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CDC: Almost 600 meatpacking workers in Nebraska tested positive for coronavirus in April

New numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that nearly 600 workers across 12 meatpacking plants in Nebraska tested positive for the coronavirus in April, with at least one death.

That’s roughly 3% of the 20,000 workers employed by those 12 plants.

Similar to coronavirus outbreaks seen in homeless shelters, prisons, hospitals and nursing homes, the close-quarters work and crowded conditions involved in the slaughtering, slicing and packaging of meat seem to allow the virus to spread more easily, the CDC said. But it’s still unclear whether workers who are falling ill caught the virus at work or out in the community.

Nationally, 4,913 workers in 115 facilities in 19 states have tested positive, and 20 have died. That’s also about 3% of the 130,000 workers in those plants.

In Iowa, 377 workers in just two plants tested positive, or 18.2% of those plants’ workforce.

The CDC collected and analyzed aggregate data on infections among meat and poultry workers, including numbers submitted by 19 states, including Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas and Colorado. The data does not name specific plants.

In Nebraska and Iowa, meat- and food-processing workers have come down with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in plants run by food giants like Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS USA, as well as smaller processors, sending coronavirus rates soaring in communities like Grand IslandLexingtonMadison and Crete, and in Dakota County.

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Dakota County, population 20,000, is ranked No. 4 in the country for confirmed cases per capita. Hall County, where Grand Island is located, and Dawson County, where Lexington sits, have some of the highest case numbers in Nebraska.

The Nebraska numbers released by the CDC may be low — a source told the Sioux City Journal, for example, that 669 workers at the Dakota City plant alone had tested positive, more than the 588 cases counted by the CDC for the entire state of Nebraska. The Sioux City Journal has also reported on three deaths tied to the plant.

Friday, Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour said there were five coronavirus clusters affecting food-processing facilities in the Omaha area.

“It could be that these individuals are bringing it into the plant from their home and community environment,” she said at a press conference. “So we need to protect both sides of it. It’s not only the meatpacking plant. The meatpacking plant(s), I can tell you, we have been on phone calls with them, they are really (trying) to do the best thing they can.”

Other advocacy groups have called on plants to provide more protections for workers, including more masks, widespread testing, paid sick leave and more distancing on the crowded conveyor-belt-style production lines.

The CDC recommends installing dividers or barriers between workers, requiring all workers to wear masks and slowing down production so workers can space out. Supervisors also need to provide information about the virus and its prevention in multiple languages, the CDC said — in just one plant, workers, many of whom are refugees or immigrants, spoke more than 40 languages.

Representatives from several companies have said plants are checking temperatures when workers walk in, putting up dividers in cafeterias and urging workers to stay home if they feel even the slightest bit sick.

The Dakota City Tyson beef plant, located just south and over the river from Sioux City, Iowa, closed temporarily over the weekend for deep cleaning, to help contain the outbreak there.

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Meanwhile, the Tyson plant plant in Madison, south of Norfolk, ran on a reduced schedule Friday and Saturday so all of its estimated 1,500 workers, vendors and contractors could be tested, a Tyson spokeswoman said. On Thursday, 96 workers had tested positive, according to the Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health Department, with more test results expected back this week.

The CDC numbers are the first partial accounting of how hard the virus is hitting meatpacking workers in Nebraska — the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has not released that data and only some local health departments are disclosing coronavirus cases tied to specific plants.

But even the CDC numbers are imperfect — not all states with meat facilities submitted data, the numbers only capture a snapshot from April 9 through April 27 and the number of infections may be a reflection of how many workers were actually tested for the virus.

By April 27, Nebraska counted more than 3,000 coronavirus cases total, meaning the cases tied to meatpacking plants may have made up 17.5% of all infections in the state at that point in time. By Sunday night, the state count had grown to 5,910 cases, which includes at least some people who have since recovered from COVID-19.

“Differences in case counts and percentage of workers with COVID-19 are affected by the testing strategies employed, with more infected workers identified in settings with more testing,” the CDC wrote.

