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Coronavirus exceeds emergency plans at Nebraska long-term care homes, official says

LINCOLN — Nebraska’s long-term care facilities have long been required to plan for emergencies, but a state health official said Friday that she doesn’t think anyone anticipated one like the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the last two months, the virus has broken out in 84 nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the state, with 311 residents and 242 employees testing positive.

Long-term care residents account for as many as two of every three coronavirus deaths in Nebraska. The state is one of 13 in which half or more of deaths are among nursing home residents.

Speaking at Gov. Pete Ricketts’ daily coronavirus briefing, Becky Wisell, who heads up the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services licensing program, said facilities have to develop emergency preparedness plans to meet state and federal regulations.

“I’m not sure any of us imagined the magnitude of something like COVID-19, but I do believe facilities had put forth efforts to deal with emergency situations,” she said.

As part of the state’s response to the coronavirus, Wisell said, HHS officials have put together a document to help long-term care facilities develop a plan for dealing with the virus over the coming weeks and months.

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The document covers such issues as rapid identification and management of cases, visitor policies, disinfection protocols, requesting protective equipment like masks and gloves, and addressing the mental health of residents and staff.

Facilities can use the document to identify their strengths and weaknesses.

Wisell said the document will be distributed to facilities “in the near future.”

The facilities will then be required to develop a coronavirus plan, which could be incorporated into their overall emergency plan.

In addition, Wisell said an infection prevention expert from Nebraska Medicine’s Infection Control Assessment and Promotion Program, along with HHS epidemiologists and local health officials, have been working with long-term care facilities that have had confirmed cases of the virus. The team helps facilities control the virus and protect residents and staff.

That effort includes contact tracing to identify who might have had close enough contact with the infected person to be at risk. Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska’s chief medical officer, said close contacts in long-term care settings are tested, even if they have no symptoms.

State licensing officials also investigate facilities if they get complaints about violations of state and federal regulations, which include regulations about infection control. Wisell said such complaints are confidential until the investigation is completed.

Ricketts said long-term care facilities are a priority because residents typically are older and have multiple medical conditions. But he reiterated his policy not to name specific homes with coronavirus cases. Under federal regulations, long-term care facilities must notify families of residents if a home has a confirmed case.

As of Friday afternoon, long-term care residents accounted for 62 of the 113 deaths in the state. Earlier reports put the total as high as 75 deaths among long-term care residents. Ricketts said coronavirus is suspected but not verified as a cause of death in all of those cases. He said state officials are investigating.

Anthone said the high proportion of nursing home residents among Nebraska coronavirus deaths could be considered a good sign. It means that fewer low-risk people are dying of the disease.

On other topics:

Food drive The Boy Scouts Mid-America Council will do the annual Scouting for Food drive in the Omaha area, northeast Nebraska and western Iowa on Saturday. To maintain social distance, they are asking people to leave nonperishable food items in plastic bags at the end of their driveways by 8 a.m. or to take food to a local food bank or pantry. The council is working with the Food Bank for the Heartland.

Race, ethnicity Ricketts said he has asked all local health departments to collect and report information on the race and ethnicity of people who test positive for coronavirus by the end of May. Nebraska is one of four states that has not released race and ethnicity information as part of its statewide coronavirus data.

Information released by the Douglas County and the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Departments show that the virus is disproportionately affecting minority groups, which is similar to the experience of other states. The ACLU of Nebraska and other groups have submitted a public records request to the state seeking the information.

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020

Nebraska Supreme Court rules lethal injection records must be released

LINCOLN — The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled Friday that state officials must release documents revealing where Nebraska got the lethal injection drugs used to execute Carey Dean Moore in 2018.

The ruling marked a victory for the Omaha World-Herald, the Lincoln Journal Star and the ACLU of Nebraska, which had sued the state Corrections Department for denying their separate public records requests.

The state argued that the records should be confidential because they could lead to the identification of members of the execution team. Those identities are protected under state law.

Carey Dean Moore was executed on Aug. 14, 2018, the state's first execution in 21 years and its first by lethal injection. Moore was sentenced to death for the murders of Reuel Van Ness and Maynard Helgeland. Moore, 60, had served 38 years on death row for the 1979 killings of the Omaha cabdrivers who were shot five days apart. Read more

But the high court rejected the state’s arguments, saying that they “contradict the text of Nebraska’s public records statutes and are adverse to this court’s public records precedent.” It ordered the department to redact confidential portions of the documents, such as the names of execution team members, and release the rest.

Paul Goodsell, managing editor for The World-Herald, said the ruling upheld the intent of the state’s public records laws.

“Nebraskans want their government officials to be transparent and accountable in conducting the public’s business, as state law requires with limited exceptions,” he said. “This ruling makes clear that officials can’t sidestep their disclosure obligations.”

State ACLU Director Danielle Conrad also hailed the ruling, calling open government “a bedrock Nebraska tradition” because it provides a check on government abuses.

“We’re pleased the court agreed that Nebraskans have a right to know what the state is doing with taxpayer dollars and will finally bring transparency to this suspect process,” she said, noting that the documents concern the power to put someone to death.

State officials offered a measured reaction to the ruling but no timeline for producing the documents. It could take as long as four months, depending on whether the state seeks a rehearing on the case, how long it takes to be sent back to the lower court and how quickly that court acts.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said he had just received the ruling and did not know how soon the information would be released. But he said state officials would abide by the ruling.

Suzanne Gage, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Doug Peterson, said he “appreciates the court providing clarity on multiple issues of first impression and on prior case law. Going forward, the attorney general expects the parties will work together to bring this to a resolution.”

The three entities went to court after corrections officials withheld documents that each had sought in separate Freedom of Information Act requests. The requests were filed before Moore’s execution and after prison officials announced that they had obtained supplies of four drugs they planned to use for an execution.

The documents at issue include purchase orders, chemical analysis reports, communications with the drug supplier, federal Drug Enforcement Administration forms, invoices, inventory logs and a photograph of the packaging in which the drugs arrived.

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In June 2018, Lancaster County District Judge Jodi Nelson ruled that most of the records should be turned over except those that directly identify members of the execution team.

The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office appealed the portion of the ruling that required the state to release documents. The three plaintiffs cross-appealed, arguing that the state should be ordered to turn over all documents after redacting the information protected by law.

The newspapers and the ACLU filed their Freedom of Information requests in October and November 2017. In the past, state officials have released documents related to the state’s acquisition of execution drugs. In 2015, such disclosure led to the discovery that Nebraska officials lost $54,400 in state money by attempting to purchase foreign drugs that state officials had been told they could not legally import.

Information about the origin of lethal injection drugs has been used in other states to cut off supplies of the drugs. Many drug manufacturers don’t want their products used for executions and require distributors not to provide them for such use. Public pressure also has been used to stop sales.

In response, some states shield the identity of lethal injection drug suppliers. Nebraska lawmakers have debated but did not pass a bill that would have offered such protection.

As of December, Nebraska’s stock of lethal injection drugs had expired and no effort appeared to have been made to restock them after Moore’s execution. The state used four drugs to execute Moore: diazepam, fentanyl, cisatracurium and potassium chloride. It was the first time nationally that the four drugs had been used in an execution.

The 23 men Nebraska has put to death

Summer camps, neighborhood grants canceled as Stothert warns of layoffs and other cuts

Mayor Jean Stothert has canceled summer camps, rescinded neighborhood grants and reduced police and fire overtime.

Those are just some of the measures the city has taken as it faces a revenue shortfall on top of rising coronavirus expenses.

But such cuts, estimated to save the city $22.7 million, may not be enough to offset an estimated $80 million general fund shortfall, Stothert warned at a Friday press conference.

Other cuts on the table: not opening libraries or swimming pools in 2020, canceling police and fire recruit classes, laying off or furloughing city workers and reducing the Omaha Police and Fire Departments by 10%.

“We’re counting pennies now,” Stothert said.

The mayor said she doesn’t want to lay off employees or reduce community services but may need to do so if the city doesn’t receive enough money to fill the budget gap.

Stothert outlined several ways officials have already reduced spending. They’ve imposed hiring and spending freezes to cut more than $3 million and furloughed part-time Parks and Recreation employees for $1.5 million and part-time librarians for $1.3 million. Canceling summer camps will save $300,000, but Stothert said officials canceled those to prevent the spread of the virus.

She outlined several more reductions that could save the city an estimated $17.4 million but said some would not be popular because they would affect trash, emergency and other city services.

Along with the possible reduction of police officers, firefighters and other city workers, half of full-time Parks Department workers could be laid off.

Fire rigs could be out of service, and stations could be closed. Swimming pools, community centers, libraries and the ice rink may not open again this year.

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Libraries and community centers have been closed since mid-March because of the pandemic. Stothert said that she wants to reopen them but that not doing so would save money. Keeping the libraries, swimming pools, community centers and ice rink closed would account for more than $5.2 million of the floated $17.4 million in cuts.

Recycling, too, could be canceled for six months, which would save $850,000.

“That will not be a very popular thing,” Stothert said. “But if it’s between recycling or city employees, I would prefer to take recycling off for the rest of the year.”

If recycling is canned, those items would be taken to the landfill, Stothert said. Officials would try to offset that move by sending yard waste to Oma-Gro to be composted.

Once the city’s new trash contract begins in 2021, recycling would resume.

None of those measures have been decided on, Stothert said. They likely won’t happen in the immediate future. But something must be done to balance the budget by the end of the year.

The city’s projected $80 million revenue shortfall would affect its $420 million general fund budget, which pays for all city departments. About 75% of the general fund goes to police, fire and waste collection.

Finance Director Steve Curtiss said the money the city received from March sales taxes was down about 6%, representing about a $3.5 million loss. That “appears to be somewhat similar to what we’re seeing across the country,” he said.

Decreased revenue from hotel taxes and other occupation taxes brought March’s loss to about $5 million, Curtiss said.

The city also has incurred more than $71 million in COVID-19 expenses. Those include personal protective equipment for first responders, disinfection of public buildings, additional paid leave for employees affected by the coronavirus and more, according to a Finance Department report.

Stothert has been publicly pressing for Douglas County and the state to share with Omaha some of the federal coronavirus relief money those entities received. The County Board is expected to discuss the $166 million it received during its Tuesday meeting.

Curtiss said Friday that updated guidance from the Treasury Department has indicated that the money can be used more broadly than was previously believed, for costs such as payroll expenses for public safety and public health and possibly to keep police officers and firefighters from being laid off.

Close those laptops: Omaha-area school districts ending the 2019-20 school year

End the video calls. Close the laptops.

One of the strangest school years in recent memory has come to an end.

The 2019-20 school year is in the books for Omaha, Millard, Bellevue, Westside and Elkhorn students. They finish the school year days earlier than what the school calendar said in August after officials moved up the last day of school.

Other districts, like the Papillion-La Vista Community Schools, will finish next week.

The goodbyes, like everything else since March, were virtual. Teachers held final class video conferences. School staff made goodbye videos.

At the Elkhorn Public Schools’ Elkhorn Valley View Middle School, staff held a goodbye parade in which students and their families could drive by and say farewell.


Dawn Zumbrennen, an eighth grade American history teacher, waves to students in the bed of a truck during a summer send-off parade at Elkhorn Valley View Middle School on Friday. It was the last day of virtual classes after the public school had to close because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Most students in the metro area haven’t been inside a classroom since concerns over the coronavirus closed schools in March.

Since then, normal rites of passages for seniors such as prom and graduation have been canceled or gone virtual. Teachers had to pivot to remote instruction as some students struggled to do online work without access to the Internet or devices.

Schools will now turn to summer classes.

Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Cheryl Logan said this week that her district’s summer school will be virtual. She said the district will provide devices and Internet access to students.

Last month, the district bought 2,000 iPads with cellular data capabilities for $1.3 million for use in summer school.

Officials have repeatedly said they don’t know what school will look like this fall.

Elkhorn Superintendent Bary Habrock said in a Thursday letter to families and staff that many questions remain about the 2020-21 school year, “with few to no answers.”

As other superintendents have done, Habrock laid out four different scenarios: normal start to the school year, delayed start, a mix of in-person and remote learning or continued distance learning.

“We know that flexibility will be necessary until a vaccination is discovered. If this information creates anxiety or questions, you are normal,” Habrock wrote. “Collectively, we are weary and anxious and our tolerance is waning, but we remain optimistic that we will overcome this challenge through our school-community partnership.”

Photos: The last day of the 2020 school year

Photos: The last day of the 2020 school year