the state’s 6,771 cases as of Thursday involved workers, Gov. Pete Ricketts said.

Inside crowded plants where hundreds, sometimes thousands, work, the highly contagious virus threatens to sicken workers. Meanwhile, production slows as plants temporarily shut down or scramble to keep pumping out meat with smaller crews. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at least 20 workers nationwide have died, based on data submitted to them by 19 states in April.

In Nebraska, outbreaks have hit Grand Island, Omaha, Crete, Lexington, Madison, Dakota City and Schuyler, at chicken, beef and pork plants run by meat titans such as Tyson Foods, Smithfield, Cargill, and JBS USA. A worker at a Fremont chicken plant died of coronavirus-related complications, the company that runs the plant disclosed. The Sioux City Journal has reported at least three deaths tied to Tyson’s Dakota City beef plant.

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD  

The water tower at the Smithfield Foods pork plant in Crete, Nebraska.

Roughly 330 people — workers and their family members — connected to the Crete plant where Castañeda’s father works have tested positive for the virus, according to local health departments.

Similar to coronavirus clusters seen in homeless shelters, prisons and nursing homes, the crowded conditions in plants seem to allow the virus to spread more easily, the CDC said. But it’s still difficult to pinpoint whether workers who are falling ill caught the virus at work or during off-hours.

Workers’ family members said the plants and the nature of the close-quarters work seem to be the common denominator fueling outbreaks.

“We’re all worried and sick to our stomachs,” said Castañeda, who helped organize a group, Children of Smithfield, to bring awareness to plant conditions and spotlight workers. “Now we’re just seeing larger and larger numbers of cases turning out positive each day, and we’re just watching things get worse.”

The World-Herald spoke with nearly a dozen meatpacking workers or their family members in Crete, Lexington, Omaha, Council Bluffs and Grand Island. Most spoke on the condition that they not be named out of fear that they or their relatives would lose their jobs.

Some credited plant operators for trying their best to contain a virus that has upended the world.

“I don’t blame Tyson really at all about this,” said one man who works at Tyson’s beef plant in Lexington. “I think they maybe could have been a little quicker on some things. When the whole nation is looking for masks, that makes it harder.”

Meat companies have said they are trying to protect their workers with enhanced safety measures — temperature checks, dividers on the production line, relaxed attendance policies and increased sanitation of plants — while still satisfying the appetites of American and global customers who want meat.

“Our ability to get our workforce at full capacity depends on the safety of our team members,” Tyson spokeswoman Morgan Watchous said. “So right now, we’re focused on using every tool at our disposal to make sure they are protected and capable of continuing to serve their critical role of bringing food to families’ tables across the country.”

But some workers described bathrooms without soap, even as posters on the walls remind workers to wash their hands. Workers at one South Omaha plant were told they could buy personal protective equipment from their employer — 50 cents a mask and $12.50 for a box of rubber gloves. A temporary worker at an Omaha Steaks warehouse in Sarpy County said he was fired after complaining about the cloth masks given to workers in the freezer section that quickly got soiled and wet. The company disputed his version of events.

A refugee with young children who works at the Costco chicken plant in Fremont decided to stay home rather than risk getting sick. A worker at the JBS plant in Grand Island did the same to protect his pregnant wife, but went back because they needed the money. Many described a nearly impossible choice.

What’s more important: your health or a paycheck?

* * *

KENNETH FERRIERA/THE WORLD-HERALD 

The JBS Beef plant in Grand Island.

Hall County, where Grand Island is located, has one of the highest numbers of coronavirus cases in Nebraska, 1,311 on Friday. The infections have soared due to community spread, outbreaks in nursing homes and the more than 200 workers at the massive JBS USA beef plant who have tested positive for COVID-19.

One worker in the slaughterhouse at the JBS plant said several people in the area where he worked tested positive for COVID-19.

“Our managers didn’t say anything. I panicked and left,” he said.

The worker, who has asthma, decided he couldn’t risk it and stopped coming to work in mid-April. He said JBS had not provided masks until a few days before he left.

“I am scared to return,” he said at the end of April. “Without money, I can find a way to live, but I can’t live without my health.”

Nikki Richardson, a JBS spokeswoman, said masks were provided in Grand Island starting April 7, after the company ran into problems securing enough masks for workers in more than 60 facilities. Masks are now mandatory and handed out daily, and dividers have been placed on the production line where possible.

Daily absenteeism has hovered around 34% and is improving, she said. That includes a number of workers who have been sent home with pay because they are older or have serious health problems.

JBS told employees they can take unpaid time off if they do not feel comfortable working. Those who do show up get paid an extra $4 per hour and a $600 bonus, a deal struck between JBS and the union that represents workers in Omaha and Grand Island.

Despite the wage increase, one woman decided to stay home until the situation there improves.

Co-workers have told her that JBS has added dividers in the cafeteria, more hand sanitizer stations and masks. The plant already had an on-site health clinic. But it’s difficult to stay 6 feet apart when hundreds of people work each shift. The plant employs a total of 3,600 people.

She left at the end of March because there were no social distancing protocols in the workplace, not enough hand sanitizer for everyone and no hand soap in the bathrooms. She said the slaughterhouse where she works doesn’t have the same conditions as other areas of the plant that some members of the media were allowed to tour in early April.

She has been burning through savings to pay bills and buy groceries for her family. She has not received any financial assistance, but she said returning to JBS right now is the last option — she wants to work but needs to know it is safe and every worker has been tested.

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A slaughterhouse employee reluctantly returned to work after a weeks-long absence to provide for his growing family.

“I decided to come back to work because my daughter will be born” soon, he said. “I’m trying to take care of my health as much as I can.”

He said masks are doled out and temperature checks are done at the entrance of the buildings, but inside the plant is a different story, with some workers squeezed close together and a limited availability of water and soap.

“We have plenty of soap and hand sanitizer in the facility, and we have dedicated staff whose only job is to continuously clean facilities, including common areas beyond the production floor,” Richardson said.

Several of the people interviewed said they are aware of employees with COVID-19 still working. Officials at numerous companies have said that workers are urged to stay home if they’re feeling sick and that those who are ill are sent home to isolate — sometimes with full pay, sometimes with short-term disability coverage that pays less.

Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele has said he wants JBS to remain open, to prevent any nationwide meat shortages.

With other plants shutting down or scaling back production, the plant in Grand Island is now processing half of all Nebraska’s beef, he said at a press conference Thursday. The plant is donating money and thousands of pounds of meat to local grocery stores and food drives.

“I want JBS to be a safe place to work, and the management at JBS wants the same thing,” he said.

* * *

SMITHFIELD FOODS 

Smithfield Foods said it is installing plastic dividers in common areas and on the production line, when possible, to separate workers.

Ricketts and President Donald Trump have said meatpacking plants must stay open to continue feeding America, with Trump signing an executive order April 28 deeming the facilities critical infrastructure.

Ricketts has said conditions at meatpacking plants are not solely to blame for the outbreaks — workers could be contracting the virus at home or the grocery store. Prevention efforts need to focus on what’s happening in workplaces and out in the community, he said, with better outreach to those who speak other languages.

Public health officials have said lower-income workers may be more vulnerable to the virus due to poverty and other factors.

“It’s not just the plant itself, it’s not just what’s happening within the place of work,” said Carrie Henning-Smith, a University of Minnesota assistant professor who researches rural health and health disparities.

“It’s this stew of other things that we have happening in those places,” she said in a conference call last week with journalists. “Meatpacking plants are disproportionately staffed by people who are newer immigrants ... people who have lower access to health insurance, some people who have more underlying health conditions to begin with, people who work very low wages and who live in closer quarters. And so ... even without the meatpacking plant, they’re more at risk.

“It’s just a really volatile situation we are seeing play out in tragic ways in the Midwest and beyond,” she continued.

Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour said at a press conference May 1 that workers could be contracting the virus on the clock or off.

“It could be that these individuals are bringing it into the plant from their home and community environment. So we need to protect both sides of it,” she said. “It’s not only the meatpacking plant. The meatpacking plant(s), I can tell you, we have been on phone calls with them, they are really (trying) to do the best thing they can.”

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

A worker wearing a face mask and shield walks outside the Smithfield Foods plant in Crete, Nebraska.

Thursday, Pour revealed that 392 workers in nine Omaha-area meatpacking plants have tested positive since the pandemic began. Other clusters have emerged at assisted living facilities, a bakery, even a Zumba fitness class.

But Castañeda said not all meatpackers or immigrants are crowding 15 to an apartment. Her parents and many of their Smithfield co-workers own their single-family homes.

“I think it’s easy for corporations and for the government to point their fingers at community members and workers in order to deter responsibility from themselves,” she said. “It feels like that’s what happened — blaming language, blaming culture, blaming the way we live.”

It’s ironic, she said, that immigrant workers face such criticism even as they fill jobs that are described as essential to the country.

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Another 29-year-old woman has parents who work at the Crete plant. One came down with a mild case of COVID-19, akin to a bad cold. Both her parents have since returned to work, even though they were never re-tested.

They are empty-nesters who went grocery shopping only once in March, she said. She is 99% sure her parent caught the virus at work.

“We have never wanted Smithfield to just shut down,” she said, speaking of the “Children of Smithfield” group. “We know that’s not the answer. We understand our parents are essential and play a huge part in the country’s economy and food chain. We do feel it’s important that Smithfield treats them as essential if that’s what they’re going to call them.”

Plants need to provide consistent personal protective equipment to workers and, if possible, conduct mass-testing events, she said.

“Across all its facilities, the company is providing its team members with PPE, including masks and at least temporary face shields,” Smithfield said in a statement released May 1. “Media and other reports pitting the company against its employees are flat out wrong. There is no such division. The company and its team members all want the same thing, namely, to protect employee health and safety while also safeguarding America’s food supply.”

Her parents are nervous about returning to work, and she feels heartsick over the fact that they’re still working a physically demanding job as they grow older.

They are Mexican immigrants who came here for a better life. She has a master’s degree.

“I almost have this sense of guilt I’ve been struggling with,” she said. “My parents have sacrificed their bodies, everything, to work at this plant over the years, for me to get a college education, so I can have the privilege of working from home.”

* * *

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD  

The entrance to the Smithfield Foods plant in Crete, Nebraska, has signs in multiple languages about the coronavirus.

Plastic dividers have been installed in the cafeteria and in the production area, wherever possible, at the Tyson beef plant in Lexington, a worker in his 30s said.

But meat processing is meant to be fast, efficient work done by people standing next to and across from each other on the conveyor belt-style production line. Separating people inside a plant that employs nearly 3,000 people in different shifts is not so easy.

“The building wasn’t built for this type of situation,” the worker said.

He estimates staffing there is down 50%, as more workers get COVID-19 or call in sick. Dawson County, where Lexington sits, had 686 cases on Thursday. Residents line up around the block when the Nebraska National Guard sets up testing sites. The local health department has not identified how many cases are connected to the Tyson plant.

“They have not told us any number” about confirmed cases inside the plant, the worker said. “They’ve been pretty tight-lipped about it.”

Companies have said they are notifying workers who may have been exposed to COVID-19. But several workers or their family members have said they usually find out through word of mouth.

“They’re not telling employees who’s sick and who isn’t,” said the worker at the JBS subsidiary in Council Bluffs, a move he believes is intended to prevent workers from panicking. The JBS spokeswoman said the company follows CDC guidelines for contacting and quarantining workers.

In Lexington, walk-through infrared cameras scan workers’ body temperature as they start their shift, and they are handed a surgical-style mask if they don’t have a fever. Employees are not asked if they feel sick or know anyone who has tested positive for the coronavirus, the Tyson worker said.

“They have a flyer taped on the window that says, ‘Hey if you have any of these symptoms, you can’t work,’ but they don’t actually ask you that,” he said.

Watchous, the Tyson spokeswoman, said health screenings are taking place at all plants. Tyson has also hired a third-party health provider to monitor sick workers and clear their return to work.

The plant is offering different tiers of bonus pay, including a daily rate and $500 for not missing work during a certain period of time, the Tyson worker said.

He worries that attendance bonuses will incentivize people to come to work sick. A COVID-19 playbook developed for meatpacking plants by University of Nebraska Medical Center public health and infectious disease specialists said companies should rethink any bonuses or raises tied to attendance.

Lexington, population 10,000, is highly dependent on the plant, the city’s largest employer. If the plant closes down, even temporarily, there could be a domino effect.

“If Tyson shuts down, there’s really no money moving around the town,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean workers aren’t scared and anxious each day they report to work.

“They don’t know if they’re going to be out of a job, they don’t know if they’re going to get sick, they don’t know if they’re going to get their family sick,” the worker said of his co-workers. “Every day we see the numbers kind of going up. We’re nervous.”


Top 25 counties with the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 infection

Top 25 counties with the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 infection

State_and_regional
special report
Nebraska corrections officers, inmates hold their breath that virus doesn't attack

LINCOLN — The headlines from prisons across the country are alarming:

“Nearly 80% of inmates have COVID-19 at two Ohio prisons”

“3 more inmates die at Chino prison”

“Over 5,000 corrections officers have contracted COVID-19”

In Nebraska, only eight staffers had tested positive for coronavirus as of Saturday and no inmates had been confirmed infected. Three inmates who may have had contact with an infected staffer were being tested as a precaution, officials said Saturday.

At this point, according to an inmate, a corrections corporal and a union official, it’s hard to tell if that’s because of dumb luck or increased vigilance.

While all three had some good things to say about precautions being taken behind bars — increased sanitizing, temperature checks, wearing of masks and separating inmates when possible — all three also called for increased steps to ensure that Nebraska prisons don’t suffer the dire and deadly consequences suffered in other corrections systems.

The Nebraska department, which is the second-worst overcrowded system in the country, has barred visitors since March 16 and required all staff to wear cloth masks for five weeks. Older, more vulnerable inmates have been separated from other prisoners, and groups in gyms and lunch rooms have been reduced and separated, though not below the 10-person limit touted by Gov. Pete Ricketts for the outside world.

New arrivals are isolated for 14 days to ensure they’re not bringing in the virus, though inmates being transferred between prisons — who some think could carry COVID-19 from one institution to the next — are not. And Nebraska officials have rejected calls to release vulnerable inmates, which some states have done.

Overall, while advocates, families of inmates and a prison watchdog acknowledge that Nebraska has been fortunate so far, all worry that without testing inmates and staff, there’s no idea how many people behind bars might be asymptomatic carriers of the highly contagious disease. It’s ludicrous to believe that no inmates are infected, they maintain.

“Without a single (inmate) test in Nebraska, we’re all sort of in the dark,” said Danielle Conrad of the ACLU of Nebraska, which has sued the state for its overcrowded prisons.

The mother of one inmate, who asked to be unnamed to avoid repercussions against her son, said she’s pleaded with corrections officials and called Ricketts’ radio show to urge testing of inmates.

“Not all of them were sentenced there to die,” she said.

Corrections spokeswoman Laura Strimple said that inmates are being monitored for possible testing, but that “the criteria for testing depends on the individual, because each person is likely to present with different symptoms.”

For instance, having a fever by itself is not enough, Strimple said. Other vital signs are also checked, she said, to determine an inmate’s illness and the appropriate testing and treatment.

Behind the walls of the Omaha Correctional Center, several inmates have had coughs and mild fevers, according to inmate Jose Rodriguez. But instead of being tested, he said, “all they do is send them back to their room and say, ‘we’ll keep an eye on you.’ ”

Rodriguez said he worries that inmates who transfer in from the State Penitentiary in Lincoln might have come in contact with the six staffers there who tested positive. But so far, he said, no inmates at his facility have shown full-blown symptoms, and his unit is sanitized regularly with a bleach solution by teams of inmates who can get $8-a-week bonuses (on top of $6-a-day pay) for doing the extra work.

“I guess God is smiling on OCC, and I hope he continues to smile on OCC,” Rodriguez said. “If it does get in here, there’s no way to control it.”

Gary Young, attorney for the union that represents security staff in prisons, said his members have been requesting, without luck, to be provided the more protective N95 masks when working around inmates who have been isolated or who are suspected to be COVID-19 positive.