Testing in Nebraska has been limited, and was often focused, at least in the beginning of the pandemic, on first responders, health care workers and those with more-severe symptoms. A new COVID-19 assessment and testing initiative, TestNebraska, aims to dramatically increase testing over the next month or so.

Mass testing events were being held Monday in Omaha and Grand Island.

World-Herald staff writer Christopher Burbach contributed to this report.

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White House rejects CDC projection of surge in virus

WASHINGTON — An internal projection created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the U.S. coronavirus outbreak vastly accelerating by June to more than 200,000 new cases and 2,500 deaths per day — far more than the country is currently experiencing.

The White House disavowed the projection, calling it an "internal CDC document" but saying it had not been presented to President Donald Trump's coronavirus task force and didn't comport with the task force's own analysis and projections.

It isn't clear who produced the document, obtained and published earlier by the New York Times, or what assumptions underlie the forecasts. The projections, on two slides of a 19-slide deck, are dated May 1 and attributed to a "data and analytics task force." The document carries the seal of both theHealth andHuman Services Department and the Homeland Security Department.

The CDC projection contains a range of estimates. The forecast of 200,000 new cases and 2,500 deaths per day are around the middle of the range.

The documents are labeled "for official use only." The CDC did not respond to a request for comment.

"This is not a White House document nor has it been presented to the Coronavirus Task Force or gone through interagency vetting," Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said in a statement. "This data is not reflective of any of the modeling done by the task force or data that the task force has analyzed."

The U.S. reported about 25,000 new cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, on Sunday and more than 1,200 deaths. But with a swath of states across the South and Midwest beginning to relax economy-crushing social distancing measures, with Trump's encouragement, some public health experts have warned that there's a risk the outbreak will flare up.

"The president's phased guidelines to open up America again are a scientific driven approach that the top health and infectious disease experts in the federal government agreed with," Deere said.

There is a history of the CDC overestimating disease outbreaks. In 2014, the agency said that in a worst case, there might be more than half a million cases of Ebola from an outbreak that began in West Africa. The actual number of total cases in the outbreak ended up being about 28,600, according to the CDC.

There's excitement and caution in 'taking the next step,' though not all restaurants, salons are ready; tattoo shop doesn't 'want to be the guinea pig'

As the business day dawned on Omaha, customers waited at the door outside Harold's Koffee House in Florence.

That simple scene had vanished in Omaha for weeks as the global pandemic hit home.

A business day. A familiar favorite. Customers. Heading out for a dine-in, sit-down breakfast.

Douglas County and 58 other counties across Nebraska were allowed to start reopening Monday under direction from Gov. Pete Ricketts. Restaurants, beauty and nail salons and tattoo shops could open up.

Statewide, hospitals could have elective surgeries again, and dentists could open for regular patients. Churches could meet for group services.

Business owners greeted themoment with a mix of care, some excitement and some trepidation. A number of Omaha restaurants and salons stayed closed over concern that the timing is all wrong as local coronavirus cases keep rising.

At Harold's Koffee House, which has held down the corner of 30th and State Streets since 1968, breakfast traffic stayed below half the restaurant's capacity, as required.

Owner Matt Bohnenkamp acknowledged the difficulty of the situation.

"It doesn't feel normal, but we're just taking the next step," Bohnenkamp said. "We're just real people trying to get through this as comfortably and courteously as possible."

The public health effects from Omaha's and Nebraska's reopening will emerge in the next couple of weeks. The risk is that bringing people back together will allow the coronavirus to spread even more.

Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour warned over the weekend that the virus "is everywhere." Without social distancing and continued precautions, Pour said the situation will get worse and the virus will be around all summer.

Business owners interviewed Monday expressed hope that they can start to get their customers back.

Monday morning, the Bagel Bin had a steady din. A coffee klatch here. A table of customers there.

The spot is relatively big, with a capacity for 80 people in the strip mall near 120th and Pacific Streets.

In the six weeks since dining areas were closed, owner Sue Brezack and her sons have been paying their staff to work. But with offices shuttered across the metro area, the bagel delivery part of their business has dropped, on some days, to just three clients.

Even with curbside and carryout options, business dropped 60% to 70%. The only worse time in 42 years of business came in January 2010, when a fire destroyed the shop.

"It's been unsettling," Sue Brezack said. "You miss the people. We know probably 80% of our customers by first name. You worry day to day."

Sarah Phan, owner of VIP Nails & Spa, near 132nd Street and West Dodge Road, said Monday that she is glad to be open again. The salon had been closed since March 23 but is open and taking precautions.

Employees are wearing face shields and masks; clients must wear masks, too. Partitions have been set up between the clients and nail technicians for further protection. Customers must sign a waiver saying they aren't sick and don't have a fever.

For now, Phan is accepting only appointments, not walk-in customers, so business isn't quite back to 100%. And two employees aren't working because of virus fears. But some business, she said, is better than no business.

"I'm just trying to survive to pay the rent," she said. "We don't make lots of money, but that's OK. It's pretty exciting. We have to live with it, andwe just need to be careful."

In west Omaha, Premier Dental opened at 7 a.m. Monday, and that's when the practice welcomed its first patient in several weeks.

Pam Beninato, who owns Premier Dental with her husband, said things were going well. Staff members seemed relieved to be back in the swing of caring for people's dental health, and patients were eager to hop in the chair.

"Patients seem excited to come back to the dentist, which on a normal day, they're not always excited," Beninato joked.

She said the practice's waiting room has effectively been eliminated. Patients are asked to wait in their cars and send a text message when they've arrived. They're screened upon entering the business. Staff members, who also are being screened, are wearing personal protective equipment.

Elective surgeries also started slowly and cautiously.

OrthoNebraska opened at about 50% of its usual capacity Monday, saidDr. NicholasBruggeman, chief medical officer.

Using only half of the available operating rooms allowed for additional spacing of procedures, which in turn alleviated a couple of potential safety bottlenecks.

In addition, the hospital chose patients carefully, selecting younger patients with a lower risk of medical complications, and screened them carefully for symptoms of and exposure to COVID-19. Providers also took patients' suffering into account.

Bruggeman, a hand and elbow surgeon, performed four procedures Monday, three that had been postponed, and one involving a fracture that occurred last week.

Some patients, he said, were a little reluctant to jump back in. But some were pleased to have their problems addressed.

"Overall, everything went smoothly," he said.

Some businesses are waiting to reopen.

Gel Nails & Spa, in Midtown Crossing, announced that it would extend its closure because the managers "truly value the health and well-being of both our customers and staff and believe that this is the best option."

As the owner of Omaha's longest-running tattoo shop, American Tattoo, Eric Zuerlein works in ink.

He also reads ink about the increasing positive cases in Douglas County.

Zuerlein had planned a soft opening at his 84th Street shop on Monday, then he pumped the brakes, delaying reopening for a couple of weeks. When he does open — maybe, he guessed, the week of May 18 — it will be one client at a time per artist, appointment only.

"I kind of don't want to be the guinea pig," Zuerlein said Monday. "And I don't want my clients to, either."

Zuerlein has lost a lot of business over the past six weeks. Spring is usually the thaw, the time that people start showing more flesh. In his business, that means more tattoos. April is typically a big month — he and his three artists each can do five to 10 tattoos a day. His body piercer can do 15 to 20 piercings a day.

The last thing Zuerlein wants is anyone to get the permanent tattoo of COVID-19.

"We've got to think about our clients," he said. "As much as I want to see everybody ... if we were to go back full-scale, it kind of makes me wonder what this last sixweeks were for?"

At Java Daddies in the Old Market, owner Ken Schroeder worries whether his shop will survive another month. His business has been down 85%.

As of Monday, he's allowing people to stay in the shop to enjoy their food and drink, but he doesn't expect people to rush out to businesses.

"You just take it one day at a time," he said. "But we're a day closer to it all being behind us, right?"

World-Herald staff writers Julie Anderson, Alia Conley, Todd Cooper and Reece Ristau contributed to this report. jeff.robb@owh.com, 402-444-1128 twitter.com/jeffreyrobb

TestNebraska drive-thru testing sites open Monday in Omaha, Grand Island

A trickle of cars and SUVs pulled up one by one, or two by two, Monday afternoon to a tent in a parking lot north of the CHI Health Center in downtown Omaha.

Once inside, the drivers — or passengers, in some cases — rolled down their windows and tilted back their heads while gowned and masked health care providers inserted a long swab deep into their nasal passages.

In one vehicle, a child in the backseat took a turn getting swabbed and got a round of applause from a handful of health care providers.

Monday marked the first day for drive-thru testing under the TestNebraska initiative launched two weeks ago by Gov. Pete Ricketts. A second testing site launched at the Nebraska State Fairgrounds in Grand Island.

Ricketts said he signed contracts, dated April 19, with four Utah firms to do the work as a way for Nebraska to rapidly expand its coronavirus testing.

The four companies, led by Nomi Health of Orem, Utah, are expected to eventually provide 3,000 tests a day, which is about three times the number of tests now provided in Nebraska. Based on health assessments filled out by Nebraskans on the TestNebraska.com website, testing sites are scheduled to be set up across the state.

Residents who were to be tested Monday were notified Friday to come to the testing sites. The first round of testing was to involve health care workers and first responders who signed up for TestNebraska online, according to the CHI Health system, which is partnering in the project at Ricketts’ request.

CHI Health medical professionals were conducting the nasal swabs and other testing steps inside the tent at the Omaha site, said Cole Mazurek of CHI Health. Nebraska National Guard personnel were assisting outside the tent. The Guard was conducting the operations at the Grand Island site.

The Omaha site was scheduled to operate from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, Mazurek said. After the first week, testing may move to different areas of Omaha and Nebraska.

About 150 people were scheduled for testing Monday at the Omaha site. In subsequent days, between 300 and 400 people will be scheduled each day at both the Omaha and Grand Island sites.

Ricketts said in his press briefing Monday that emails had been sent to those who had signed up with TestNebraska.com, asking them to update their online assessments. The assessments help determine who will be tested first, and where test sites will be set up.

Later in the day, on the governor’s monthly radio call-in show, a caller said he found that his spam filter had blocked the email from TestNebraska.

Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical officer, said Monday that testing by existing labs in Nebraska had increased to between 1,300 and 1,500 tests a day. Private labs, such as Quest and LabCorps, are doing 40% to 45% of those tests, he said.

Dr. Michael Schooff, director of primary care for CHI Health, said the wider testing being conducted through TestNebraska will help public health officials identify where the virus is lurking, allowing them to better plan as they reopen the state.

“If we come together ... we can help keep each other healthy,” he said.

It’s also nice for people to know whether they’re infected, Schooff said, although management of mild cases won’t change. But people are more likely to isolate themselves if they know they’re positive for the novel virus.

After the samples are collected, they will be sent to St. Elizabeth Hospital in Lincoln, which is part of CHI Health. The hospital’s lab, which has been outfitted with extra equipment to process the tests, will serve as the primary lab for TestNebraska.

Hospital staff will staff the laboratory 24 hours a day, according to CHI Health. Mazurek said those being tested will be advised to expect results via text or email within 72 hours. But plans call for turning them around in 48 hours.

Mazurek said state officials planned to make sure the lab setup was properly validated to produce accurate results.

As far as Mazurek knows, “the state is comfortable with the efficacy of the tests and there’s no concerns.”

Those approved for testing drive in to the site, separate into two lanes and pull under the tent four cars at a time with their windows up. To enter the site, they have to present a QR code from TestNebraska and a driver’s license or other ID. They present them again inside the tent. After they do, medical professionals will collect their swabs.

“We’re here for them, the state’s here for them, and we’re trying to get those who need testing tested,” Mazurek said.

To be tested, people first must fill out the TestNebraska.com assessment. Those with active symptoms will be called in for testing first, the governor has said.

Photos: Nebraska's coronavirus helpers