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Visiting the Omaha zoo? Here's what to expect

The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium reopens next week, but don’t expect to see the penguins in the aquarium or walk among the sand dunes in the Desert Dome because of new coronavirus restrictions.

All indoor exhibits will be closed when the Omaha zoo opens Monday, and the capacity at any given time will be limited to 3,000 people. Before COVID-19, the zoo’s theoretical outdoor capacity was 16,000. People will be required to sign up in advance for a time slot.

In what zoo officials are calling phase one of the reopening, visitors will be limited to a one-way walk through the zoo. Paw prints have been added in high-traffic areas to assist with 6-foot social distancing, while directional signage and barriers mark the 1.8-mile walking path. The main gate will be used for entering the zoo, and the north gate will be used for exiting.

Zoo visitors will be required to make a reservation in advance, up to two days before their visit, by going to OmahaZoo.com/Hours-and-Admission.

Time slots are available every half-hour between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily.

There will be no access to indoor exhibits or children’s activity areas when the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium reopens Monday.

While visitors are not required to wear face masks, zoo officials encourage them to do so.

Staff members will wear face masks or face shields or have plastic barriers in areas of close contact with guests. More than 50 hand sanitizing stations have been added, and staffing will be increased for cleaning and disinfecting.

Officials said there’s no plan yet for when the zoo will move to phase two of its reopening. The details and timing will depend on the recommendations of public health officials regarding the coronavirus.

Other rules for the Monday reopening include:

  • IDs and online reservation receipts will be checked at the zoo’s main entrance.
  • Tickets are discounted at $20.95 for guests ages 12 and older, $13.95 for children ages 3 to 11 and $19.95 for seniors ages 65 and over. That’s a $4 discount.
  • There will be a members-only hour from 8 to 9 a.m. June 1 through June 7.
  • Concessions and retail items will be available at outside venues only.
  • No ATM will be available.
  • No access will be provided to the Bay Family Children’s Adventure Trails, Scott Alaskan Adventure Splash Park or other children’s activity areas, including the Lion’s Pride statues.
  • Stroller, wagon and wheelchair rental will be available (limited supply).
  • No behind-the-scenes tours will be allowed in person. Only virtual tours will be offered.
  • Children under age 16 must be accompanied by an adult.
  • Guests are strongly encouraged to remain in their vehicles until their reservation time.
  • Drinking fountains and water refill stations will not be available.
  • Catering and menu offerings will be adjusted to reflect recommendations from local government authorities.
  • Rides will be available on Sue’s Carousel following restrictions for social distancing. Capacity will be adjusted as needed.
  • The ride wristband program will be suspended to limit rides to individual paid tickets only.
  • Animal feeding opportunities will not be available.

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“We are excited to reopen and welcome everyone back to the zoo,” said Dennis Pate, director and CEO of the zoo. “We are so grateful for the outpouring of community support during our closure.”

He said the zoo’s reopening plan was developed with the safety of guests, animals and employees as a top priority.

“Our plan is very conservative, but we believe that by taking one careful step at a time, we can assure a safe and enjoyable zoo experience for all,” Pate said.

The zoo announced this month that it would furlough employees and eliminate positions after cutting its budget by 36% in response to COVID-19.

Spring and summer are the busiest times for the zoo, which lost an estimated $6.7 million between March 16, when the closure began, and the end of April.

Good news for Nebraska teens seeking driver's licenses: Driving tests resume today at some offices

LINCOLN — State officials delivered good news Tuesday for teenage Nebraska drivers.

The Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles will start offering driving tests again as of Wednesday. The tests will be available at the Omaha DMV stations, as well as 29 other counties where offices are open.

But Rhonda Lahm, the agency director, said the tests will not be available where county government offices remain closed to the public, including Lancaster County. The department uses locally controlled space for its services in most counties.

The agency stopped providing driving tests in March as part of the state’s effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The decision particularly affected teenagers hoping to get their first driver’s licenses. Most others had the option to renew their licenses online.

“It was disappointing for a few, especially our teenagers,” Lahm said.

To reduce risks of infection, people being tested will be required to wear face coverings during the driving tests, she said. Testers will be provided with protective equipment.

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Lahm said the department is taking steps to address the backlog of people needing to take driving tests. Operating hours have been lengthened where possible, while temporary staff are being hired and existing staff reassigned.

She said she doesn’t know what the backlog may be but noted that the Omaha offices averaged about 50 such tests per day.

Also on Tuesday, Gov. Pete Ricketts announced that he had signed an executive order giving an automatic one-year license extension for drivers age 72 and older. The order applies to driver’s licenses that expired or are set to expire between March 1 and Dec. 31 this year.

Ricketts said the change was made so that older Nebraskans, who are greater risk from the coronavirus, would not have to stand in line.

Lahm said she does not believe the extension increases safety concerns. It does not change a process through which residents can report people who are no longer able to drive safely. Department officials can ask people, based on those reports, to come in for a driving reexamination.

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Among other topics at the governor’s daily coronavirus briefing:

Hospital capacity

State officials remain in close contact with Omaha-area hospital systems to monitor how well the hospitals are handling the numbers of coronavirus cases. Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska’s chief medical officer, said hospital officials so far report that they are able to manage.

He said the number of patients with COVID-19 in metro-area hospitals has been stable over the past week. But only 24% of intensive care unit beds were available as of Tuesday. That’s lower than the 30% level that Ricketts had used when deciding whether a hospital could start offering elective surgeries.

The governor has repeatedly said his goal during the pandemic is to avoid overwhelming the health care system. He has not said how the state measures whether the system is getting overwhelmed.

Anthone said he and the hospital officials have been discussing what level of availability for hospital beds, intensive care beds and ventilators would signal a problem. He noted that patients could be transferred to Lincoln hospitals if necessary.

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Memorial Day

Ricketts said he was not aware of any weekend activities in Nebraska that violated the state’s current health directives, unlike some states where crowds of people gathered at pools and beaches. Rainy, cool weather may have helped discourage large outdoor gatherings.

Cloth masks

Nebraska Impact has collected about 1,200 cloth face masks, or nearly half of its 2,500-mask goal, Ricketts said. The group, which promotes volunteerism and economic development, plans to distribute masks to vulnerable people in hard-hit Nebraska communities.

Ricketts encouraged people to send masks to: Nebraska Impact, 201 N. Eighth St., Suite 215, Lincoln, NE 68508, or arrange for pickup by emailing masks@neimpact.org.

Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020

Taking the test: Reporter tests negative, but TestNebraska still raising questions

“Mask down, chin up — this is going to be uncomfortable,” said the man behind the clear, plastic face shield and full-length medical gown.

The white Q-tip-like swab in his hand looked much longer than I expected as he quickly eased it up my nose.

“There we go,” he said as it hit the top of my nostril, raising me upward in the seat of my pickup.

So went a reporter’s COVID-19 test as administered inside a huge, white tent set up in the parking lot of Omaha’s sports arena, the CHI Health Center.

It was quick and, yes, quite uncomfortable. But I felt it was important to know if the mild symptoms I had — scratchy throat and tiredness — were the result of seasonal allergies and a rise-before-dawn puppy or COVID-19.

But why, I wondered, had I been picked for a coronavirus test, and not someone else who had serious symptoms of the infection, or was at higher risk for catching it?

* * *

That’s a question more than one person has asked after being selected for a test through Nebraska’s $27 million testing program called TestNebraska.

And the question is just one of several raised about the program, the result of a no-bid contract signed a month ago with four Utah high-tech firms.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, whose administration signed the contract, has insisted more than once that he’s satisfied with the performance of TestNebraska, even though it has, so far, fallen far short of its stated numerical goals for COVID-19 tests — an average of 500 tests per day, per mobile testing site. Another goal: ramp up to 3,000 tests per day at six mobile test sites.

On Thursday, four TestNebraska sites swabbed 1,155 tests, or fewer than 300 tests per day at the four sites. That is about the number of daily tests the Ricketts administration has been reporting over the past two weeks.

“We knew it was going to take time to ramp this,” Ricketts said Friday, comparing TestNebraska — which began administering testing on May 4 — to a “startup business.”

“You find out things you can improve upon, and that’s what we’ve been doing. When we find something we can do a better job on, we fix it,” he said.

“The fact of the matter is we are testing more people because of TestNebraska.com,” the Republican governor said. “You cannot dispute that at all. We’re doing more testing, which is a good thing. People should be happy about that.”

As of Friday, nearly 148,000 Nebraskans have signed up for testing, and about 21,000 have received tests through TestNebraska. It has allowed the state to double the rate of testing during May, according to the governor.

Both publicly and privately, however, some state lawmakers, readers and medical professionals question whether TestNebraska can deliver its ambitious goal of delivering 540,000 COVID-19 tests within a year. Others wonder about the quality and accuracy of the tests delivered by the Utah group, and whether enough information about the program is being shared.

So The World-Herald posed several questions to the Governor’s Office. Not all elicited immediate answers — such as how many tests per day have been done every day by TestNebraska, how many showed “positive” for the virus and how many were inconclusive — though most did receive responses (unless otherwise indicated, the answers below are from the governor’s spokesman, Taylor Gage).

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What will it take for TestNebraska to reach its goal? More lab workers? Better lab performance? More people signing up? More personnel at the test sites?

“Yes, to all of those things,” said the governor, who has made “process improvement” a major theme of his administration.

More people need to sign up so they can be processed, and six testing teams need to be organized. “No shows” have been a problem, with between 10% and 20% of those scheduled for testings not showing up.

Personnel is not an issue (CHI Health employees administer the tests at Omaha and Lincoln, with National Guard medics and nurses pulling that duty elsewhere). But more people are being scheduled to address the no-show problem.

Will the program meet its goal of 3,000 tests per day by the end of the month?

The key word here is “goal.” We are working tirelessly and aggressively to do that. We are proud that we were able to set up a certified lab in less than a week. That can take months. And the state got 200,000 test kits well ahead of schedule.

The test site in Omaha has consistently tested 500 to 600 since May 11, but it’s hard to get 500 people at a test site per day in a rural area. But we need to test there, too.

How accurate are these tests?

The tests, developed by Co-Diagnostics and the medical device company ATL Technologies, have a sensitivity rate of 95%, which means that 5% of those tested got a false “negative” result, when they really had the virus. (The accepted standard is 95%). The specificity rate (which describes how accurate a test is at avoiding false “positive” test results) is 94%.

(The Governor’s Office did not provide the actual validation test documents, as requested, but offered to allow a reporter a later interview with CHI Health officials, who run the lab, and officials at the Nebraska Public Health Lab, who have been consulting with TestNebraska to ensure that they meet lab standards for testing.)

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Have any test samples, which must be kept cool in transit, spoiled or been rendered useless?

Only 10 so far. Patients were promptly informed to take another test.

Why test someone who has mild symptoms and is younger than 65 years old when others might need a test more?

The priority for testing is those who have COVID-19 symptoms or have been in close contact with someone who is positive, as well as those who are in high-risk groups (age 65 and over) or work in health care, law enforcement or meatpacking or are first responders.

Anyone who meets those qualifications can get tested, if test slots are available. People must sign up at TestNebraska.com and fill out emailed assessments asking about symptoms.

Why not send TestNebraska to hot spots, like hard-hit nursing homes and meatpacking plants? Several people were turned away at South Omaha’s One World public health clinic on May 17, for instance, after test kits ran out at 300.

The Nebraska Public Health Lab has been deployed to such hot spots, according to Dr. Peter Iwen, the director of that lab, which is under the wing of the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

The public lab can return results within 24 hours, and has a capacity to do 300 to 400 tests a day. TestNebraska, by comparison, has a stated turnaround time of 72 hours, though the governor said recently that tests were coming back in under 48 hours.

The Public Health Lab, which recently increased from four to five employees, has been working seven days a week, sometimes 12 to 14 hours a day, to keep up, Iwen said.

Ricketts said Friday that TestNebraska sites have been set up at hard-hit meatpacking towns, such as Grand Island and Schuyler. TestNebraska is able to do a higher volume of tests because patients sign up beforehand. Testing at One World was first-come, first-serve.

The governor said the goal is to provide more than one option for testing, because people aren’t always comfortable with a certain testing procedure or site.

Has anyone been tested twice?

Yes, 108 people have received more than one test as of Friday. They were selected on the criteria of showing symptoms.

What, exactly, has been learned?

TestNebraska has helped dramatically expand access to testing, and is allowing the testing of some asymptomatic people who may be carrying the virus.

* * *

How was my experience with TestNebraska?

I gotta say, it was overall a good one, though I’ve heard from many people who’ve had test results delayed or who wonder why they got picked for testing instead of someone in more serious need.

I even talked to one physician who sees COVID-19 patients who was initially, and wrongly, denied a test. A software problem was fixed, and she was later able to be tested.

In my case, I honestly answered the emailed assessment that yes, I had some symptoms. But the quiz didn’t ask if I thought they were linked to COVID-19 or to a new puppy that gets me up before sunrise or to seasonal allergies.

Still, as a reporter, I wanted to see firsthand how the testing was done, and if results could be returned within 48 hours, which was the initially stated goal.

I was tested on Saturday, May 9, arriving about 15 minutes early for my appointment, which was the first slot available that morning. Checking in and being tested took only a couple of minutes — less than the “5 minutes” the governor has mentioned.

Two and a half days later, on the night of May 11, an email told me my results were in. “Negative,” the email said.

That provided some peace of mind that I wasn’t spreading the disease unknowingly, and helped me understand the medical meaning of the term “uncomfortable.”

But that relief is only temporary. It only showed I was negative at that moment — the virus is still out there, and ready to hitch a ride in my nose and lungs.

So my masks and hand sanitizer aren’t going away any time soon.

Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020

special report
Flag football, discounts: Colleges seek ways to boost enrollment amid coronavirus uncertainty

Morgan Kalisek’s hometown college said just the right thing to hook her.

“Women’s intercollegiate flag football.”

Kalisek, of Fremont, Nebraska, has played plenty of organized flag and tackle football. Midland University announced this month that it would develop an NAIA flag football team for women in 2020-21.

Kalisek considered attending the University of Nebraska at Omaha, but the chance to play football in the city where she grew up proved an offer she couldn’t resist. “I just grew up playing sports, and I just always had a passion for it,” she said.

Creating a women’s NAIA football program is unusual, but colleges and universities throughout the Midwest and nationwide this spring are seeking ways to reel students in. They worry enrollment will plummet in the fall. The University of Nebraska system, for instance, has pledged free tuition to families with income below $60,000.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended expectations for the fall term, and universities want an edge on their competitors. This means offering new scholarship programs, providing free tuition, discounting residence hall rooms, offering a variety of ways to attend and, in Midland’s case, making women’s flag football an intercollegiate sport.

Fall enrollment is a wild card because it’s not clear how intrusive the pandemic will be by August and September. Some students might wait on their decisions until they absolutely must commit.

Will classes be held on campus? Many Midwestern colleges say they will be, but how will they be organized for appropriate social distancing? Will students and parents feel confident that on-campus programs will be safe? Will there be football in the fall? If there is another intense wave of coronavirus, will students have to return home?

Higher education analysts say some students might take a “gap year,” or a break from school. Many in higher education also wonder how severely virus concerns, visa and travel problems, and politics will affect the enrollment of international students.

