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Ricketts announces initiative to increase testing, help get state back to work

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts unveiled a program called TestNebraska on Tuesday that aims to dramatically increase coronavirus testing in the state as part of a push to get Nebraskans back to work.

The effort mirrors testing and tracking programs already underway in Utah and announced earlier Tuesday in Iowa. A consortium of private companies developed the programs.

Ricketts said the initiative seeks to “crush the curve” and will be key in being able to lift restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the potentially deadly virus.

“This is how we shift that model from the entire state being quarantined to just the people who are impacted by COVID-19 being quarantined,” he said, speaking at his daily coronavirus briefing.

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The briefing came as coronavirus-related deaths climbed in Nebraska. The total reached 42 Tuesday evening, with nine new deaths reported for the day. Nebraska recorded its first death from COVID-19 less than a month ago. All but four have been among people age 60 and older.

With the new program, Ricketts said the state could be testing 3,000 people a day within five weeks, which would be a considerable increase over the 600 to 800 a day being tested now. Tests will be paid for by the state or covered by insurance, he said.

“We’ve been looking for a way to increase testing quickly, and we think this is the way to do that,” he said.

The program costs $27 million, which would cover 540,000 tests, according to Ricketts’ spokesman, Taylor Gage. Federal coronavirus relief funds provided to the states may cover the cost.

The process begins with Nebraskans taking an assessment for coronavirus on the website testnebraska.com. Ricketts urged all Nebraskans to take the assessment as part of fighting the coronavirus, calling it a “civic duty and a personal responsibility.”

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State public health officials will review the information collected. Answers to the assessment will be used to decide who needs to be tested and how quickly. The assessment is available only via a computer or smartphone, although other options may be developed.

Ricketts said the first priority for testing will be health care workers and other front-line people. Next up will be people showing symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Eventually, those with mild or no symptoms may be able to be tested.

Testing will be offered in tents set up by the consortium across the state. Locations will be determined in part by responses to the online assessments, which will show where the need is greatest.

People who test positive for the virus would be asked to quarantine themselves, while local public health officials would contact the people who might have been exposed to them. Ricketts said state and local health officials will have to beef up their workforce to carry out that last step.

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More widespread testing is necessary to relieve restrictions on Nebraskans, he said. By identifying those who have COVID-19 and tracking down people they were in contact with, quarantines could be more targeted, and limited.

“If we’re going to get back to life and get back to work, we need to empower ourselves with data,” said Mark Newman, CEO of Nomi Health, one of the companies in the consortium.

Dave Elkington, founder and chairman of Xant, another of the companies, said the consortium used connections of participating companies, particularly connections to China, to overcome the supply shortages that have limited testing capacity across the nation. Nebraska, for example, has had difficulty getting reagents, the chemicals needed to process tests.

In Utah, the consortium is now testing between 2,500 and 2,800 people a day, 2½ weeks into the program there. About 90,000 Utah residents have taken the online assessments, and about 9,000 have been tested.

In other topics:

  • Coronavirus stats. The State Department of Health and Human Services added information about hospital capacity to its coronavirus statistics page. The page, which is updated at 6 p.m. daily, has a daily total of confirmed cases, a breakdown of case numbers by county, testing totals and other information.
  • Immigration suspension. In the wake of President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would suspend immigration temporarily, Ricketts said the state would be looking for abuses of the immigration system that may be allowing people to bring coronavirus into Nebraska.
  • Meatpacking plants. Ricketts said he is working to keep Nebraska’s meatpacking plants open, despite the disease outbreaks concentrated around some of those plants. He said he is talking with plant officials weekly about measures to control the spread of the virus. Ricketts predicted that there would be riots if all meatpacking plants closed and the food supply was disrupted.
  • Swimming pools. With summer on the way, Ricketts said swimming pools have to abide by the state’s 10-person limit on gatherings. He said more specific guidance would be provided to pools as the weather gets warmer.
April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

Nebraska Crossing's planned 'soft opening' will no longer be open to public

Nebraska Crossing Outlets’ planned “soft opening” Friday now won’t be open to the public, according to a post added to the mall’s Facebook page on Tuesday.

Last week, the owner of the outdoor mall near Gretna told general managers of the mall’s 80 stores that, after speaking with Gov. Pete Ricketts, he planned a Friday soft opening for the stores that wanted to get back to business.

Owner and developer Rod Yates had hailed the plan as a test case for how retailers can safely open to the public.

“We will walk before we run here and obviously if you have any underlying health issues we will encourage shoppers and/or employees to not participate in the center soft reopening,” Yates said in an email last week, announcing the plan.

Now he is backing off from that plan.

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The Tuesday morning Facebook post said the only store open to the public Friday will be Uniform Destination, the one store in the mall that never closed.

“You’ve heard the news. We are ‘soft opening’ Nebraska Crossing on 4/24. What does this mean?” the post said. “A ‘soft opening’ is for store employees only — to begin the process of getting their stores ready for business. … This process can take 1, 2, 3 weeks or more. A store can’t just turn on the lights & resume business.”

Soft openings traditionally are openings of stores without fanfare or, in the case of restaurants, openings that allow workers to practice serving food to some customers before the general public comes in.

An employee of a store at the mall said it was clear that the soft open on April 24 was meant to be open to the public.

“To suggest otherwise is a method of damage control that is as disingenuous as the mall has been throughout this entire process,” said the employee, whom The World-Herald is not naming because of feared retribution.

Yates had said that Nebraska Crossing was going to be “the first shopping center that opens in North America.” He and other Nebraska Crossing officials did not respond Tuesday to a request seeking more information on their decision or when stores would be open to the public.

Yates had said that in an effort to keep people safe, the mall had purchased 100 “infrared non-contact instant-read thermometers” — one for each store — that employees will use to check their temperatures upon arrival for their shifts. Store managers could decide whether to offer the thermometer to customers before they enter the store, Yates said.

Mall officials also bought 200 shield guards that were to be installed at registers between customers and employees.

Retailers could decide for themselves if they wanted to open, but some store managers expressed concern that Nebraska Crossing’s announcement about being a case study would pressure their corporate bosses to open. General managers told The World-Herald that they were worried for their own and their customers’ health and safety.

Saturday morning, Yates told CNN that he doubted many stores would open Friday and expected a “formal grand opening” in May, potentially May 1.

Officials with at least 10 retail stores were interested in opening on April 24, Nebraska Crossing officials said in an email last week.

At least twice, Nebraska Crossing wanted stores to open earlier than that.

“As decisions are being made this week, due to many retailers ‘closed through’ dates coming to an end, we are hoping most brands will set a tentative reopening date of Wednesday, April 1,” the management team said in an email sent on March 26. “We are fielding hundreds of calls every day asking when the entire mall will be back open.”

Then, a soft opening was scheduled for April 18, according to a letter sent to general managers. In that letter, mall officials outlined their plan to reopen safely for shoppers and mentioned weekly calls with Ricketts.

On April 14, officials changed the soft-opening date to Friday and posted a new letter on Facebook, deleting the line about the weekly calls with Ricketts.

“Nebraska Crossing will offer a ‘soft open’ April 24th,” the letter read, “with limited retailers who requested to open, with strict guidelines in place — following social distancing rules and guidelines set by the CDC.”

As of Tuesday, that letter has been deleted. The post had hundreds of comments, some people angry about the decision and others cheering it.

Nebraska Crossing and its owner have donated almost $100,000 to Ricketts since 2014

Rod Yates, owner and developer of Nebraska Crossing, has said mall officials have been consulting weekly with Gov, Pete Ricketts in developing their reopening plans. If that's true, said Jack Gould of watchdog Common Cause Nebraska, it raises questions about whether that access is because of the campaign contributions. Ricketts' spokesman said the governor has never had weekly conversations with Yates and has not spoken directly with him this year.

Yates told the New York Times in a story published last week about the planned opening that he was looking forward to figuring out how brick-and-mortar retail stores can safely reopen.

“If you’re feeling good and you’re feeling healthy and you’ve got a little pent-up demand,” he told the Times, “we’re going to create a really, really safe environment for you.”

In his press conference Tuesday, Ricketts said it was Nebraska Crossing’s decision to delay the reopening. He said he has never asked the mall to open or close.

Yates and Nebraska Crossing have donated nearly $100,000 to Ricketts’ campaign in recent years. Ricketts has said through a spokesman that he had not talked directly to Yates this year.

