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Wondering if you've had COVID-19? Red Cross testing donated blood for coronavirus antibodies

For a limited time, the American Red Cross will test all donations of blood, platelets and plasma for coronavirus antibodies that could show donors whether they have been infected with the virus.

The free antibody testing started Monday and is being conducted nationwide, including in Nebraska and Iowa, as the Red Cross tries to build up its blood supply. Elective surgeries that may require donated blood are resuming after being put on hold, and many blood drives were canceled as the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“As an organization dedicated to helping others, the Red Cross is pleased to provide more information about COVID-19 to our valued donors,” said Dr. Erin Goodhue, the executive medical director of direct patient care with Red Cross Biomedical Services. “If you are feeling healthy and well, please schedule an appointment to not only help save lives but also learn about your potential exposure to COVID-19.”

Antibody testing involves a blood-based test designed to detect the proteins that the immune system makes to fight off infections. Emerging evidence indicates that most people make antibodies in response to COVID-19. The University of Nebraska Medical Center, in partnership with a testing company, recently tested hundreds of Omaha firefighters for the coronavirus and antibodies.

It is not the same thing as testing for a current or active COVID-19 infection — that typically involves a swab up the nose. Do not show up to a blood donation site if you are sick or suspect you have a current case of COVID-19.

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In other diseases, the presence of antibodies indicates that people will have some protection from future infection. In the case of COVID-19, it is not yet known how much protection those antibodies provide against the disease or how long any protection might last.

But worldwide, health officials hope that the antibody tests could be a tool in helping to determine when it’s safe to lift social distancing measures and return to work.

Blood donations, which are routinely tested for a number of different infectious diseases, also will undergo antibody testing. Results should be available in seven to 10 days and can be accessed through the Red Cross’s blood donation app or the donor portal on the Red Cross website.

“A positive antibody test result does not confirm infection or immunity,” the Red Cross cautioned in a press release.

Plenty of questions remain about the reliability of different antibody tests and what kind of immunity antibodies might provide if someone is exposed to the coronavirus again.

The specific test the Red Cross is using — the Ortho Clinical Diagnostics VITROS Anti-SARS-CoV2 Total Test — is authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Red Cross said. Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are still studying different commercial antibody tests and are reviewing antibody data to get a clearer picture of how many people in the United States may have contracted COVID-19, even if they didn’t show symptoms or couldn’t get access to a test.

For more information about the Red Cross antibody testing, or to make an appointment to give blood, visit redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/dlp/covid-19-antibody-testing.html or call 1-800-RED CROSS. The Red Cross expects to offer antibody testing throughout the summer, but will reevaluate after that.

Blood donation sites continue to take precautions against the virus, including spacing out donors, requiring everyone to wear masks and conducting temperature checks.

Our best staff images from June 2020

Look back at our best staff photos from June 2020

special report
Ricketts tells local governments they won't get federal COVID-19 money if they require masks

LINCOLN — At his regular coronavirus press conferences, Gov. Pete Ricketts makes a point of urging Nebraskans to wear a mask when they go to a store.

But when it comes to the state’s 93 courthouses and other county offices, he doesn’t want local officials to require masks. In fact, he’s told counties that they won’t receive any of the $100 million in federal COVID-19 money if their “customers” are required to wear masks.

“The governor encourages people to wear a mask,” according to his spokesman Taylor Gage, “but does not believe that failure to wear a mask should be the basis for denying taxpayers’ services.”

The no-mask mandate has been poorly received in some corners of the state, with officials criticizing the loss of local control. It also runs counter to the advice of public health officials, who have stressed the importance of wearing masks.

In Lincoln, the state’s second-largest city, officials were preparing to require all visitors to wear masks when entering the City-County Building. But the draft rules were promptly dropped when officials were informed that Lancaster County wouldn’t receive CARES Act money if it instituted a mask requirement.

Deb Schorr, a longtime Lancaster County Board member and past president of the Nebraska Association of County Officials, said county officials “love local control” and are better informed about conditions in their county, particularly concerning COVID-19. The virus has hammered several parts of Nebraska, even as 18 rural counties have not recorded a single positive case.

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But with millions of dollars at stake, local officials said they had little choice but to comply with the governor’s order. Otherwise, they’d have to find local options for replacing the federal money, such as higher property taxes.

“We’d like to have a little bit more ability to call the shots in our courthouse, but we realize that he has the right to set the rules,” Schorr said.

An official in Dakota County was more blunt.

Dakota County Assessor Jeff Curry said he was hoping that a mask requirement could remain in place for the courthouse through July 1. The northeast Nebraska county, home to a Tyson meatpacking plant, has been one of the hardest-hit counties in the nation for COVID-19. Visitors to the courthouse were not only required to wear a mask when entering, but their temperatures also were checked and they were asked a series of questions about coronavirus exposure.

Those health precautions, however, went out the window as of Monday, the date that Ricketts directed government offices to reopen to the public.

Curry said the message from the governor is “you better do what I want you to do.”

“It sure would have been nice to be able to sit down with our health director and County Board and have a conversation about what to do, without being mandated to do it,” he said.

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The issue first arose late last month when Ricketts issued a guidance document to counties, advising that if they wanted any of the CARES Act money that was allocated to the state, their offices needed to reopen to the public by June 15.

Of the $2 trillion in spending Congress authorized in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, Nebraska received about $1 billion to help offset coronavirus-related costs for states and local governments. A total of $100 million was set aside for counties, cities and utilities, with the governor in charge of doling out the money.

The only exception is Douglas County, which received $166 million to distribute to local entities in the county. The City of Omaha could be eligible to receive a share of both the county and state money.

Ricketts’ CARES Act guidance indicated that counties could set social distancing standards and control access to their buildings, but added: “Customers may be encouraged to wear face coverings, but may not be refused service for failure to do so.”

At a press conference Monday, in answering a question from a Dakota County reporter, Ricketts made it clear that if Dakota County officials didn’t want to adhere to the mask guidance, they could go without CARES Act money.

“Counties are not prohibited from requiring masks, but if they want CARES Act money, they have to be fully open, and that means they cannot deny service for not wearing a mask,” said Gage, the governor’s spokesman.

On Monday, a trio of physicians on the faculty at the University of Nebraska Medical Center — which has served as an adviser to Ricketts for his COVID-19 response — published a guest opinion piece in The World-Herald urging Nebraskans to wear masks in public places to avoid another surge in infections.

Schorr, the Lancaster County Board member, pointed out that Ricketts gave the State Supreme Court the option to require masks in courtrooms statewide. That, she said, presents a “challenge” for the Lancaster County Hall of Justice, which has courtrooms on the top three floors and other county offices on the first floor.

In Dakota County, visitors can now enter the courthouse mask-free. But Curry said the county instituted new limits on the number of people who can enter the courthouse. That has led to long lines of patrons waiting outside in the hot sun, he said, prompting the county this week to buy shade tents and hand out bottles of water to those in line.

Our best staff images from June 2020

Look back at our best staff photos from June 2020


Kaleb Harder, 10, of Fremont takes aim during a soccer training session as the sun beats down on Leavenworth Park in Omaha on Wednesday. From June 1 through June 15 — when temperatures reached into the 90s every day but two — Omaha recorded its second-highest average high since records have been kept. But cooler weather could be in store for the second half of the month. Highs should be in the 80s through Saturday, and a storm system is expected to move in today, producing rainfall totals into Friday of 1.5 to 2 inches. Story in Midlands, Page 3A.

Owners of shuttered 11-Worth Cafe say protests over meal name, Facebook post took a toll

11-Worth Cafe, a staple of down-home breakfasts and lunches for decades, has closed and has no plans to reopen.

The cafe at 2419 Leavenworth St. near downtown Omaha faced protests over the weekend that drew a police response. By Monday, a handwritten “closed” sign appeared inside the door. And on Wednesday, the ownership family made it official.

The owners, the Caniglia family, said they had received threats via social media and had to call police twice to their family homes. In addition, they said, the noisy protests outside the cafe on Saturday and Sunday took a toll.

“Our customers and staff are of the utmost importance to our family,” the letter said. “The verbal abuse, taunting and having to be escorted to and from their cars by police and security officers for their safety for two straight days was more than we could watch them endure.”

The 11-Worth protests were prompted by a Facebook post apparently by the restaurant owner’s son, and a breakfast dish named after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Some protesters called for the restaurant to be shut down.

The handwritten “closed” sign remained in place on Wednesday. The restaurant was dark, with doors locked and tables sitting empty. Calls to the restaurant continued to go unanswered.

A large sign hung in one of the restaurant’s windows that says, “FOR SALE RESTAURANT EQUIPMENT.” It’s unclear how long the sign has been up and the handful of equipment items have been sitting in the storefront.

David Mitchell, an organizer of the protests, said the ultimate goal was to receive a public apology and have the menu item’s name changed. Mitchell said he hoped for an ongoing dialogue about how to move forward and better the community.

Mitchell said he doesn’t condone the threats and harassment received by the Caniglia family and restaurant staff.

“That’s not acceptable,” Mitchell said. He said he’s also received numerous threats since the closure was announced.

Owner Tony Caniglia declined to comment when a reporter called on Wednesday.

Here are the city’s 38 essential restaurants

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

Time of change comes for aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben's brands

CHICAGO — The Aunt Jemima brand, which has been on syrup and other products for more than 130 years, is being retired.

Chicago-based Quaker Oats Co., a unit of PepsiCo, announced Wednesday that it will first remove the image from its packaging, with plans to change the name at a later date. The company said it made the decision as it took a "hard look" at the brands in its portfolio.

"We recognize Aunt Jemima's origins are based on a racial stereotype," Kristin Kroepfl, vice president and chief marketing officer of Quaker Foods North America, said in a press release. "While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough." Just hours later, the owner of the Uncle Ben's brand of rice said the brand will "evolve" in response to concerns about racial stereotyping.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis and the protests and unrest that followed have caused corporate America to take a look at itself and its workforces.

Companies have put out statements condemning racism, taken out ads, and promised changes inside their companies and support for black communities. In Chicago and elsewhere, many companies for the first time are making Friday a paid day off in observance of Juneteenth. It commemorates June 19, 1865, the day Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of the Civil War and slavery.

Quaker Oats' announcement comes a day after PepsiCo announced a more than $400 million set of initiatives to improve black communities and black representation at the company during the next five years.

Changed packaging for the Aunt Jemima brand should begin to appear on store shelves during the final three-months of the year. A name change will follow, the company said.

The Aunt Jemima image has been updated over the years to move it away from the original — and controversial — slave figure. A 1968 makeover replaced a kerchief on her head with a headband. In 1989, she got a gray-streaked hairstyle without a headband, plus pearl earrings and a white lace collar. At the time of the 1989 update, a company executive told the Tribune the name would not be changed because "that kind of familiarity and recognition is an invaluable asset."

This year, Land O'Lakes announced changes to its packaging for butter and cheese products to remove the image of a Native American woman. That new packaging is expected to be fully rolled out by the end of year.

On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Mars, which owns Uncle Ben's, said the company is listening to the voices of consumers and recognizes that now is the right time to evolve the brand, including its visual identity. The image of Uncle Ben, an elderly black man, has been the front of boxes of rice and side dishes for more than 70 years.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.