Keep informed of all the developments with coronavirus with The World-Herald's complete coverage.
LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts said Thursday that he doesn’t “foresee a scenario” in which he’d ask meatpacking plants to close, despite soaring numbers of coronavirus cases in Nebraska communities with such businesses.
Shutting down the plants — as has happened in several states, including neighboring Iowa and South Dakota — would jeopardize the nation’s food supply, causing “civil unrest,” Ricketts said.
“Can you imagine what could happen if people could not go to the store and get food?” he said. “Think about how mad people got when they couldn’t get paper products. Think how mad they’d be if they couldn’t get food.”
“We need to do everything we can to make sure these food processors stay open,” Ricketts added.
His daily briefing came as Dakota County, home to a massive Tyson Fresh Meats plant, reported 133 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, more than doubling its previous total.
Ricketts said he didn’t know how many of those new cases came from the plant, but he refused to blame the business, saying it was a “community issue” that also involved how people lived and if more than one generation lived together in a home.
“We have to focus not only on the work site issues but what’s going on at home,” he said.
The governor, in the past week, has stepped up efforts to reach the state’s Spanish-speaking population by providing his press releases in Spanish and holding two Spanish-language press conferences this week.
Other food processing communities have been hard-hit. Hall County, with 664 cases and 16 deaths by Thursday, has nearly twice as many cases as Douglas County, which has nine times the population. And Dawson County, home to another Tyson plant in Lexington, is also a hot spot.
The three counties have among the nation’s highest rates of coronavirus, per capita. The situation has prompted some officials to call for greater “social distancing” steps between workers and a relaxing of financial incentives for workers to continue to report to work, even when they’re sick.
Temporarily shutting down the JBS USA beef plant, which is connected to more than 200 coronavirus cases in the Grand Island area, may help combat the high infection rate there, but it’s probably too little, too late, the local health director said during a TV appearance Wednesday night.
“In our instance, it may be that the cat’s out of the bag,” said Central District Health Department Director Teresa Anderson, who appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. “At this point, closing the plant may be helpful to us, I certainly think it wouldn’t hurt, but we’ve got spread everywhere.”
The JBS plant isn’t the sole source of the local outbreak, she said, though the close-quarters, shoulder-to-shoulder nature of cutting and packaging meat is clearly giving the virus opportunity to spread.
Health care workers and residents have tested positive for the coronavirus in at least nine nursing and long-term care facilities, she noted, and people could be exposed to the virus at the grocery store or in other places.
At a city press conference Thursday, Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele said he doesn’t have the power to close JBS or any other business. The plant is Grand Island’s largest employer, with about 3,600 workers.
“Just so you know, Gov. Ricketts told me that mayors are not allowed to decide whether private businesses stay open or are closed,” he said.
He sidestepped a question about whether he’d prefer to see the plant cease production, saying Ricketts had to balance the needs of the state and agricultural economy, while he, Steele, was focused on Grand Island.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture gives health directors like Anderson the power to shut down facilities overseen by the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service, but Anderson has said any stricter measures would have to be approved by the governor or Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
Shelly Schwedhelm, executive director of emergency management and biopreparedness for Nebraska Medicine, and Dr. James Lawler, director in the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, toured the JBS plant Tuesday to observe conditions and give recommendations for infection control.
Steele said he looks forward to hearing more about their findings.
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Meanwhile, the state’s pork and beef producers are calling for steps to keep the plants open, citing financial losses due to a backlog of livestock that’s ready for market but can’t be slaughtered because of closures and slowdowns at processing plants.
“Widespread closure of processing plants, even for limited periods of time, could be devastating for farmers and consumers alike,” said Craig Head of the Nebraska Farm Bureau.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 10,000 meatpackers in Nebraska and 1.3 million food and meat workers nationwide, said 13 workers at union plants across the country have died, in addition to at least 6,500 food and meat workers who have been sickened by or exposed to COVID-19.
Thirteen plants have closed at some point over the past two months, affecting 24,500 workers and reducing pork and beef slaughter capacity.
The union wrote to Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday, asking that workers be prioritized for coronavirus testing and receive more gloves, masks and other protective equipment.
“They haven’t been given the essential protections that they so desperately need,” said Marc Perrone, international president of the union, on a conference call with journalists Thursday.
“Before all this, it’s easy to say not many Americans thought too much about the men and women who worked in the meatpacking industry,” he continued. “But in the best of times I would say it’s very difficult and dangerous work. … America’s food supply depends on these workers.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa also wrote to Pence, asking for more federal help to curb the meatpacking outbreaks, according to a report in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
At his daily press conference, Ricketts touted steps taken by plants to increase worker safety, which included putting up plastic barriers between employees, providing masks, the frequent sanitizing and fogging of plants and testing workers for fevers.
But he said that not all businesses are able to comply with his directive for employees to maintain a 6-foot space between one another.
Ricketts said that if additional hot spots erupt in other food- processing towns, like Schuyler and Nebraska City, additional testing will be ordered there.
As of Thursday evening, Nebraska had 2,124 coronavirus cases and 47 deaths.
In other coronavirus news:
» Ricketts said that about 50,000 Nebraskans had registered for COVID-19 tests on the newly launched testnebraska.com website. The state has purchased 540,000 tests — which are free to take — and he said more people need to sign up, a process that takes about five minutes.
» Numbers of women and children served by the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental food program are expected to rise with the increased unemployment caused by the coronavirus crisis, a state official said Thursday.
About 33,000 women and children are served at 100 sites across the state. Nebraskans can sign up for the food and medical support, even temporarily, at the website signupwic.com.
» A state “corn detassling task force” is being organized by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to help the industry comply with social distancing standards when the state’s 7,000 detasslers go into seed corn fields this summer.
Ricketts said the fact that the state is planning so far ahead is not an indication that the coronavirus peak will hit Nebraska later than had been projected — the end of April or middle of May. He said that when the peak hits is not important, but what’s vital is ensuring that the state’s health care system is not overwhelmed. And that’s been the case so far, the governor said.
» The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska reported its first coronavirus case on Thursday. It was suspected to be a “community spread” case, a tribal health official said, but information about the age and gender of the person infected was not released.
» The Heartland United Way and other Grand Island community organizations unveiled a new education campaign Thursday to urge residents to stay home, and to stay 6 feet apart and wear masks in public. Billboards, posters and social media messages will be translated into multiple languages and include hashtags like #DoYourPartGI and #HazTuParteGI.
The vast swaths of open space beyond the Omaha and Lincoln metros in Nebraska would seem an unlikely place for a coronavirus epidemic.
People spread out over rural towns, small cities and farmland. The large majority living in single-family homes. No mass transit systems. Social distancing? It’s part of the natural landscape.
But the reality in this pandemic is proving radically different than that expectation in some areas outside Nebraska’s biggest cities, said Dr. Angela Hewlett, an infectious disease expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Many in rural Nebraska work side by side in large food processing and meatpacking centers. Their work is seen as part of an essential industry, and it’s not a job that lends itself to telecommuting.
And it only takes one infection in a small, close-knit community to send COVID-19 cases spiking through the roof.
It all combines to help explain why Hall, Dawson and Dakota Counties have emerged as the epicenter of Nebraska’s COVID-19 pandemic.
Keep informed of all the developments with coronavirus with The World-Herald's complete coverage.
“People think individuals out there in rural America are always living socially distant, and it’s simply not true,” said Hewlett, the medical director for the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit. “It’s a completely different picture that emerges, and it’s alarming, actually, what we’re seeing.”
Indeed, Hall, Dawson and Dakota Counties are seeing rates of COVID-19 more than 16 times that of the rest of the state and almost six times the national average, according to a World-Herald analysis of the latest per-capita coronavirus rates in Nebraska’s 93 counties.
And now the deaths are beginning to add up, particularly in Hall County. Home to just 3% of the state’s residents, as of Thursday morning Hall County — which includes Grand Island — accounted for about a third of the state’s 45 coronavirus deaths.