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

special report
Erin Grace: Coronavirus nearly killed him, but caregivers in Hastings gave him a second chance

The last thing Felipe Chavez-Ramirez remembered was being wheeled into the hospital in Hastings, Nebraska.

When he came to, the 54-year-old Colorado man, who had been healthy until that point, had to come to grips with some disconcerting facts.

Fact one: He’d survived a nasty case of COVID-19 and had almost died.

Fact two: Sixteen days had passed since he entered the Mary Lanning Healthcare hospital ER at 2 in the morning on March 25. It was now April 9. Doctors kept asking him what day it was. He had no idea. Felipe had lost over two weeks, being under sedation as a ventilator pumped oxygen into his lungs to keep him alive.

Fact three: Most people with coronavirus who are put on ventilators have not come off them alive. Felipe didn’t die. But being on a vent for so long would mean Felipe would have to relearn some basics like swallowing and talking.

Speaking by phone several days after being released from Mary Lanning, Felipe graciously shared the experience of being a coronavirus disease survivor. His voice was still scratchy and sometimes it swelled and broke with emotion.


Felipe Chavez-Ramirez of Colorado was successfully treated for the novel coronavirus at Mary Lanning Healthcare’s hospital in Hastings, Nebraska, where he spent 22 days, 16 of them on a breathing machine. He is an expert on birds, photographed here with a loggerhead shrike.

He was willing to share his account to express gratitude for the lifesaving care he got at Mary Lanning. And he wanted to voice his concern that people still might not be taking this virus as seriously as they should.

“Heed the warnings,” he said, “and take care of yourself. You do not want to go through this.”

Felipe’s story provides a window into what it’s like to experience the coronavirus, which seems to affect everyone differently. People can have it and blessedly for them never know it. They also can die from it.

His story also offers hope amid the grim drumbeat of coronavirus news.

For Felipe, a scholar, a bird expert and lecturer at Western Colorado University, his second chance offers a hard stop to reexamine his life. For his caregivers, his recovery feels like a huge win.

“You take the victories when you get one,” said Dr. Matt Stritt, who works in pulmonary and critical care at Mary Lanning. “He was as sick as you can get. He turned around. He rallied. He survived. It is possible. Every time we have doubt, we have to think about a guy like Felipe.”

Felipe was healthy for his age, with a 5-foot-7, 200-pound build. Wasn’t on any medication. Never smoked. Didn’t work in a field that taxes the lungs, though he does live in Gunnison, Colorado, elevation 7,700 feet.

Felipe exercises and had just been snowshoeing before arriving in Nebraska on March 15.

That is when the coronavirus had started to take root and states like Colorado and Nebraska were in the process of closing down schools, restaurants and other public places.

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Felipe had come to Hastings to spend the week with his only child, 15-year-old son Marcus. Marcus lives in Hastings with his mother, Felipe’s ex-wife. Felipe had previously lived in Nebraska for eight years.

Felipe now lives alone in Gunnison. He hadn’t been around anyone he knew who was infected. And he hadn’t felt sick. At least not right away.

Once he got to Hastings, that changed. Within two days he got chills, aches and fatigue, all common flu symptoms. He did not have the dry cough or painful chest, symptoms also associated with the novel coronavirus.

Then he started nodding off at all hours, napping during the day. In the still-dark hours of March 25, he passed out and his family couldn’t wake him.

“That’s when they decided to take me in,” he said.

Felipe remembers being put in a wheelchair at Mary Lanning. Then nothing.

Dr. Stritt, who was on call that night, filled in the blanks. It was 2 or 3 a.m. when Felipe arrived. He was “very short of breath,” and hypoxic — when the concentration of oxygen in tissue falls dangerously low. Normal levels would be in the 90s. Felipe’s readings were in the 50s, “profoundly low,” said Stritt.

Mary Lanning had been preparing for coronavirus patients, and Felipe had all the markers. Once he was stabilized and put on oxygen, he was swabbed for coronavirus, but the test had to be checked in Omaha. The hospital wouldn’t know for sure for 24 to 48 hours whether Felipe had the virus, but caregivers proceeded as if he did, with isolation and personal protective equipment, or PPE.

