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'We can't stop the virus from coming,' but we can keep flattening the curve, Ricketts says

LINCOLN — As coronavirus deaths shot up in Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Wednesday that his goal remains to keep the state’s health care system from being overwhelmed.

“That’s what we can control,” he said. “We can’t stop the virus from coming.”

Four new deaths were reported Wednesday in Nebraska, following eight deaths Tuesday, bringing the total to 45. The state’s first death was reported less than a month ago. All but four of the total fatalities were people age 60 or older.

Douglas County, the state’s most populous county, has had 14 deaths. But Hall County surpassed that number Wednesday, reporting three deaths to bring its total to 15. That county, home to Grand Island and to a major meatpacking plant, has more confirmed cases of coronavirus than any other in Nebraska and almost twice as many as in Douglas County.

Ricketts said his plan is aimed at “flattening the curve” of coronavirus cases, rather than minimizing the number of people who die or get seriously ill.

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Flattening the curve means the state avoids a sharp spike in disease that would outpace the number of hospital beds and ventilators. Instead, the state would see the same total number of cases, but there would be fewer people sick on any one day and the outbreak would last longer.

“We can control how many people get it so we can make sure we can take care of them,” Ricketts said, noting that people die of influenza virus every year.

During his daily coronavirus update, the governor also announced that nearly 20,000 Nebraskans had registered their health status through the state’s new testing initiative. Registering at testnebraska.com is the first step in the initiative.

Ricketts launched the “crush the curve” effort on Tuesday, enlisting a consortium of Utah companies to begin gathering information from Nebraskans.

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He urged people to register even if they are healthy because that will allow the state to more accurately determine who needs testing, who should be quarantined and who can resume a normal life. Ricketts said the information gained will remain encrypted and available only to public health officials.

Testing, in tents set up across the state, could begin in about 10 days, with the hope of offering 3,000 tests a day eventually — a big increase over the 600 to 800 tests being done each day now.

First responders and health care workers will be tested first, followed by those with symptoms, and then later, those with no symptoms.

About 80,000 people registered in Iowa after that state launched a similar testing initiative at testiowa.com on Tuesday morning. The consortium of companies has been doing testing in Utah for about 2½ weeks.

Ricketts said Nebraska is in a friendly competition with Iowa to see who can register the most people.

Among other topics:

No-go on playgrounds

Lynn Rex, executive director of the League of Nebraska Municipalities, joined Ricketts for some reminders on behalf of Nebraska’s cities, towns and villages, which are on the front line of enforcing the state’s directed health measures.

Under those measures, she said adults need to keep children off of playground equipment. Studies have shown the coronavirus can live up to three days on plastic and metal, which are used in almost all such equipment. Yet people have ignored signs saying the equipment is off limits and have even cut through the yellow caution tape that some communities have wrapped around equipment.


Rex also urged people not to flush things down the toilet that can clog up sewer pipes. Those include sanitizing wipes, moist towelettes and paper towels. While acknowledging that toilet paper has been in short supply, she warned that clogs in the sewer lines can be costly to homeowners who have to pay for pipes to be dug up. Owners also may be in violation of local ordinances, she said.



Betsy Riot protesters Wednesday called for Gov. Pete Ricketts to issue a stay-at-home order. Ricketts took an alternate route to reach his afternoon coronavirus briefing.

Four members of Betsy Riot protested silently in the waiting room of the Gov. Ricketts’ office Wednesday. They wore black hats, masks and black clothing and held signs calling for the governor to impose a stay-at-home order. The governor took an alternate route to reach the afternoon briefing.

Swimming pools

Ricketts said the state put out guidance last week to swimming pool owners and operators, saying that pools must limit the number of patrons to 10 and keep them 6 feet apart.

The memo, issued by the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, said pools may be able to open if they can follow those guidelines strictly and do not contribute to the spread of coronavirus. But the department noted that local health departments and other local governments may require pools to close.

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

Have questions about the new coronavirus testing initiative? We've got answers

Gov. Pete Ricketts is challenging Nebraskans to help “crush the curve” of the novel coronavirus by signing up for a statewide testing program.

TestNebraska aims to dramatically increase coronavirus testing in the state. The program, a partnership between the state and a consortium of private companies, could allow officials to test 3,000 people a day within five weeks — a considerable increase over the 600 to 800 a day being tested now.

The effort mirrors testing and tracking programs already underway in Utah and Iowa.

Ricketts is asking all Nebraskans to register online at TestNebraska.com. Nearly 20,000 people had registered on the website as of Wednesday morning, Ricketts said.

Here are some common questions and answers about the program. The information comes from Ricketts, his spokesman and World-Herald reporting.

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How soon will testing start?

It could be 10 days or so before officials get testing up and running.

Where will testing be available?

This hasn’t been determined yet.

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

That’s why it’s important for as many Nebraskans as possible to register, Ricketts said.

I don’t have symptoms. Should I still register?

All Nebraskans, even those without symptoms, are encouraged to register for the program.

That will help state officials “get a complete picture of what’s going on around the state,” Ricketts said.

Those who develop symptoms later on should contact their health care provider to get a test.

Once I take the screening, what happens next?

State public health officials will review the information collected, and answers to the assessment will be used to decide who needs to be tested and how quickly.

Those who are deemed to need a test will be contacted by phone or email.

The results of the test should be sent by email within 24 to 48 hours.

What information will I be asked to provide?

The survey takes a few minutes to fill out.

First, you'll be asked for your name, address, contact information, sex, weight and height.

Then, there are a series of questions about symptoms, preexisting conditions, the people who live in your home and your job.

The last question asks if you wish to submit the information you provided.

Who will be tested first?

First responders and health care workers will be the first priority. Next will be people who are highly symptomatic, followed by those with mild symptoms. Then, as testing capacity increases, those without symptoms may be tested.

Will I have to pay for a test?

No, the testing will be provided at no cost.

No one involved with the program will ask for money.

The tests will be paid for by the state or covered by insurance. The program costs $27 million, which will cover 540,000 tests. That’s enough tests for about a quarter of the state’s population.

The state will use money from the federal coronavirus relief bill to pay for it.

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

A consortium of companies will begin setting up testing tents across Nebraska, first testing those deemed most susceptible to the virus, such as front-line medical workers and caregivers. The goal is for the state to be testing 3,000 people a day within five weeks, a considerable increase over the 600-800 a day being tested now.

What happens to my private medical information supplied as part of this screening?

The data provided will be stored in an encrypted database system, Ricketts said. The information won’t be sold or otherwise distributed.

Officials have not yet made a plan for how the information will be destroyed because they may need access to it throughout the year.

Will everyone be tested?

Probably not.

Ricketts said it isn’t necessary to test every single Nebraskan. While officials want to substantially increase the number of people who get tested, the goal is to implement targeted quarantines for those who have the disease or may have come into contact with it.

What if I don’t have access to the Internet?

The state is still working on a plan for those who don’t have Internet access. Officials wanted to get the program moving. Ricketts said officials were “not trying to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

World-Herald staff writers Martha Stoddard and Paul Hammel contributed to this report.

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

'I do expect more cases': Lexington tries to get a handle on surge in coronavirus cases

More testing. More data about who’s sick and where they live and work. More people staying home.

That’s what Lexington Mayor John Fagot said his central Nebraska city needs to stamp out a coronavirus flare-up in the Dawson County area.

Just since April 8, Dawson County cases have grown from one to 197 as of Wednesday night. Lexington, population 10,000, is the largest city in the county, and home to a Tyson Foods beef plant that employs nearly 3,000 people.

Fagot said he doesn’t know how many people in Lexington have tested positive, or how many workers at the Tyson plant have COVID-19 — only countywide figures have been shared with him.

“I do expect more cases,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve peaked at this time.”

Dawson County also includes the smaller cities of Cozad and Gothenburg.

“We don’t expect to know names or addresses or everything, we just want to know the towns or areas where they are at,” said Dawson County Board member PJ Jacobson. “I hear rumors, but that’s all we hear.”

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The Nebraska National Guard was back in Lexington on Monday and Tuesday swabbing people for testing, after collecting specimens over the weekend, too. That means the number of cases will almost certainly rise as more test results come back.

Fagot said he was working the phones trying to secure more testing from state and local health officials, as well as workers who could follow up with those who test positive to see how they’re recovering and with whom they’ve been in contact.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts announced a new initiative Tuesday, TestNebraska, that aims to dramatically increase coronavirus testing in the state within the next month or so.

Jeremy Eschliman, director of the Two Rivers Public Health Department, said more data should be available soon, including how many workers to date have tested positive at the Tyson plant. In smaller communities, it is harder to protect the confidentiality of those testing positive, he said.

“It’s easy to identify people, much easier than in Omaha, for example, where you can blend in a little bit,” he said. “We really think that’s a key tenet of public health, to protect the anonymity of individuals.”

Cases have risen sharply in three Nebraska counties with meatpacking plants in the last 10 days.

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The capacity of the seven-county health agency is being stretched.

It has 10 to 12 employees who have halted all non-coronavirus programs and work. Eschliman has asked the University of Nebraska Medical Center to send public health graduate students who can work on contact tracing, the detective work that involves figuring out who has interacted with a contagious person and if they need to quarantine.

He’s also requested help from the Medical Reserve Corps, a national volunteer network of doctors, nurses and health care workers who can deploy to areas of need, and brought on 10 volunteers this week.

Ricketts said at his daily coronavirus briefing Tuesday that more resources are headed to Dawson County and that state and local officials are working on better outreach to diverse, multilingual communities like Lexington. The workforce at the Tyson plant includes Latinos, Somalis and Sudanese.

Several workers and their children, speaking to The World-Herald on the condition that they not be named out of fear of losing their jobs, said they wish the plant was more transparent about how many workers had tested positive, while still respecting medical privacy laws. Tyson representatives have said they will not confirm cases at individual plants.

One older worker who has high blood pressure, a high-risk condition when coupled with the coronavirus, is considering using up all her vacation days and not returning to the plant, her daughter said, translating for her Spanish-speaking mother.

“She does not want to work under those conditions right now,” she said. “She doesn’t feel safe going to work.”

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Another woman said her dad wants to keep working, despite the risks.

“I am definitely more worried than my dad is,” she said. “He wants to keep working. I think he sees himself as a hero in a way. Like he’s keeping the country fed, but at what cost?”

Tyson spokeswoman Morgan Watchous said that if there are confirmed cases at a plant, supervisors or public health officials notify anyone who was in close contact with the infected person, and inform other co-workers.

“We’re working hard to protect our team members during this ever-changing situation, while also ensuring we continue fulfilling our critical role of helping feed people across the country,” she said in a statement.

Fagot said he doesn’t think the plant is the only place in Lexington where the coronavirus is spreading. A number of locals travel between Grand Island, another coronavirus hot spot 86 miles to the east, and Lexington for work or to visit family, he said.

And just 9 miles or so south of Lexington is Johnson Lake, where there are cabins and vacation homes that Fagot said people in Colorado, Omaha and Grand Island have fled to as coronavirus cases grew in their home communities. Those people are most likely coming to Lexington to shop for groceries and other essentials.

Some resort towns in Colorado and elsewhere have banned nonresidents or people who own second homes to prevent small community hospitals from being swamped. Nebraska has not done that, but state officials have urged out-of-state travelers or Nebraskans who have recently traveled to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“We would like them not to come to their second home and stay in their first home,” Fagot said.

Lexington Regional Health Center, the 25-bed hospital in town, has three ventilators and a busy emergency room, spokeswoman Brenna Bartruff said. But hospital staff are handling the patient load so far, which includes several COVID-19 patients, and could add an additional 18 beds if a surge of COVID-19 patients arrives.

“We’ve been planning this for months, knowing it would come here eventually,” she said.

The mayor said too many people are still hanging out in groups with friends or family and not adhering to social distancing guidelines. He wonders if residents were too complacent, thinking the coronavirus was primarily a big-city problem before cases started spiking locally.

“Am I happy with what they’re doing? No,” he said. “We have a lot of people not complying.”

In town, local grocer AFM Market Place is leading the way by requiring solo shoppers only — no family shopping trips, Fagot said. Customers must wear masks inside the store, and employees won’t hesitate to break up crowds at the meat case.

“It sends a wonderful message out to the community that this is serious,” he said.

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

Meatpacking woes lead farmers to consider euthanizing hogs, holding back market-ready cattle

UNADILLA, Neb. — At the Bartling Brothers hog farm, nearly 2,200 pigs are ready for slaughter, but the packinghouses — which are either closed or cutting back on operations because of the coronavirus — won’t take them.

Jim Bartling said he knows some farmers who have already euthanized some pigs because they can’t sell them and can’t afford to keep feeding them because of mounting debts. Now, he’s wondering if he’ll also have to make that same, depressing decision.

“We’re going to stuff every barn full of pigs,” Bartling said on Wednesday. “But at some point, we’re going to have to decide when we run out of room.”

Times were already tough in farm country, with low prices for hogs and cattle, as well as for corn and other grain. But things have gotten worse with the growing spread of coronavirus at packinghouses across the country. It has caused processing plants in Iowa and South Dakota to close and others, because of higher absenteeism, to reduce operations.

That has left those who raise hogs and cattle stuck with animals that were ready for market and has left some producers willing to take rock-bottom prices to free up space in barns and pastures, and cut their losses.

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Capacity at hog processing plants is down about 20%, some officials estimate, and Bartling said he figures it’s higher, more like 30%.

Because of that, he’s only been able to ship one load of 180 hogs so far this week, when he typically ships 10 to 11 loads a week. He got lucky — on Wednesday, a processor in Madison called to say that if he could get a load to the plant within an hour, the processor would take them.

These days, Bartling and his two brothers have sleepless nights, wondering if the packinghouse will call again to say they’ll take a shipment or two so he can pay his feed bills and other expenses, and free up barn space for other hogs.

“I know producers who are saying: ‘You’ve got to take my pigs, I’ve got nowhere to go. I’m going to lose my farm,’ ” he said. “It’s a pretty desperate situation.”

The problem is similar for beef producers — with packinghouse workers catching COVID-19 or fearful of reporting to work, slaughter capacity is down. Some farmers, with fat cattle ready to sell, are being told that buyers aren’t buying.

“It’s worse than terrible and horrible,” said Don Gasper, a cattle feeder from Lindsay. He said he lost $300 a head on cattle sold last week, while, at the same time, prices for hamburger and steak are spiking in the grocery stores.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to it,” said Gasper, who, like the Nebraska Cattlemen and other beef organizations, has asked for a federal investigation into the price disparity.


Jim Bartling walks back toward his home after making rounds on his hog farm Wednesday in Unadilla, Nebraska. "I saw this coming all the way back when it was in Wuhan. If what was happening was enough to make them shut down so much, I knew it was coming our way," he said.

But officials say meatpacking operations are in a tough spot — battling infections among an already short workforce, yet trying to stay open to keep filling the grocery cases. The alternative — closing down packinghouses until the coronavirus passes — is not an option, they say.

“If you think COVID-19 is bad now, wait until you have a major disruption of your food system or a lack of food. Then you’ll really have problems,” said Al Juhnke, executive director of the Nebraska Pork Producers Association. “It’s almost a national security issue.”

Pete McClymont of the Nebraska Cattlemen said the crunch is probably hurting smaller producers harder. Large feedlots, he said, have contracts with packinghouses to take cattle when they’re market ready, while feeders with smaller herds have to sell on the cash market and hope packers are still buying.

Over the past decade, packinghouse capacity had already declined, McClymont said, but the coronavirus has probably cut that capacity by another 10%. As a result, some producers with cattle to sell have been turned away by packers, he said, and others have taken lower prices.

“You go to the grocery store and see what the prices are, but then you start back figuring what you got, and it gets very frustrating,” McClymont said.

The situation is probably worse for hog producers, because fat cattle can be put out to pasture, delaying the trip to the packinghouse.

The Bartling Brothers, who support about 40 farm families, raise hogs from birth to when they’re ready for market in a process that takes 10 months. As the animals grow, they’re moved from barn to barn until they reach about 290 pounds.

So when the market-ready hogs can’t be moved out, it blocks the pipeline, forcing farmers to keep feeding the biggest eaters on the farm, raising their feed costs. If the pigs get too big, Bartling said, the packers pay less. It leaves few options for farmers with debts to pay.

“I know baby pigs are being gassed and sows are being aborted,” he said in a recent post on Facebook. “I don’t want to have to make these decisions but my brothers and I have had conversations on which pigs we will have to euthanize to free up room.”

Is there a solution?


Jim Bartling makes a round through a finishing facility on his hog farm Wednesday in Unadilla, Nebraska.

Bartling and others interviewed for this story said that a federal aid package announced recently will help but won’t cover all the losses. The feds could offer to buy sows to reduce the nation’s breeding stock, he said, which would allow some hog farmers a way to get out of the business “with dignity.”

The real answer, he said, is to increase the slaughtering capacity of packinghouses by hiring more workers, or even calling in the military to work at the plants.

That’s a radical idea, Bartling said, that’s generated some pushback on social media, but something needs to be done.

“What else are we going to do? If we keep (closing) plants, there will be a shortage of meat,” he said. “Food ought to be one of the No. 1 priorities.”

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus