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Trying to make sense of 100,000 U.S. deaths
As the nation reaches the pandemic's grim milestone, the magnitude can be hard to grasp

America's official coronavirus death toll reached six digits Wednesday. One hundred thousand lives wiped out by a disease unknown to science half a year ago.

And as the unwanted figure arrives — nearly a third of the global death toll in the first five months of a very trying year — what can looking at that one and those five zeros tell us? What does any number deployed in momentous times to convey scope really mean?

"We all want to measure these experiences because they're so shocking, so overwhelming that we want to bring some sense of knowability to the unknown," said Jeffrey Jackson, a history professor at Rhodes College in Tennessee who teaches about the politics of natural disasters.

Today's Americans have precedents for visualizing and understanding 100,000 people — dead and alive. They have numerous comparisons at hand.

For example: Beaver Stadium, seen often on TV as the home to Penn State football and one of the country's largest sports venues, holds 106,572 people when full. The 2018 estimated population of South Bend, Indiana, was 101,860. About 100,000 people visit the Statue of Liberty every 10 days.

The total number of U.S. Civil War deaths — combat and otherwise — was 655,000. For World War I it was more than 116,000, for World War II more than 405,000 and for the Korean and Vietnam Wars more than 36,000 and more than 58,000 respectively. Those don't include non-U.S. deaths.

Gun violence killed more than 37,000 people a year on average between 2014 and 2018 in the United States. And 9/11 took exactly 2,996 lives, a figure that the U.S. coronavirus tally passed in early April.

At some point with numbers, though, things start feeling more abstract and less comprehensible. This has informed the methodology of remembering the Holocaust by humanizing it: The deaths of 6 million Jews, among many others, is a figure so enormous that it resists comprehension.

"It's really hard for people to grasp statistics when it comes to numbers after a certain scale," said Lorenzo Servitje, an assistant professor of literature and medicine at Lehigh University.

"Can you picture 30,000 people or 50,000 people? And when you get into the millions, what do you even do with that?" he says. "It's so outside of our everyday life that it's hard to grasp meaning from them."

The New York Times tried to address that problem Sunday, dedicating its entire front page to naming the virus victims — an exercise that, even in a tiny typeface, only captured 1% of those now gone. "A count," the newspaper said, "reveals only so much."

Adding to the complexity is how different coronavirus deaths are from, say, a 9/11, a mass shooting or a cataclysmic natural disaster. Unlike those, the COVID-19 saga is unfolding gradually, growing steadily more severe, and resists the time-tested American appetite for loud and immediate storylines.

"Each day we've become accustomed to the new reality that we don't realize how far we've traveled from what normal is," said Daryl Van Tongeren, an associate professor of psychology at Hope College in Michigan who studies how people find meaning in suffering.

Our brains, he says, are wired to be empathetic to suffering — to a point.

"With too much suffering over time, it's overwhelming, and we begin to become callous. And our empathy essentially runs out," Van Tongeren said. "We're so accustomed to death right now, at 100,000, that our empathy has become lower."

This numerical milestone raises some fundamental questions. Have we decided to live with death, at least to a point? What would it mean if, around Labor Day, we reconvened in this space to discuss the 200,000th dead American? What would that number cause us to contemplate?

In the 14th century, the Black Death ravaged humanity, taking many millions. No one knows how many died.

Today, when the dead from this pandemic are counted, some coherence is reached. The thinking is this: If the virus can't be stopped, at least it can be quantified by human effort — far more palatable than a society where we couldn't even establish who was no longer among us.

"As humans we like clean stories," said Roland Minton, a mathematics professor at Roanoke College in Virginia. "And classifying things by number of digits can be a nice, clear way of classifying things."

Local teacher worked as DoorDash driver, never saw $797 paycheck

Abbigail Zimmerline has taken a financial hit the past few months.

After the coronavirus pandemic moved classes online, the pre-kindergarten teacher lost her source of income. So she decided to become a DoorDash delivery driver, but she never received a paycheck.

About two weeks into her gig as a “Dasher,” Zimmerline was set to receive a paycheck of $796.93.

“I was supposed to be paid on a Monday so by that Thursday I thought, ‘Well, this is weird,’ ” Zimmerline said.

She went to her DoorDash account and found that the direct deposit account she had set up had been switched to an account she didn’t recognize.

Zimmerline messaged a DoorDash representative, who confirmed her direct deposit information had been changed. That’s when Zimmerline began to worry.

“I worked so hard that week, and there’s a pandemic going on. I could really use that money right now,” she said.

It turns out the account number was changed, not by Zimmerline or by DoorDash, but apparently by an outside scammer who gained access to her DoorDash account and changed her bank information. A DoorDash representative said Wednesday that it would work with Zimmerline to try to get her money back.

Zimmerline said she also plans to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

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To use the food delivery company, customers place orders online and pay DoorDash directly. Independent contractors, or “Dashers,” are paid weekly and make a base amount per delivery.

The base pay can range from $2 to $10 or more. Deliveries that require Dashers to travel a longer distance, that are expected to take more time and that are less popular with Dashers get a higher base pay. According to DoorDash, Dashers also keep their tips.

In an email from a DoorDash representative on May 21, Zimmerline was told that a payment specialist would contact the “third-party payments vendor … to attempt to recover this payment.”

Zimmerline also received an email from DoorDash on May 16 that her debit card information had recently been changed or added.

It’s not clear to Zimmerline how her account information was changed, but she said the day before she was called by a man claiming to be a DoorDash employee. The man said that one of her customers had canceled an order and said that DoorDash would send her a gift card, which she never received, for the inconvenience. He asked Zimmerline to confirm her phone number and home address and to read back a four-digit code sent to her phone.

“He had all this information about me, and so I assumed he had to be with DoorDash,” she said.

A DoorDash representative told The World-Herald on Wednesday that the Dashers scam was prevalent about two years ago; scammers would call and pretend to be from DoorDash support. The representative said that what happened to Zimmerline is an anomaly, and that the company is “working to rectify the problem and get Zimmerline her money.”

Zimmerline received an email from DoorDash on Wednesday that said it was attempting to recover the money.

Here are the city’s 38 essential restaurants

Omaha Dines: Here are the city's 38 essential restaurants

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'It's very bad': 13 die in coronavirus outbreak at Aurora nursing home

For nearly two months, a nursing home in central Nebraska has struggled to quell a coronavirus outbreak that’s killed 13 residents and infected more.

The virus has torn through Westfield Quality Care of Aurora, a nursing facility with 64 beds in Hamilton County, east of Grand Island, whose website promises compassionate care in a small-town setting.

Thirty-three residents, roughly half, have tested positive for the virus since the outbreak began in early April, according to the Central District Health Department. At least 1 in 5 residents have died.

Twenty-four employees have become sick, too, at times leaving the facility with reduced staff to care for the seniors who have fallen ill.

“It’s very bad,” said Central District Health Department Director Teresa Anderson, who oversees Hamilton, Hall and Merrick Counties. “We’ve been concerned about this facility for some time.”

As of Wednesday, Hamilton County had a total of 60 confirmed coronavirus cases — a fraction of the 1,482 cases in neighboring Hall County. The nursing home outbreak in Aurora accounts for a large share of the county’s infections.

In one coronavirus update posted on its website on April 22, the facility said it was in daily contact with officials from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, University of Nebraska Medical Center and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that the Nebraska National Guard would test more residents there.

“We are working with infectious disease doctors to assure we are taking all the appropriate steps possible to care for our residents and loved ones,” the facility wrote.

But the outbreak has dragged on.

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Anderson said the local health department has provided help, training and a supply of personal protective equipment — masks and gloves.

“We’ve done a great deal of testing, a great deal of education working closely with them to reduce the spread, and on any number of environmental adjustments within the facility,” Anderson said. “And I think you would have to ask them there what they think is going on.”

Westfield administrators did not respond to several requests for comment.

Past state and federal inspection reports for Westfield from 2019 reveal prior issues with staff not switching out soiled gloves or properly sanitizing a pair of scissors used to cut through a resident’s pressure sore.