At first on that first day, Felipe appeared to be getting better. His oxygen levels improved, he could talk to caregivers and he said he felt better. But by afternoon, his heart rate was still elevated and he was showing signs of troubled breathing — using his abdominal muscles, for instance, to pull in and push out air. His fever went up and at 2:30 p.m., Felipe was sedated. Tritt inserted a breathing tube and Felipe was on a ventilator.

Doctors tried two drugs. One was the anti-malarial drug that President Donald Trump had been talking up. Felipe seemed to improve for a few days, but by the end of Day 5, he was worse.

Doctors and nurses then tried flipping him over every 12 hours. Felipe, who was basically unconscious, spent half of a 24-hour period on his back and half on his stomach, to relieve pressure from organs like the heart sitting on top of his beleaguered lungs.

It took five people to turn him over. The strategy, employed during 1918 flu pandemic, appeared to work. Every time Felipe was on his stomach, his oxygen levels improved.

At times, doctors used ice packs and a cooling machine to relieve Felipe’s high fevers. They also used a drug called Actemra, which typically is intended to treat arthritic conditions and has sometimes been used with coronavirus patients.

The combination of treatments appeared to work. Felipe’s fevers went down. He didn’t need as much oxygen and he was breathing so well on his own that doctors removed his ventilator tube on April 9.

After 16 days of sedation, Felipe was understandably confused.

Felipe remembers waking in a strange bed. He couldn’t move. He remembers a doctor telling him he had a few close calls. He remembers thinking: I almost died? But I’m alive!

As health care workers filled him in, Felipe realized that his family — who tested negative — had suffered terrible worry.

“It was rough, more rough for them,” he said. “They knew what was going on. I didn’t.”

For every day someone spends in an intensive care unit, doctors loosely figure that person needs seven days of recovery. Felipe was out of the woods but still needed six days of hospitalization to get well enough to leave. He had to learn how to swallow and talk. He had to build enough strength to sit up. Walking remains something he can’t do without assistance and a 2-pound weight is very heavy for him to lift.

In the hospital, he remembers his first swallow of water, which he called “an incredible sensation.” Ice was “so good.” His first food, applesauce, was “so wonderful.”

He found himself grappling with what had happened. He caught up on news and the terrible jump in coronavirus cases and deaths. He battled loneliness. No visitors — and everyone who entered his room was covered head to toe in PPE, making it hard sometimes to tell who was who.

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The view out of his fourth-floor window offered some respite. A therapist positioned him there, apologizing that there was nothing to see.

“There was to me,” he said. Mourning doves, robins, even the ominous black vulture was an object in motion.

A month in college tracking the migration of a peregrine falcon had hooked Felipe on birds. He got a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s and doctorate in wildlife ecology. He has worked for the World Wildlife Fund and the Platte River Whooping Crane Trust in Nebraska. He has studied sandhill cranes and whooping cranes and taught at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

In that fourth-floor ICU room in Hastings, Felipe sometimes could apply his scientist’s curiosity to his own situation. Viruses are natural. They can jump species and be highly contagious. But how did he get sick? And why did it hit him so hard?

That’s when emotion takes over from the science. Felipe can’t escape the idea he almost died but did not and therefore, now what?

“You have to reevaluate your life and what you’re doing with it,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of work to do thinking about those issues.”

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His thoughts move between feeling “blessed” with his good fortune to pondering how this experience changes him. And while he is basically “cured,” as he put it, he needs to regain the lost muscle function.

For Dr. Stritt and the many people at Mary Lanning who helped him get better, Felipe’s story serves as an important reminder that success is possible. His recovery was a huge morale boost. Doctors and nurses get attached to their patients.

“I’m not even sure he realizes how good it was for us,” said Stritt. “We were all excited he got better.”

Felipe left Mary Lanning on April 15. He was too weak to walk, so he departed the hospital as he’d entered it — in a wheelchair.

Only this time, he got a hero’s farewell. Dozens of hospital employees lined his path, clapping for him.

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

'Lives over memories': Schools find ways to celebrate Class of 2020 from a distance

The empty stadiums glowed like beacons in the darkness.

Outside Foundation Field, Papillion-La Vista seniors sat on car hoods to look at the lights. Parents took photos with their phones.

The lights were on at Omaha South’s stadium, too.

A line of cars spontaneously formed and circled the block around the empty Collin Field. Drivers honked horns. One person spun a noisemaker out the car window.

Amanda Gonzalez, whose son Andres Mancinas is a senior at South, took in the scene from the passenger seat of a car.

“It’s just sad that they didn’t have a chance to say goodbye, to have closure,” Gonzalez said.

s It’s one of the many socially distanced celebrations school districts are cooking up to celebrate seniors during the coronavirus pandemic.


The stadium and scoreboard are lit up as part of the “Be the Light” campaign at Papillion-La Vista South High School on Wednesday.

They turned the lights on in Grand Island, Nebraska’s biggest coronavirus hot spot.

For 20 minutes, a convoy of people cruised bumper to bumper around the school campus, honking their horns.

Jack Sheard, a spokesman for the Grand Island Public Schools, said he talked to one girl who was hanging out the window of her car.

“She was so thankful,” Sheard said. “Those little things our students are grasping onto because it’s something.”

The district is sending a box home to seniors that will include a cap and gown, a diploma and a few surprises, Sheard said. The district’s 580 seniors will have a virtual graduation.

District officials are looking for creative ways to celebrate the seniors, but ideas that involve any kind of physical contact are out.

“We are such a hot spot right now in Grand Island, we don’t want to encourage them to do anything that makes them leave the house,” Sheard said.

For now, the district is “putting lives over memories,” he said.


Lights illuminate the stadium at Omaha South High School. Schools are turning on the lights at night to honor their senior classes.

In Red Cloud, the nine seniors stayed 6 feet apart while walking to “Pomp and Circumstance.”

The graduation stage was two flatbed trailers. Parents watched from their cars, honking wildly when their student’s name was called.

With the principal, the total number of people on the graduation stage was 10.

“It was almost like it was meant to be,” said Red Cloud Community Schools Superintendent Brian Hof.

Hof had gotten the smaller-than-usual graduating class together on a video call and laid it all out.

Did they want a virtual graduation? A ceremony in August? Or a socially distanced graduation now?

Graduation was originally planned for early May, but Hof worried that a shelter-in-place order would be implemented and prevent even a small ceremony.

The seniors agreed. They wanted a ceremony.

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So Hof started making calls to education, city and health officials and the Webster County Sheriff’s Office to get everyone’s blessing.

The April 11 ceremony went off without a hitch, Hof said.

It has been viewed more than 34,000 times on Facebook. Hof has fielded more than a dozen calls from other districts asking how Red Cloud pulled it off.

In the Omaha area, school districts have made plans for virtual graduations in May and booked arenas for later in the summer in the hopes that students will get a chance to walk across the stage.

Signs honoring graduates have started popping up in the yards of Millard Public Schools and Westside Community Schools families.

Millard board member Mike Kennedy spearheaded the effort to put the signs in his district.

Kennedy’s son, Ian, is a senior at Millard North High.

Kennedy said a lot of parents and students are disappointed that COVID-19 has canceled traditional graduation events.

He said he approached Superintendent Jim Sutfin with the sign idea and kicked off the effort with a donation.

The Millard Public Schools Foundation and others pitched in as well.

Stacy Jolley, another school board member whose son Evan is a senior, also chipped in on the sign effort.

“Our seniors have lost out on so many experiences that absolutely anything we can do to put some tallies in the positive column is worth doing,” she said.


Ella Pelletier and Matt Jones, both Papillion-La Vista South seniors, watch as the school’s stadium is lit up as part of the “Be the Light” campaign on Wednesday. Schools across Nebraska have turned on their stadium lights at 20:20 to honor the class of 2020 that will not be able to have prom or graduations. 

The signs read, “Millard Public Schools” and “Proud of Our 2020 Graduates.”

The family of every senior in the district will get a sign.

Graduation is the culmination of a lifetime of hard work, and that commitment should be recognized, Kennedy said.

“I couldn’t think of a better way to acknowledge them publicly,” he said. “I can’t wait to see these signs proudly displayed throughout Millard.”

Tuesday, Westside High School seniors were able to stop by the school and pick up a free red-and-white yard sign. The district set up tables, spread apart.

“Westside Class of 2020,” the signs say. “The best is yet to come.”

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus