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Nebraska's coronavirus peak was projected to arrive by now, but it's probably still coming

Monday marked a noteworthy day in the arc of the coronavirus pandemic in Nebraska, as Gov. Pete Ricketts began to allow restaurant dining rooms, salons and other businesses in some parts of the state to reopen.

But the state also saw another milestone that day: Counties collectively reported more than 500 new cases of COVID-19, a new daily high for the state in figures compiled by the COVID Tracking Project. And the state, Douglas County and Lancaster County each set all-time highs for cases in several preceding days, too.

While projections had long suggested that the pandemic would peak at the end of April in Nebraska, it appears that cases have only plateaued at best — and at much higher levels than had been seen just weeks earlier, said Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

That’s concerning, he said, as the recent surge is coming at a time when businesses are starting to open and people are becoming fatigued with social distancing measures.

“I think it’s too early to say we have peaked in our community, particularly Douglas County,” Rupp said. “We are not out of the woods by any means.”

Ricketts on Friday declined to say whether he thinks the state has peaked. He noted that the University of Washington model that once had Nebraska cases peaking in late April now has moved the peak into early May.

But he said he’s not so much focused on the current case numbers as he is on whether Nebraska’s hospitals are being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, and they’re not. That shows the social distancing restrictions Nebraska put in place have worked, he said.

“We slowed down the spread of the virus, we flattened the curve, so that peak did not overwhelm our health care system,” he said.

There’s no doubt the measures the state and its businesses and citizens have taken in the two months since Nebraska saw its first coronavirus case have made the state’s infection curve flatter than it would have been — preventing infections and saving lives. But it would be a stretch to call Nebraska’s current curve flat.

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Because of huge outbreaks in a number of meatpacking counties, Nebraska leads the nation in percentage growth in new confirmed cases. That’s true over the past week, the past two weeks and the past month, according to a World-Herald analysis of national data.

Nebraska, which a month earlier was averaging 44 new cases a day, during the past week was adding about 440 a day.

Since the start of the pandemic, Nebraska now ranks 13th among the states in cases per capita. At the same time, the virus has not been as deadly here, with Nebraska’s 86 deaths as of Friday morning ranking the state 37th in per capita deaths.

Dr. Daniel Brailita, an infectious disease specialist with Mary Lanning Healthcare in Hastings, said the models for the pandemic showing an April peak clearly did not anticipate how explosively the virus would spread within meatpacking communities like Nebraska’s Hall, Dawson and Dakota Counties.

“They started like a burning fire,” Brailita said. “West of Lincoln and Omaha, we had some very scary spikes in hospital admissions and (ventilator patients).”

The trend was seen in other states, too, including Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota. All have found it difficult to contain the spread within meatpacking facilities, where thousands of people can work shoulder to shoulder in jobs that can’t be performed from home.

“No health department in the country was prepared to deal with this,” Brailita said. “It’s just a hard situation.”

In recent days, there have been some hopeful signs that Hall County and the surrounding region in central Nebraska are now on a downward slope, Brailita said. Not only are new cases trending down, but there have also been fewer people needing acute care.

But the flattening in central Nebraska comes as new cases in Douglas and Lancaster Counties have been rocketing up.

Douglas County, which was rarely topping 10 new cases a day as recently as two or three weeks ago, has been averaging 84 new cases daily since April 30. Lancaster County, which only once before April 26 exceeded 10 cases in a day, since then has topped that number every day but one, with a single-day high of 64 on Monday.

It appears that the Douglas and Lancaster spikes also have ties to meatpacking. Douglas County health officials say there have been outbreaks associated with a number of food-processing facilities in the county. Lancaster has seen cases related to a meatpacking facility in nearby Crete.

Brailita said the social distancing measures put in place in Nebraska’s most populous counties did appear to be effective — “until the fire found the target” in the meatpacking plants.

The increases in testing across the state no doubt have played some role in the recent increase in cases. Daily testing in Nebraska is more than triple what it was in mid-April.

But daily cases are up much more in that time — about eight-fold. And the percentage of people testing positive has also shot up, from 10% to 25%.

“That indicates to me, not only are we finding more cases because we’re testing more, but we’re finding more because it’s penetrating into the community,” said UNMC’s Rupp. “I salute the folks who have worked to get tests out in the community. But that is not the only explanation for the numbers we are seeing.”

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Regardless of whether Nebraska has peaked, no one is saying the state has seen a sustained reduction in cases — something public health officials have recommended as a condition for states to lift restrictions.

President Donald Trump’s guidelines to states suggested that they should have 14 days of reductions before starting to reopen, though he made it clear the ultimate decision was up to individual governors.

“Clearly we are not seeing the declining rates that would make us all breathe a lot easier and say now is the time to relax things,” Rupp said.

But at the same time, Rupp said he’s not faulting Ricketts or local public health officials for decisions to loosen restrictions. The impact on the economy is real. And some degree of “quarantine fatigue” is settling in among the public, he said.

“These decisions are extremely complex and very difficult,” Rupp said.

Nebraska isn’t the only state that’s starting to reopen or making plans for it while falling short of that 14-day standard.

While 32 states have made plans to reopen to some degree, only eight of them have seen two straight weeks of reductions in average daily cases. In fact, Nebraska and neighboring Iowa, Kansas and Missouri have all seen daily averages continue to rise for each of the past two weeks or more.

“I think in an ideal world, you would have to wait and prove the decrease and start slowly,” Brailita said. “But the effect on the economy is pretty tough right now.”

Ricketts lifted some restrictions in Douglas County beginning this past Monday, among them allowing restaurants to open at half capacity. Those same provisions will take effect in Lancaster County on Monday. Restrictions have also been lifted on worship services.

Ricketts again used a speed limit analogy Friday when asked why Nebraska is moving ahead now. He said the state could eliminate nearly all traffic fatalities on the Interstate if it was willing to reduce the speed limit to 5 mph. Now that it’s clear the virus is not overwhelming the capacity of the health care system, he said, it’s time to ease up on the economic brakes.

“We’re trying to figure out what is the right speed to be able to allow people to return to a more normal life,” he said.

Both Brailita and Rupp said that because the state is starting to reopen before it’s clear that cases have peaked, it’s all the more important for people to be vigilant in following all the guidance and restrictions that remain in place.

“If we ignore the social distancing, if we stop wearing masks and don’t pay attention to hygiene, we will see a surge in cases,” Rupp said. “People have to understand they can’t let down their guard at this point.”

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

A Mother's Day without hugs? Omaha moms are finding different ways to celebrate

They miss the hugs most.

With Mother’s Day around the corner, many families are planning video visits, parades or in-person — though socially distanced — get-togethers. But none of these choices, some moms say, is a replacement for the physical touch of a loved one.

“We’re a hugging family — big hugs when you come, big hugs when you leave,” Janet Bonet said of her three adult children and their kids. “I haven’t had a hug from my kids in two months now, and it drives me nuts.”

Bonet, a court interpreter and translator, said the family agreed from the start of the pandemic that, because they live in separate households, they would maintain physical distance, including not entering each other’s homes. Their contact has been limited to drive-by visits, phone calls and texting. Every once in a while, they’ll meet in a park.

“We don’t want to be the ones that brought it to the others,” she said.

For this holiday, one son, James, came by Friday to do chores in the yard, and the other, John, may come sometime Saturday to finish up. Her third child, a daughter, Johanna, lives out of state. On Mother’s Day evening, if they can coordinate schedules, they’ll do a family video chat.


James Bonet helps his mom, Janet Bonet, with her yard work from a safe distance outside her Omaha home on Friday, May 8, 2020. The Bonet family has agreed they won't go inside each other's homes until the novel coronavirus pandemic passes, but she misses the hugs she used to get from her family the most during all of this.

