ASHLAND, Neb. — Camp Ashland’s new role as a quarantine site is the topic of the day on Silver Street, the main drag through downtown Ashland.
Beginning Friday evening, federal officials planned to quarantine 57 Americans returning from China’s Wuhan area, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.
Local residents said Friday they’re proud Nebraska had been selected as an observation site because of its history of successfully handling deadly diseases, but some also expressed worry. Public officials and a hotline have fielded numerous calls.
Jen Haschenburger, owner of Breadeaux Pizza, said she trusts public health experts but has mixed feelings about the decision to bring in people who might get sick.
“I know they’re experienced and trained in handling those communicable diseases,” she said from the counter of her shop. “But it’s so close to home.”
Cheri O’Kelly, owner of nearby ice cream and coffee shop Cheri O’s, said several of her customers have expressed concerns, and local Facebook pages are “wild with rumors.”
“People are nervous,” she said, then added she’s sure people will be safe.
State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte captured the unease on Thursday during a legislative hearing on proposed state funding for the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s hoped-for $2.6 billion expansion project, which would include dealing with large-scale emergencies.
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Groene said he’s glad he lives in North Platte, 281 miles from Omaha, where a bunch of “infected” people were coming. Federal officials have said that none of the arriving Americans have shown signs of having the virus. But they are considered at increased risk of exposure because of where they were in China.
The returning Americans will be quarantined for 14 days at the Nebraska National Guard’s Camp Ashland. The camp is 30 miles southwest of downtown Omaha.
Groene said Friday his constituents are worried and want answers.
“This is not simple,” he said.
UNMC Chancellor Dr. Jeffrey Gold said during the hearing that none of the evacuees are symptomatic, but they are at risk of becoming so. That’s why they’re being quarantined, he said, and why so many precautions are being taken.
Taylor Wilson, a spokesman for Nebraska Medicine, said the experts involved take their responsibility seriously. UNMC and Nebraska Medicine have received, on balance, more positive than negative feedback, and many people have expressed community pride.
“Because of the medical expertise and facilities we have here, there are few places in the world better equipped to handle this,” he said.
Medical experts say it is better and safer to try to contain people who might contract a disease before it spreads.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert’s hotline received five calls from people questioning the decision to quarantine the patients in Nebraska, officials said. Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office receives a handful of calls each day.
“People fear the unknown,” said Dr. Anne O’Keefe, senior epidemiologist at the Douglas County Health Department. “The word ‘quarantine’ ratchets it up a notch because it’s scary.”
She said the coronavirus information line received about 20 calls on Thursday and more calls than that on Friday from people asking questions. (The phone number is 402-444-3400.)
She said that’s fewer calls than the department received when UNMC was treating patients during the Ebola outbreak in 2014.
Ricketts encouraged Nebraskans to rely on trusted sources for news and information on the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is updating a website with the latest information. So is the World Health Organization.
That hasn’t stopped a run on supplies. At least one Omaha pharmacy Friday was struggling to find more of the sought-after highly filtered face masks, called N95s.
This could be bad news for professionals who rely on the masks, including doctors, nurses and home health care workers, said Todd Davison, purchasing manager for Kubat Pharmacy.
The Ashland Pharmacy also was out of masks Friday, said Staci Hubert, the business owner.
But Hubert said the masks were already difficult to find because of a tough flu season, before suppliers started running low over the past couple of weeks because of coronavirus.
Terra Uhing, executive director of Three Rivers Public Health Department, which includes Saunders County, home to Camp Ashland, said people don’t need to run out and buy supplies. Health officials have said the masks are not needed for the average person.
Uhing stressed that local professionals have trained for this.
“What we’re trying to do is push out factual and the most updated information,” she said.
World-Herald staff writers Julie Anderson and Erin Grace contributed to this report.