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Iowa State and many other large universities, international students make up 10% of the enrollment. And many pay full tuition.

“There are real concerns from colleges and universities throughout the country about what the enrollment numbers are going to look like this fall,” said Thomas Harnisch, vice president for government relations with Colorado-based State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. “It’s difficult to know right now.”

Based on surveys of students, enrollments at four-year colleges could drop 20%, according to the national research and marketing group SimpsonScarborough.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president with the American Council on Education, estimated a 15% decline.

“We’ve never seen the enrollment uncertainty that we are currently facing,” Hartle said. In past economic downturns, he said, enrollment has risen because students have used unemployment to gain new skills or finish degrees.

But safety concerns added to financial duress could prove enough to compel students to wait and see. While many colleges, such as UNL and Creighton, plan to hold classes on campus in the fall, “the key word is ‘plan,’ ” Hartle said. “Because nobody is absolutely certain that they’ll be able to do that.”

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The huge California State University system recently announced that it would stick with online coursework in the fall.

At UNL and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, leaders say they are pleased that summer online enrollments look much better than last summer’s.

And some Midwestern schools even expressed optimism about the fall. Midland University reported a big bump in deposits made by prospective new students — 289 as of May 19, up from 178 the same date last year.

Concordia University of Seward reported a slight increase in new-student deposits compared to last year at this time.

But in budget-setting scenarios, UNL has prepared for a single-digit drop in enrollment. And the Rev. Daniel Hendrickson, president of Creighton University, said last week in a letter to faculty and staffers: “Like most U.S. institutions of higher learning, we are projecting radically lower enrollments.”

Mary Chase, Creighton’s vice provost of enrollment, later said she anticipated about a 15% decline in the university’s number of new undergraduate students.

Hartle said the pandemic will accelerate trends that were already underway. He expects New England, upstate New York, the Rust Belt, the Great Plains and the upper Midwest generally to endure tough enrollment challenges. But that will vary by school, he said.

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Here are some of the ways colleges seek to entice students:

Tuition breaks and other discounts

The NU system’s “Nebraska Promise” pledges free tuition to low- and middle-income families. The University of Nebraska at Kearney has announced a new single-room dormitory option in which students will pay $300 less than in the past to upgrade to a one-person room. This also reflects the certainty that UNK residence halls won’t be packed with students.

Hook ’em this summer

Nebraska Wesleyan freshmen take a course in the fall called the Archway Seminar, which exposes them to college-level writing, research and presentations. The teachers of those classes will connect with students this summer by videoconference so they can get acquainted and build bonds. UNL has offered a new “Husker Starter Pack” to incoming freshmen so they can get started on a class this summer at an approximately 60% discount for in-state students.

Let them take their time

UNO, UNL and Creighton are among universities that moved their deposit deadlines from May 1 to June 1 to give students more time. Union College has moved its “priority deadline” for choosing classes from May 1 to June 1. And for a deposit refund, the University of Northern Iowa in the past has required students to cancel by May 1. UNI has moved that date to Aug. 1.

Give them options, be flexible

Schools know there will be students who don’t want online classes. They also know some would prefer online classes to the risk of studying on campus. Northern Iowa plans to reopen with in-person classes in the fall, but it has created a “start at home” option for those who want to begin the school year online.

UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green has talked about “hybrid” classes that use online teaching part of the time and in-person classes the rest of the time. Green also has talked about accommodating international students hung up in visa and travel snags to arrive on campus midway through the semester.

New programs, new classes

This summer UNL has rolled out new classes created by professors, including courses on Nebraska flooding, pandemic news in the age of social media, a virtual tour of Africa and how to be happy in college. For the past several years, Midland has aimed to connect with students through performing arts and especially sports. Midland’s 32 intercollegiate sports were the most offered by a Nebraska college. Women’s flag football is No. 33. Morgan Kalisek was the first woman to commit to the program.

Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020