For families whose loved ones have compromised immune systems, thoughts of physical contact are layered with anxiety. And that goes for Mother’s Day.

Janece Mollhoff has seen her daughter, Sara Black, only once in the past seven weeks, even though both live in the Omaha area.

In 2018, Sara was diagnosed with kidney cancer. She’s been undergoing chemotherapy for a year, and now the family is laser- focused on protecting Sara’s compromised immune system.


Janece Molloff, right, said she hopes to see her daughter for the second time since March on Mother’s Day. Sara, left, is undergoing chemotherapy for kidney cancer. The family is keeping a distance from Sara to protect her compromised immune system from the coronavirus.

Mollhoff said if Sara is feeling well, they’ll visit in person on Mother’s Day. The family is still thinking through the details of that visit.

“Probably no hugging,” said Mollhoff, a retired nurse and member of the Omaha Public Power District board. “No hugs, and we miss that.”

“As long as we need to, we’ll isolate so that we can see her once in a while, and be certain we’re not going to bring in anything. If the threat goes back up, we’ll not see her again for a while,” Mollhoff said. “Right now, with everything starting to open up, I have to accept that I can only really control what I do, and what everybody else does is beyond my control.”


Kelsey Oliver, left, and her mother, Martine Quartey, will likely share a meal, a short visit and possibly a walk this Mother’s Day. The Omaha daughter and mother typically have a girls’ weekend in honor of the holiday and Kelsey’s birthday. She was born on Mother’s Day 1989.

Martine Quartey will get her Mother’s Day hug from her daughter, Kelsey Oliver, but everything else about the weekend will be different, she said. Kelsey was born on Mother’s Day 1989, and ever since her daughter was little, they’ve celebrated both Mother’s Day and Kelsey’s birthday during one long girls’ weekend. Meals out, meals in, movies, shopping, church and whatever else suited their fancy.

This year, the Omaha mother and daughter will probably share just one meal, a short visit and, if the weather is nice, a walk.

“It won’t even be a full day,” she said, “but yes, I will get a hug!”

Quartey, an entrepreneur and co-host of 95.7 FM “The Boss Morning Show,” said she , her daughter and her daughter’s husband mostly work from their homes. They take the quarantine seriously, she said, which makes her more comfortable with the hugs and visits.

“We’re really trying to keep our distance,” she said. “But I miss her.”

Elspeth McKeon, who lived in Omaha 20 years before returning to her native New Zealand in 2017 to be with her mother, said she has no choice about visiting.

New Zealand has some of the toughest coronavirus restrictions in the world, and, as an island nation, has largely been able to keep the virus at bay. It has had 21 COVID-19 deaths in a population of 4.8 million; Nebraska has had far more deaths out of population of less than 2 million. A nurse, McKeon received her training at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

“I am grateful that my mother is not one of those statistics,” she said in a Facebook exchange.


Elspeth McKeon and her mother, Joan MacDonnell, enjoy each other's company during the pre-coronavirus days. McKeon, who lived 20 years in Omaha, returned to her native New Zealand in 2017 to be with her mother. As Mother's Day approaches, she says the two will be apart due to travel restrictions in the island nation.

Her mother, Joan MacDonnell, lives about a two-hour drive from McKeon. Authorities in New Zealand are not permitting travel over such a distance.

“When we are able to travel further afield, we will enjoy a hug, cream buns and a lot of laughs together down at the beach,” McKeon wrote.

“The gift, on Sunday, will be that of hope.”

Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020

special report
Ricketts fires back at criticism from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow

LINCOLN — Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts on Friday fired back at MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow, who on Thursday night criticized the Republican governor for “not letting anyone know what’s happening” with infections in the state’s meatpacking plants, nursing homes and prisons.

