LINCOLN — State officials acknowledged Friday that limits on testing mean an unknown number of people with coronavirus are not being detected.

At a press conference, state officials said the number of people testing positive for the potentially deadly virus in Nebraska had risen to 33. Additional cases reported Friday bring to 38 the number of cases in Nebraska, according to figures provided by county health departments.

The total now includes the first case from Lincoln — a 48-year-old male who traveled to Colorado on March 8 and 9. He developed symptoms on Sunday and visited his health care provider on Monday.

But Gov. Pete Ricketts said the number of positive tests understates the number of Nebraskans infected with coronavirus disease, because testing is not available to everyone who shows symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

“Yes, there are people who have coronavirus that we don’t know because we haven’t tested,” he said.

Ricketts said his $58.6 million request for emergency funds from a state rainy day fund will help fight the virus’ spread and includes money to expand the state’s testing ability. State lawmakers received a briefing on the request Friday.

“We know it’s going to be a tough time for Nebraska. We’re going to be working to soften that blow,” Ricketts said.

Testing in Nebraska so far has been reserved for groups at highest risk of having the coronavirus, according to Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska’s chief medical officer and public health director for the Department of Health and Human Services. Those are people hospitalized with pneumonia of unknown cause, people who have traveled in areas where the virus is widespread and people who have had close contact with someone who tested positive.

Other people who develop symptoms consistent with coronavirus are being advised to isolate themselves at home for 14 days, he said.

“If you have the symptoms, just go home. If you’re sick, stay at home,” Anthone said. “We have to prioritize (who gets tested) at this point, but we will get to the point where we will be able to test those patients.”

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Ricketts also advised those in the Omaha area — which has the most cases in the state — that if someone in your household is sick, the entire household should self-quarantine to help blunt the spread of the contagious virus.

Nebraska’s testing has been limited because of a lack of the supplies needed to perform the tests — first the swabs needed to collect samples and now the reagents critical to carrying out the tests, Anthone said. Those supplies and the time needed to run the tests determine how many can be done.

Work is underway to increase the state’s testing capabilities, Anthone said.

When they are feasible, he said, additional tests will be prioritized for health care workers and first responders and to protect nursing home residents. Testing can verify whether workers have coronavirus and must be off work for at least 14 days or whether they can come back to work as soon as their symptoms clear up.

Anthone defended the state’s testing efforts to date, noting that the state has tested only groups most likely to be positive and only 5% of them have been positive.

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“I don’t think we’re behind on testing,” he said.

The governor’s emergency fund request includes money for the University of Nebraska Medical Center to beef up its testing abilities. It also would pay for things like personal protective equipment for health care workers, additional staff at state veterans homes and state-run institutions and support for local health departments.

State lawmakers will reconvene Monday to debate and act on the request. The Nebraska Legislature has been shut down all this week due to concerns about spreading the coronavirus.

Among other topics:

  • Ricketts has told state agencies to control their spending in anticipation of a downturn in state tax revenues. But he said it would be premature to look at revising the state’s official revenue forecast until there is more information about economic impacts of the virus.
  • Ricketts plans to hold 2 p.m. press conferences every weekday to provide updates about state response. The press conferences are streamed live on NET’s website, netnebraska.org/basic-page/television/live-demand-state-government.
  • The federal Small Business Administration has approved Nebraska’s request for an “economic emergency” declaration. That, he said, will open up low-interest SBA loans to help businesses and nonprofit organizations remain open.

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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