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NU won't say whether any athletes have virus
As some colleges report outbreaks among players, Nebraska and many others won't share testing results

LINCOLN — Three weeks into voluntary workouts, it is unclear whether any Nebraska student-athletes who have returned to campus have tested positive for the coronavirus because unlike some athletic departments, NU is choosing not to say anything publicly about COVID-19 testing results.

NU officials say only that they are required to report any positive test to the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, which says it can't release any information about what the university has reported because of privacy requirements.

"It is up to the university to share whether they have an athlete test positive. We don't provide this information about any business or organization," said Diane Gonzolas, director of communications for the Lincoln Mayor's Office. "If a business or organization wants to share information about their employees or athletes in this case, then we can confirm information that they share. This is how the Health Department handles all communicable diseases."

At least 40 college athletic departments across the country have either reported or confirmed COVID-19 cases as athletes have returned to campuses for voluntary workouts this month. In bordering states, Kansas State has suspended voluntary workouts after 14 players and athletic department personnel tested positive for the virus. Iowa's athletic department tallied 12 cases in less than a month. And on Thursday, Iowa State reported that four football players have tested positive in June.

Nebraska is not the only athletic department declining to release testing results. Almost half of the 66 FBS teams that responded to an Associated Press inquiry last week said they were still deciding if they would disclose positive tests. Half of those respondents — including Georgia and Ohio State — told the AP that they won't be releasing any information, citing student-athlete privacy.

Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos confirmed three weeks ago that there had been one student-athlete who tested positive for coronavirus, but he said it had been "a while ago."

Upon arrival this month, all athletes were tested and put under a minimum 48-hour quarantine. Moos has said Lincoln is the safest place for NU athletes to be this summer.

"We're making sure not only the student-athletes are comfortable, but their parents are comfortable, that we're following strict guidelines," he said. "They'll be in good care. Their sons and daughters will be in good hands."

Nebraska has been testing athletes, though it is unclear how often, in coordination with the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Moos said Nebraska has shared its plan for student safety with the rest of the Big Ten, and it includes social distancing, workout groups of 10 or fewer, constant cleaning of weight equipment, and athletes wearing masks while picking up food at the training table.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with COVID-19 between the ages of 15 and 24 are significantly less likely to be hospitalized or die than those in older age groups. Data from the CDC between Feb. 1 and June 17 shows 125 deaths out of 10,968 coronavirus infections in that age group. In that same time period, 221 people in that age group died from pneumonia, and 50 from influenza.

Some outbreaks at athletic departments are more significant than others. Like Kansas State, both Boise State and Houston suspended voluntary workouts after multiple positive tests on campus. Clemson had 28 members of the athletic department test positive, mostly football players and staff. At defending champion LSU, 30 football players tested positive for COVID-19 or had contact with someone who had.

"We're making sure not only the student-athletes are comfortable, but their parents are comfortable, that we're following strict guidelines. They'll be in good care."

Bill Moos, Nebraska athletic director

Prison overcrowding emergency begins July 1 in Nebraska. Will much change?

LINCOLN — State law says Nebraska must declare a “prison overcrowding emergency” on Wednesday.

But state officials said the emergency won’t result in many changes in prison or parole policies, though building a new state prison would help.

“We’ve been underbuilt (in prisons) as a state for at least 40 years,” State Corrections Director Scott Frakes said Thursday. “Nebraska needs a new prison.”

A state law passed in 2015 requires the automatic declaration of an overcrowding emergency on July 1, 2020, if Nebraska’s prisons are above 140% of capacity. On Thursday, state prisons were at 151% of capacity, holding about 1,900 more inmates than they were designed to house.

Nebraska’s prisons — the second-most overcrowded in the nation behind Alabama — have been above the 140% mark since 2009. But both Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman have declined to declare an overcrowding emergency, which triggers an immediate review of whether parole-eligible inmates should be released.

Rosalyn Cotton, the chair of the Nebraska Board of Parole, said her agency has already been stepping up hearings with inmates to determine whether they’re ready for an early release. She said the Parole Board will further ramp up parole hearings — which currently review about 130 inmates a month. But Cotton said Thursday that there was no specific target or goal for how much to increase those reviews.

But both Cotton and Frakes, as well as Gov. Pete Ricketts at a later press conference, said it’s a misconception that the overcrowding emergency will result in the release of dozens of inmates.

“The Parole Board’s No. 1 priority will always be public safety,” Ricketts said.