Ricketts, during his daily coronavirus briefing, said Maddow’s claim was “factually wrong” because he had released aggregate information earlier Thursday about the number of infections involving meatpacking workers and residents and staff at nursing homes.

Pete Ricketts

“She has her own agenda,” the governor said.

Ricketts’ spokesman, Taylor Gage, later tweeted that Maddow was spreading “fake news” and engaging in “totally blind partisan gamesmanship.”

Thursday, Ricketts said 1,005 of the state’s 6,771 positive cases reported at that time involved meatpacking plant workers, and that 267 nursing home residents and 188 staffers at those facilities have tested positive. Fifty-seven of the state’s 86 COVID-19 deaths as of Wednesday evening involved nursing home residents.

He said he would provide only “aggregate” state numbers on such infections, and would not specifically identify how many infections came from a specific plant or nursing home — figures that some people who live near such facilities are seeking.

Rachel Maddow

Ricketts did not discuss on Thursday the number of infections within state prisons, which so far have seen five workers — but no inmates — test positive.

Maddow pointed out on her show that Nebraska hasn’t tested any prison inmates.

“What do you think the odds are that no prisoners in Nebraska have coronavirus?” she asked. Some other states have conducted widespread testing of inmates and found numerous infections involving inmates who are asymptomatic. One Ohio prison, for instance, reported that 80% of its inmates tested positive.

The Nebraska Department of Corrections has said it is testing only those inmates who show symptoms, and no inmates have presented the symptoms to warrant testing.

Maddow, in recent nightly shows, has harshly criticized both Nebraska and Iowa for not ordering the closing of meatpacking plants, where infections have spiked in recent weeks. About 1 in 6 infections in Nebraska, for instance, have come so far from the state’s hog- and beef-processing facilities, and the per-capita growth in positive cases in counties with meatpacking facilities has been among the highest in the country.

“This is the kind of thing you go down in the history books for, Gov. Ricketts,” Maddow said. “You’re going to be famous for this, long after you’re gone.”

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020

Less pomp in a tough circumstance, but virtual graduations will be special in their own way

Hey you with the air horn, let her rip.

You won’t bother anyone, except maybe the dog.

The first virtual high school graduations for Omaha-area public schools — ever — are set for Sunday.

The ceremonies for graduates of Papillion-La Vista’s two high schools will feature cameos by notable alumni and personalities; a socially distanced choir performance that students recorded remotely; and a clever, but for now secret, twist on the traditional tossing of the mortar boards.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, the ceremonies produced by district personnel could wind up being more intimate and emotional than the big arena ceremonies of normal times.

Not only are they taking place in the shadow of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, but the ceremonies for the two schools will be packed with personal touches not normally found in a typical graduation ceremony.

“There is no doubt in my mind it’s going to be more emotional,” said Megan Davey, a Papillion-La Vista High senior selected as one of the graduation speakers.

All the seniors have experienced the same loss, she said. They watched in disappointment as the coronavirus cut short their final year, spoiled their spring sports and activities and torpedoed a conventional graduation — at least for now. District officials have scheduled in-person ceremonies for August at the Ralston Arena — fingers crossed.

“We all kind of share that pain together,” Davey said.

But this year’s odd situation has its perks, she said. In a normal graduation, the seniors would sit in rows alphabetically on the arena floor, and might not even know the classmates seated beside them, she said.

In this case, district officials are encouraging graduates and family members to hold watch parties in their homes — as long as they limit the attendees to adhere to health guidelines. Davey said she will be watching the ceremony with family at her best friend’s house.

“It’s probably going to be louder in the house than it would be in an arena,” she said.

The term “virtual” is a bit of a stretch to describe the prerecorded graduation ceremonies. A better description might be “all digital.”

There won’t be a giant Zoom session with all the students teleconferencing in. There won’t be any live interaction, except what occurs on social media as the graduation video rolls on Facebook Live and YouTube. Davey expects that students will be furiously texting one another during the ceremony.

The material in the videos had to be produced and assembled while observing social distancing guidelines imposed because of the pandemic.

The ceremonies will combine videos, photos, drone shots and of course the requisite recitation of the names of the freshly minted graduates as their portraits flash across the screen. Papillion-La Vista High School has 506 graduates; Papillion-La Vista South High has 478.


Members of the choir at Papillion-La Vista South High School couldn’t gather to perform a song for graduation, so select members recorded their parts, and the clips were edited together for Sunday’s virtual graduation. Top row from left are Kieran Nebel, Dillon Johnson, Noah Lawrence and Payton Johnson. Bottom row from left Anna Derrick, Rianna Muñoz, Rebekah Strohmyer, Kya Harrison and McKenna Hendricks.

Distancing restrictions were a big hurdle for the choir at Papillion-La Vista South.

Choirs, by definition, are a gathering. If the choir were to perform, music teachers had to get around that. Their solution was to have selected choir members record parts of a song remotely, and then stitch them together as a virtual choir.

Even though the whole choir couldn’t perform, the result of this ingenuity is a remarkably seamless performance. The choir members appear in boxes on the screen, a format that most everyone has seen and used for teleconferencing during the pandemic.

Each ceremony will feature a student singing the national anthem. That segment was recorded amid the flags and monuments at Veterans Park in Papillion.

Metro-area school buildings closed in mid-March, upon the recommendation of state officials, in an effort to blunt the spread of the virus. There had initially been hope of reopening this spring. But Gov. Pete Ricketts subsequently issued a directed health measure requiring all public, private and parochial schools to operate without students through May 31. The order canceled all extracurricular activities, as well. It limited public gatherings to 10 people.

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Many districts rescheduled live graduations for late summer in hopes that the restrictions will be eased by then. In the meantime, they’re honoring grads with a digital substitute.

The Millard Public Schools is holding virtual graduations on May 23. It is working with a company called MarchingOrder to design the ceremonies. The Omaha Public Schools has scheduled virtual graduations for its seven high schools May 25-30.

Papillion-La Vista officials considered having live virtual ceremonies but worried that during a live broadcast, a technical glitch could sink the whole ceremony, spokeswoman Annette Eyman said.

Instead, they went with prerecorded.

Officials searched high and low for candid photos and videos of seniors to use, Eyman said.

Davey recorded her speech inside the empty high school, a poignant detail that will add drama to the ceremony. Students have only been allowed inside the school to retrieve items from their lockers.

During her speech, she walks the hall, visiting familiar places, like the classroom where she took Advanced Placement literature.

Going back was sad, she said, but “a good way to say goodbye.”

Some students are still sad about missing out on traditional graduation, but others accept it and are excited for the virtual one, she said. Her speech is punctuated with drone video of the school and other video clips of students in the halls and at football games.

One of her points of emphasis: “This does not make our years together any less special.”

Ryleigh Parrack, who is graduating from Papillion-La Vista South, recorded her speech inside her empty school, too.

Her family will be eating tacos — her choice — while gathering with her to watch the ceremony.

Parrack said students appreciate how the community has responded to make things special, with such events as the stadium lighting, virtual honors night and a fireworks show. She said she’s excited to watch the virtual graduation.

“It’s different and not what we expected, but it’s kind of more special,” she said.

For school board President Bret Brasfield, the switch to virtual means that he will miss out on a special moment. His daughter, Emily, will graduate from Papillion-La Vista South.

He was looking forward to handing Emily her diploma onstage — and giving her a hug.

Now the family will be at home watching the ceremony on his smart TV.

“We are at the mercy of this disease,” he said.

Despite all the hardship caused by COVID-19, he said, there’s something unique and historic about a class of young people from the Information Age holding a virtual graduation.

Such an event would have been hard to pull off even a decade ago, he said.

“We would not have had a whiff of the bandwidth to do this,” Brasfield said.

Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020