Last week, staff and inmates who work in the laundry and wood shop at the Tecumseh State Prison were told that they could no longer wear N95 respirator masks. The heavier masks had been regularly used in their jobs, which involved washing soiled bedding from hospitals and prisons, and sawing, sanding and staining lumber that is turned into furniture.

Strimple said the department is following federal Centers for Disease Control guidelines for the use of N95 masks, which says masks should be used only when dealing with individuals who are symptomatic, in quarantine or in medical isolation.

It was determined that for “the majority” of situations in the laundry and shop, the “valuable” masks were not required, she said. A YouTube video posted by the Corrections Department states that N95 masks “must be reserved for health care workers and first responders.”

Staffers who supervise inmates in prison were initially provided cloth masks sewn by inmates using surplus prisoner jumpsuits. The bright orange masks weren’t received well by corrections officers, because the material is used for inmate clothing and didn’t fit right. One staffer said it was also disrespectful.

A Lincoln church group stepped in and produced 750 better-fitting cloth masks in the blue-and-gold colors of the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents corrections security staff. Still, Young said that providing N95 masks would give workers more “confidence” when doing temperature checks or dealing with inmates who are confined in cells.

“They want the best protection that’s available,” Young said. “But right now, the word from the administration is that they’re following the CDC guide closely.”

The prison corporal — who asked that her name not be disclosed because the department has ordered staff to not talk to reporters or state legislators — said there’s concern every time an inmate is transferred into her facility from the State Penitentiary.

“I would hope and pray that they didn’t have any contact with the staff that tested positive,” said the longtime prison worker, who lives with two elderly parents. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to bring COVID home and kill them.”

The corporal said that she’d like to see all staff and inmates at the state penitentiary tested, though she knows test kits are in short supply. Testing, she said, would reveal how many, if any, staffers and inmates may be asymptomatic spreaders of the virus.

She said she knows staffers who got very sick but tested negative after visiting their doctor. Now, she said, workers are being told to sign up for TestNebraska, the state’s recently launched testing COVID-19 program. After filling out the online assessment, she said she was approved for testing, but, at the time, there wasn’t a test site in Lincoln (one opened Friday).

Overall, though, the prison worker said she’s been impressed by the steps taken by the department: All staff and inmates must be temperature tested when they enter or exit the Lincoln prison facility where she works; hand-washing stations are in place outside and just inside the front door; and inmate cleaning teams work “round the clock” to sanitize surfaces.

Nearly all inmates are wearing the inmate-made cloth masks provided to them, she said, unless possibly when a staffer isn’t looking.

“I do have to give kudos to (State Corrections Director Scott) Frakes,” the corporal said. “But is it because we’re doing a good job or because we have more cows than people? We’re not living on top of each other like in New York.”

Rodriguez, the inmate in Omaha, said one of the biggest problems caused by the coronavirus outbreak is that regular health care has been suspended. A cellmate, he said, hasn’t been able to get heart problems addressed and another inmate has a shoulder issue that’s gone untreated.

“Every day I wake up, it’s like Russian roulette or shooting craps,” he said, “but so far so good.”

Strimple, the department spokeswoman, said that there’s been reduced access to medical care provided outside of the prison but no change in the level of care provided within prisons.

She said she couldn’t say why other corrections systems have been hit much harder than Nebraska’s, but pointed out that Frakes ran a 2,500-bed prison in Washington state during the H1N1 pandemic a decade ago and that a flu pandemic plan had been put in place to deal with a surge in that illness over the past winter, better preparing the agency.

“Aggressive” and early actions, Strimple said, were taken to limit and then end visitation, and a pandemic operations center was opened in mid-March. Free soap was given to inmates to encourage extra hand washing, masks were distributed, and a system to trace who came into contract with an infected person was set up, she said.

Last week, Frakes sent a message to prison staff and inmates, saying that while the steps to prevent COVID-19 from invading Nebraska’s prisons have been “difficult and stressful,” they’ve been very successful.

If there’s a “clear indication” that infection rates are falling, he said that some restrictions might be relaxed, but until a vaccine is developed, wearing masks, social distancing and “high sanitation standards are here to stay.”

Photos: TestNebraska drive-thru testing in Omaha