In mid-April, the Aurora newspaper talked to Tim Groshans, Westfield Quality Care’s former administrator. He now works as a consultant there while his wife, Hayley Groshans, runs the facility. Groshans told the Aurora News-Register that the first employee — a new arrival to the facility — tested positive for the coronavirus April 3.

As staffers began to fall ill, or were forced to quarantine for two weeks, Groshans said he reached out to staffing companies and offered employees an extra $5 per hour and a $1,000 bonus if they showed up for shifts. Workers had their temperatures taken before and after each shift, and were asked if they had traveled recently.

An emotional Groshans told the paper the pandemic has been difficult for all.

“I think we all should re-circle and test our motivations a little bit,” he said. “We say we are a caring society, but do we come together when times are tough, or do we blame and point fingers? Right now, Westfield, as well as everybody, needs support and positive energy.”

Westfield is far from the only nursing home or long-term care facility in Nebraska to have trouble containing a coronavirus outbreak.

The coronavirus has swept through facilities across the country and throughout the state, often with deadly consequences. While most people who contract COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, will recover, those who are older or sicker are more vulnerable to the virus and complications from it.

In Nebraska, 74 residents in nursing facilities have died, accounting for almost half of all coronavirus-related deaths in the state, according to figures provided by the DHHS. That’s a high death toll; as of Wednesday, the 460 residents and 340 workers at long-term care centers who have tested positive for the virus made up only 6.3% of Nebraska’s 12,619 total coronavirus cases.

Statewide, 105 long-term care facilities have reported at least one COVID-19 case.

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At the Life Care Center of Elkhorn in Omaha, nine residents have died, and almost 100 residents and staff members have tested positive for since the end of April.

The site of another deadly cluster, the Douglas County Health Center in Omaha, declared it had no new positive cases on May 17, after 37 workers and residents had fallen ill since March 29. Six residents died at the county-run facility, which has 254 beds.

Tuesday, in response to a question about the Elkhorn facility and residents’ families who want to see the state shut it down, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said the state prefers to keep residents in long-term care facilities, even if they are battling coronavirus outbreaks, unless staffing levels get low enough to compromise care.

“We think the most beneficial thing for folks is to be able to be taken care of in surroundings that are familiar to them, by people they’re familiar with,” Ricketts said. “Obviously, if they can’t do that, if staffing is not available, we’ll make other accommodations.”

Through webinars, one-on-one calls, guidance reports and on-site visits, DHHS spokeswoman Leah Bucco-White said, infection control specialists have been working closely with affected facilities to curb the spread of the virus.

“Care for residents in Nebraska’s long-term care facilities is a top priority,” she said. “DHHS, local health departments and UNMC/Nebraska Medicine serve (as) a resource for facilities with the goal of maintaining appropriate care and mitigating the spread of COVID-19.”

Anderson said the Central District Health Department is monitoring coronavirus clusters at several other nursing facilities in the Grand Island area, but none have been quite as severe as the Westfield outbreak.

With vulnerable populations living in close quarters, she said, “you just have to be so very, very careful to keep it from spreading.”

The most recent state and federal inspection reports available for Westfield Quality Care are from 2019.

On June 13, 2019, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services placed the facility’s license on probation for 90 days, and Westfield was required to submit a correction plan for dealing with bedsores.

Records show the state found other violations at the facility: Residents received medication without following doctors’ orders, some food service sanitizing measures were not followed, and staff members were not always trained to respond to emergency situations or perform emergency procedures like CPR while adhering to infection control or contamination standards.

During one visit, staffers were observed washing their hands properly but didn’t always dispose of soiled gloves right away before caring for another resident. They didn’t always know how to use mechanical lifts safely while moving residents from beds to wheelchairs.

That probation was lifted in September 2019 after requirements were met.

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A federal inspection report from the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services the same time period — May 2019 — found issues with some resident care plans and documentation of their care, as well as a handful of residents with worrisome pressure sores. The report repeated the same concerns at the state regarding the ability of some employees to respond to a medical emergency, like choking.

The facility has an overall federal rating of two stars — below average.