The analysis shows how powerfully the spread of the virus in those three meatpacking communities is driving Nebraska’s recent massive increases in COVID-19 cases. No matter how you slice up the state, those three meatpacking counties stand out.
In contrast, in Nebraska’s most populous areas, the state’s efforts to slow the spread of the virus through social distancing appears to be working. In the five Nebraska counties that are part of the Omaha metro area, the rate of 4.8 cases per 10,000 population is about half the statewide average of 9.3 and well below the national average of 14.
The Lincoln metro is even lower, with a rate of only 3 cases per 10,000.
“It’s excellent that we have not overwhelmed our health care system in Douglas County, which is what people were afraid of,” Hewlett said. “Those social distancing methods have helped.”
The coronavirus rate is also only about 4 cases per 10,000 in the most rural parts of the state — that is, counties without a city having a population of 10,000 or more.
Even in major meatpacking centers outside Hall, Dawson and Dakota, the average rate is half the state average. Colfax, where meatpacking makes up the highest percentage of jobs of any county in Nebraska, to date has seen few cases. Rates in Madison County are also low, though they appear to now be on the rise.
But rates as of Thursday morning were nearly 100 per 10,000 in Hall, nearly 84 in Dawson and over 43 in Dakota, towering above the rest of the state.
What’s happening in those rural Nebraska counties is in some ways not a complete surprise, Hewlett said. A similar pattern was seen when the virus swept through Italy earlier this year, with many smaller communities hard hit. And it’s playing out in many counties across the Great Plains, particularly those that are hubs of meatpacking.
With thousands of people working in close quarters in an industry that’s considered essential to the nation’s food supply, “it really is a setup for perpetuating a disease like this that’s spread from person to person,” Hewlett said.
Other attributes of American rural life also come into play in the coronavirus spread. Rural communities are often close-knit, with the whole town coming together for events and gatherings.
“And it doesn’t matter whether you’re in a small town or a larger city, if you have people together and someone is infected, it’s going to spread,” Hewlett said.
A look at how the coronavirus outbreak developed across the world and how it has unfolded in Omaha.
That can create big problems for health care systems in small counties that aren’t equipped to handle big influxes of patients. The intensive care unit in Grand Island’s hospital for the past week has been running near capacity.
Getting test results is difficult because samples must be sent off to labs across the state. And small communities lack the public health personnel needed to track contacts with the sick and help prevent further spread.
Hewlett said the worst days in those hard-hit counties are likely still ahead.
“We have not reached our peak in any way here,” she said.
Hewlett said she’s hopeful the small number of cases in some meatpacking communities aren’t a matter of luck. A team of her UNMC colleagues are among the experts working with plants around the state on finding best practices that can help protect workers from infection.
Hewlett said certainly not all the people being sickened in hard-hit counties are associated with meatpacking. Social distancing is important for everyone, and she said it’s possible a more formal stay-at-home order from Gov. Pete Ricketts would slow the spread of the virus in those communities. But the issue is more complicated than that, she said.
A stay-at-home order would not stop the essential food plants from operating. And while Ricketts has not issued a formal order, his consistent message has been that people across the state should just stay at home.
Whether a formal stay-at-home order is now needed would depend on how well people are heeding that message, Hewlett said. She said she doesn’t know if people are staying home in those most troubled counties, but they certainly need to do so.
“To me it really doesn’t matter if we have a formal order or not if people are doing the right thing,” she said. “It’s really a community effort. In Grand Island, people should be staying home.”
Arbitrators reviewing the performance of four Omaha police officers involved in the death of an American Indian man in 2017 have upheld the termination of one officer and ruled that the other three should return to the force.
Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer fired Officers Scotty Payne, Ryan McClarty, Jennifer Strudl and Makyla Mead for the way they handled Zachary BearHeels on June 5, 2017.
Police were called to the Bucky’s convenience store at 60th and Center Streets because BearHeels, 29, was refusing to leave.
After a struggle involving officers, including Strudl and Mead, Payne shocked BearHeels a dozen times with a Taser — some of the shocks coming while BearHeels was handcuffed and sitting limply against the rear tire of an Omaha police cruiser. McClarty punched BearHeels repeatedly after BearHeels ripped his hand free from a handcuff.
All four officers appealed their terminations.
An arbitration hearing occurred over eight days in October 2019 before a panel of three arbitrators. The decision was released Wednesday to the Omaha Police Department and the Omaha Police Officers’ Association, which is the police union.
The arbitrators upheld Payne’s termination. McClarty’s termination was reduced to a 20-day suspension with a one-year “last chance agreement.” Any finding of a violation of the use-of-force policy within that year, the arbitrators said, will result in his firing. Strudl and Mead were reinstated with full pay. They were determined to have committed a minor policy violation.
“Though it is fair to say that both the Police Department and the Police Officers’ Association are each disappointed in some of the conclusions that were reached by the panel of arbitrators,” a joint statement released Thursday reads, “both parties are committed to accepting the decision and moving forward. Both parties support due process for our officers and the arbitration process.”
Judi gaiashkibos, the executive director for the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, said the arbitrators’ decision is a miscarriage of justice.
“I am shocked and heartbroken for the Zachary BearHeels family, but quite honestly not surprised by the final decision,” she said in a statement. “This young Native man lost his life at the hands of officers that took an oath to protect our citizens and uphold the law. Yet again justice was not served for Native people.”
BearHeels’ relatives did not return messages seeking comment. One relative declined to comment on behalf of Renita Chalepah, BearHeels’ mother. Chalepah posted news of the arbitrator’s decision late Thursday on Facebook with three angry emoji faces.
The three officers who will return to service will attend refresher training at the Omaha police training academy, probably after next week, before they return to regular duty, said Deputy City Attorney Bernard in den Bosch. Their exact return date hasn’t been determined, nor have their assignments.
All three will receive back pay since they were fired, minus any income they may have earned in that time, in den Bosch said. Those amounts have not been calculated yet. McClarty’s payment will have 20 days — the length of the suspension period imposed by the arbitrators — taken out of his back pay.
In a statement, Schmaderer said it is time to move forward.
“Omaha police officers have a very difficult job and my focus is on keeping my officers safe in the coronavirus environment while simultaneously protecting the city,” he said.
Tony Conner, the president of the police union, said the process was fair and that “every American citizen has the right to due process, including any police officer.”
Criminal charges against two of the officers have been settled, but a wrongful death lawsuit filed by BearHeels’ mother against the city, an Omaha police sergeant and the four officers is pending trial.
Renita Chalepah filed a lawsuit in August 2018, alleging that police illegally detained her son, failed to get him proper medical treatment for his mental illness, used excessive force and denied his civil rights.
In March 2019, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine announced that his office would not move forward with a misdemeanor assault trial against McClarty, whom he had charged with third-degree assault after cruiser-camera video showed McClarty punching BearHeels 13 times in 15 seconds.
Kleine said he made his decision after reviewing two national law enforcement experts’ conclusions that McClarty’s punching of BearHeels was justified because BearHeels had freed his hand from a handcuff. At that point, experts say, the handcuff could be considered a deadly weapon.
Kleine’s decision also was influenced by the fact that jurors had acquitted Payne of second-degree assault charges in December. Payne had shocked, or attempted to shock, BearHeels 12 times with a Taser.
Neither McClarty nor Payne was charged directly with BearHeels’ death.
A coroner determined that BearHeels died a “sudden death associated with excited delirium, physical struggle, physical restraint and use of a (Taser).”
After the incident, Schmaderer implemented refresher training on mental health and a session on Native American cultural awareness for all officers. BearHeels was from Oklahoma City, where his mother, a Kiowa Indian, lived. His father, Brent BearHeels, is a Rosebud Sioux from South Dakota. Native American leaders had also been angry that McClarty had dragged BearHeels by his ponytail.
The cultural training is now part of the academy for every recruit class — the class that graduates Friday received that training in January.
Schmaderer also hired 27 veteran officers from other Nebraska agencies to beef up leadership and increased the number of officers who could get specialized training on how to respond to someone with a mental illness, known as crisis intervention.