Cotton and Frakes handed out statistics to reporters that indicate that most of the 804 inmates who are currently eligible for parole have problems, such as prior parole violations or the need for clinical treatment, that have prevented them from being released before their sentence is complete.

But some state lawmakers maintain that there are better, more cost-effective ways to reduce overcrowding than building and staffing a new multimillion-dollar prison.

They have called for sentencing reforms that better ensure time for rehabilitation and an end to mandatory minimum sentences that extend time behind bars. New prisons will just be filled with more inmates, they say, and won’t be a long-term solution.

“We have to avoid putting more money into buildings and preserve it for other priorities, like property tax reform and schools and a lot of other things,” said State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln.

Building new prisons should have been done years ago, if sentencing reform was not the solution, said Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha. “We’re going to keep building and building and building (prisons) at the expense of property tax relief,” he said.

Ricketts, at his press conference, noted that his administration has invested $170 million and added 263 new prison beds in recent years.

But he said he held off on a major prison expansion to see if sentencing reforms suggested by the Council of State Governments in Legislative Bill 605, passed in 2015, would reduce the prison population by 1,000 inmates and avoid building a $300 million prison, as projected.

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LB 605 failed to do that because some of the recommended sentencing reforms were dropped after facing opposition from prosecutors.

“There really isn’t any need to do any more (sentencing reforms),” Ricketts said. “We’re going to need to look at other solutions.”

In March, Frakes asked private contractors for input on building a new 1,200 to 1,800-bed prison to handle future prison needs, which would cost an estimated $240 million or more. On Thursday, he said he was still reviewing the 12 responses received by the state and would decide by September how much funding to seek for such a project.

Meanwhile, the ACLU of Nebraska, which in a lawsuit against the state is alleging a lack of adequate health care and other services caused by overcrowding and understaffing, called for a renewed look at its “Blueprint for Smart Justice” sentencing reforms.

The civil rights group said the state could save $139 million a year and reduce prison overcrowding by 3,000 if it adopted the reforms, which are timely, given the recent focus on racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the disruption in criminal sentencings, admissions to the state prison system have declined in recent months. As of Thursday, 5,412 inmates were in Nebraska prisons. That figure is about a 280-inmate decline from earlier in the year, when the prison system established a record for overcrowding.

Frakes said Thursday that there was no way to tell if the drop in prison population is permanent.

Our best staff images from June 2020

Look back at our best staff photos from June 2020


Omaha police update use of force: No more knees on necks, officers must 'intervene'

Omaha’s mayor and police chief say they’ve watched and listened over the last month as Omahans have decried police brutality and demanded change in the wake of George Floyd’s death while being arrested by a Minneapolis police officer.

On Thursday, the two city officials with the most power to shape the Omaha Police Department announced changes to the department’s use of force policy and other efforts to beef up training, seek public input on officers’ actions and improve diversity within city government.

“We have been listening, and we’ve been learning over the past several weeks, and now it’s time to take some action,” Mayor Jean Stothert told The World-Herald in a joint interview with Chief Todd Schmaderer.

Omaha officers are now prohibited from using their knees to pin someone’s neck to the ground, as the officer did to Floyd. That method to detain someone has never been part of the department’s training, Schmaderer said, but it’s now expressly forbidden. Floyd died after former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for almost 8 minutes.

Officers will also be trained to bring someone who is lying in a prone position on their stomach to a seated or standing position as soon as possible. Some in-custody deaths across the country have occurred when someone is lying on their stomach with their hands handcuffed behind their back.

Schmaderer said that position already makes it difficult for someone to breathe and that when weight is applied for a prolonged period, the person may suffocate — a concept called positional asphyxia.

“We’ve been trained to get off (someone’s) back as soon as reasonably possible, but now we’re asking (officers) to take a step further and sit them up,” he said.

In another policy update, officers now have a “duty to intervene” if they witness a fellow officer using excessive force. Schmaderer said officers have always been trained to intervene — they swear an oath and are expected to uphold it — but the update codifies that expectation.

Violating the policy could result in an officer’s termination, the chief said. In the Floyd case, three other officers stood by as Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck.

Department policy already prohibits chokeholds, which cut off air supply and can cause death. Omaha officers are allowed to use a tactic called a carotid restraint, which temporarily cuts off blood supply to the brain and will make someone faint. A new policy calls for that technique to be used only if an officer is attacked or if deadly force is involved. Schmaderer said “very few” people have ever died because of a carotid restraint.

Sam Walker, a police policy and accountability expert who formerly taught at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, applauded the changes to the use of force policy as “all very positive steps.”