A state report noted that several members of the administrative team were new, and that they were working to improve care and manage staff turnover.

Despite the outbreak, the family of Shirley “Jean” Holtan, who died at the facility May 12 at the age of 85, thanked the Westfield staff in her obituary.

Holtan was hailed as a master of Southern cooking, who “raised her family on grits and love.” She knew the value of a good curse word and loved archaeology and European scenery.

The staff members at the facility, her family wrote, were kind even as she succumbed to the coronavirus.

“They snuck her treats, wore her homemade jewelry with pride, and sat with her in kind and loving prayer as she battled complications of the (COVID-19) virus,” her obituary said. “They held her hand and made sure they were by her side as she passed over.”

Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020


Though barriers surround the Lion's Pride statue, Henry Doorly Zoo — one of Omaha's most popular attractions — will reopen for guests Monday with greater safety restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic. Top left, paw prints are painted on the ground in areas where lines are expected to help remind people about social distancing as they walk around the zoo. Plexiglass, top right, will also divide employees and visitors entering the zoo.

Nebraska in line for about $10.8 billion in federal coronavirus relief money, Ricketts says

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts announced Wednesday that Nebraska is in line to get $10.8 billion in federal coronavirus relief money this year.

The total includes about $1.6 billion of stimulus payments that were sent directly to Nebraska households. Nearly two-thirds of the rest — some $6.4 billion — is going out through the Paycheck Protection Program to help small businesses keep employees on their payroll.

Money also is earmarked for various programs to help struggling families, unemployed workers, health care providers, schools, human service organizations, and state and local governments.

Ricketts said the federal support will be “significant” in helping Nebraska cope with the economic and social disruptions caused by the coronavirus and the steps taken to slow its spread.

“Whenever you have an emergency, the government does more than when you have normal times,” he said. “I think it’s appropriate when we have an emergency like this pandemic, which we haven’t had in over 100 years, the federal government takes steps to make sure that we can protect ourselves and recover.”

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The governor said it is too soon to know how much of Nebraska’s financial toll will be covered by the federal aid. But he argued against any additional aid, saying that would further increase the national debt.

“I don’t believe the cost is worth the benefit,” he said.

Included in the total is $1.25 billion intended to offset coronavirus-related costs of states and local governments. Douglas County will get $166 million of that aid, based on a formula in the federal legislation.

On Wednesday, the governor outlined plans for using the remaining money to fill in gaps. He said state officials are talking with Douglas County about how they can jointly meet the needs of Omaha city government. City officials last month called on the two entities to share their money.

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Under Ricketts’ plan:

  • State and local governments would get money for coronavirus-related expenses, such as temporary emergency staffing, sanitizing products, telework capabilities and COVID-19 medical leave. The state would get $80 million and local governments would share $100 million. To qualify, county governments would have to open their offices to the public by June 8. Ricketts said that requirement was included because governments are supposed to serve people.
  • Human service agencies, particularly nonprofits with limited funding sources, would share $85 million in grants. The money would go to groups providing critical services to needy communities, such as food, housing, telehealth resources and behavioral health care.
  • Small businesses and livestock producers could get $12,000 grants from a $330 million fund. The money would be more flexible than the Paycheck Protection Program loans and could be used by a wider variety of businesses.
  • Efforts to help businesses and workers recover would get $62 million. Those efforts include a push to expand digital access in small, rural communities; grants for worker retraining; and business stabilization and growth training by Gallup.
  • Remaining money, an estimated $427 million, would be set aside to shore up the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund or, if Congress allows, to fill holes in the state’s general fund budget. Current federal legislation bars states from using any of the relief money to replace tax revenues lost because of the coronavirus.

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Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, who heads the state’s emergency management agency, said the goal is to start distributing the money within the next month. Before that happens, though, the state plans to contract with a private firm to manage and track the dollars.

Ricketts said outside help is needed because it would be too much strain on existing state resources to oversee more than $1 billion in federal funds, along with managing the regular state budget. Bohac noted that state officials already have a big job to do in managing more than $400 million in federal disaster aid stemming from last year’s flooding.

Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020