“It’s very good that the chief is paying attention to what’s going on in the country, they’ve discovered some deficiencies, and they’ve taken corrective action,” he said. “That’s the way police policy ought to operate.”

Stothert also announced changes to the Citizen Complaint Review Board, a six-person panel of trained citizens who review and make recommendations about complaints against police.

Residents will now be able to file complaints against officers directly to the board, instead of with the Police Department’s internal affairs division. An initial investigation will continue to be conducted by internal affairs, followed by a review by Schmaderer.

The city will release an annual report on the board’s work.

Stothert said she has received feedback that the review board’s work is not transparent enough, and she agreed.

Walker, the UNO expert, was less enthused with the changes to the mayor’s citizen review board, which he considers a largely toothless body.

The board works confidentially and does not have the authority to conduct its own investigations. Its recommendations are not binding.

In 2019, officers responded to more than 265,000 911 calls and more than 40,000 traffic stops. Officers used force in 304 interactions, according to department data.

Schmaderer has also ordered new mandatory training for all officers, who will need to be recertified in the use of Tasers. The training will also include the new use of force policy, “suicide by cop” training, a review of Floyd’s case, the impact of biased policing and the police pursuit policy.

Omaha’s officer-involved shootings have declined over the last decade, according to data provided by the department. In 2010, there were 11 such shootings in the city, six of which were fatal. Last year, there was one fatal officer-involved shooting. None have occurred in 2020.

Schmaderer and Stothert attributed the drop to several steps the department has already taken, including use of body cameras, Taser deployment and improved response to calls involving mental health crises.

The department has fully deployed body cameras, something Schmaderer said is cost-prohibitive for some major metropolitan police departments.

Currently, Omaha police officers’ body cameras automatically turn on when they draw their Tasers, but not their firearms. Schmaderer said that the technology behind that system has advanced and that the city’s next contract on that system will allow for the same thing to happen when an officer draws his or her gun.

Each precinct also employs a mental health professional who responds to distress calls with armed officers. That arrangement was implemented after the 2017 death of Zachary Bear Heels, an American Indian man who was shocked multiples times with a Taser by Omaha police.

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Some who advocate for police reform want to remove armed officers from the equation when someone calls 911 because of a mental health crisis, arguing that the presence of an armed person with less mental health training may escalate the situation. Schmaderer said the system of having an officer and a mental health expert respond to calls is based in safety.

“You would not want a social worker or a mental health professional entering into an environment that’s not safe,” he said.

Most of the department’s officers are trained in crisis intervention, Schmaderer said.

Every uniformed police officer is equipped with a Taser.

“I’m a proponent of less lethal options,” Schmaderer said. “If that officer does not have a less lethal option, they’re more likely to have to go to their firearm.”

The department also uses a computer program designed to monitor officers’ actions and identify potential “problem officers.” If an officer engages in pursuits or uses force “multiple times in a month,” the program will trigger an analysis of behavior and a conversation with department leaders, Schmaderer said.

Sometimes, as a result, officials learn that an officer is going through a tough divorce or that two officers are partnered who may need to be separated, and the department connects them with appropriate resources or makes changes. Other times, the department determines that an officer’s actions were warranted, and nothing comes of it.

Stothert said she believes that the program would have flagged an officer like Chauvin, who was the subject of 18 complaints filed during his time as a officer, CNN reported.

At Stothert’s request, Schmaderer is also conducting a review of recent Black Lives Matter protests in the city and the police response to them. That review is underway and will be presented to Stothert and the City Council, then released to the public.

Along with the changes to police policy, Stothert also announced initiatives to increase diversity and inclusion in city government. She said she will create a community advisory committee — and an internal one for city employees — to help the city achieve that goal.

The city will soon hire a diversity and inclusion manager. Stothert said the city needs someone whose full-time job is to think about those issues. City employees will also receive mandatory bias training.

In the last seven or eight years, the Police Department has roughly doubled its number of black officers, Schmaderer said. The Fire Department needs to improve its diversity, Stothert said.

Officer training on all the policy changes will begin in July, with all officers completing it within eight weeks. Schmaderer said it’s important that officers break down in detail the mistakes that led to Floyd’s death — the event that has sparked this nationwide reckoning over police tactics and racial justice.

Said Schmaderer: “I want everybody to understand that that is not how we will conduct business.”

Solidarity rally in Omaha

Photos: Solidarity rally in Omaha

Arctic's extreme heat alarms scientists
Thawing of Siberian permafrost releases methane and triggers a feedback loop with global consequences

MOSCOW (AP) — The Arctic is feverish and on fire — at least parts of it are. And that's got scientists worried about what it means for the rest of the world.

The thermometer hit a likely record of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the Russian Arctic town of Verkhoyansk on Saturday, a temperature that would be a fever for a person — but this is Siberia, known for being frozen. TheWorld Meteorological Organization said Tuesday that it's looking to verify the temperature reading, which would be unprecedented for the region north of the Arctic Circle.

"The Arctic is figuratively and literally on fire — it's warming much faster than we thought it would in response to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and this warming is leading to a rapid meltdown and increase in wildfires," University of Michigan environmental school dean Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist, said in an email.

"The record warming in Siberia is a warning sign of major proportions," Overpeck wrote.

Much of Siberia had high temperatures this year that were beyond unseasonably warm. From January through May, the average temperature in north-central Siberia has been about 14 degrees above average, according to the climate science nonprofit Berkeley Earth.

"That's much, much warmer than it's ever been over that region in that period of time," Berkeley Earth climate scientist Zeke Hausfather said.

Siberia is in the Guinness Book of World Records for its extreme temperatures. It's a place where the thermometer has swung 190 degrees, from a low of minus 90 to now 100.4 degrees.

For residents of the Sakha Republic in the Russian Arctic, a heat wave is not necessarily a bad thing. Vasilisa Ivanova spent every day this week with her family swimming and sunbathing.

"We spend the entire day on the shore of the Lena River," said Ivanova, who lives in the village of Zhigansk, 270 miles from where the heat record was set. "We've been coming every day since Monday."

But for scientists, "alarm bells should be ringing," Overpeck wrote.

Such prolonged Siberian warmth hasn't been seen for thousands of years "and it is another sign that the Arctic amplifies global warming evenmore thanwe thought," Overpeck said.

Russia's Arctic regions are among the fastest-warming areas in the world.

The temperature on Earth over the past few decades has been rising, on average, by nearly one-third of a degree every 10 years. But in the Russian Arctic the temperature increased by 1.24 degrees every decade, said Andrei Kiselyov, the lead scientist at the Moscow-based Voeikov Main Geophysical Observatory.

"In that respect, we're ahead of the whole planet," Kiselyov said.

The increasing temperatures in Siberia have been linked to prolonged wildfires that grow more severe every year and the thawing of the permafrost — a huge problem because buildings and pipelines are built on them. Thawing permafrost also releases more heat-trapping gas and dries out the soil, which increases wildfires, said Vladimir Romanovsky, who studies permafrost at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"In this case it's even more serious, because the previous winter was unusually warm," Romanovsky said. The permafrost thaws, ice melts, the soil subsides and then it can trigger a feedback loop that worsens permafrost thawing and "cold winters can't stop it," Romanovsky said.

A catastrophic oil spill from a collapsed storage tank last month near the Arctic city of Norilsk was partly blamed on melting permafrost. In 2011, part of a residential building in Yakutsk, the biggest city in the Sakha Republic, collapsed because of thawing and subsidence of the ground.

Last August, more than 4 million hectares of forests in Siberia were on fire, according to Greenpeace. This year the fires have started raging much earlier than the usual start in July, said Vladimir Chuprov, director of the project department at Greenpeace Russia.

Persistently warm weather, especially if coupled with wildfires, causes permafrost to thaw faster, which in turn exacerbates global warming by releasing large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that's 28 times stronger than carbon dioxide, said Katey Walter Anthony, a University of Alaska Fairbanks expert on methane release from frozen Arctic soil.

"Methane escaping from permafrost thaw sites enters the atmosphere and circulates around the globe," she said. "Methane that originates in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. It has global ramifications."

And what happens in the Arctic can even warp the weather in the United States and Europe.

In the summer, the unusual warming lessens the temperature and pressure difference between the Arctic and lower latitudes where more people live, said Judah Cohen, a winter weather expert at Atmospheric Environmental Research, a commercial firm outside Boston.

That seems to weaken and sometimes even stall the jet stream, meaning weather systems such as those bringing extreme heat or rain can stay parked over places in the U.S. for days on end, Cohen said.

Scientists agree that the spike is indicative of a much bigger global warming trend.

"The key point is that the climate is changing and global temperatures are warming," said Freja Vamborg, senior scientist at the Copernicus Climate Change Service in the U.K. "We will be breaking more and more records as we go."

"What is clear is that the warming Arctic adds fuel to the warming of the whole planet," said Waleed Abdalati, a former NASA chief scientist who is now at the University of Colorado.