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Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert speaks at a recent press conference about local government's response to the coronavirus.

Nine people in Douglas County, about 20% of the county’s known cases, have been hospitalized after falling ill from the novel coronavirus.

But city and county officials at a press conference Thursday sought to assure the public that hospital beds and ventilators are still available.

Also on Thursday, Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour announced that four more people have tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the county total to 44.

Those who haven't been hospitalized are recovering at home in isolation. Pour has said that many have experienced only mild symptoms.

The latest cases involve a woman in her 30s, a man in his 40s and two men in their 50s. Two of those cases are considered to have been acquired through community spread, not contact with a known sick person or by travel. There are nine total cases of community spread in Douglas County, Pour said. Cases are being tracked on a data dashboard the health department created. 

The two other cases are still under investigation.

Pour said she does not know the total number of people who have been tested in the county because people are being tested through different health systems and providers. As of Thursday, 1,657 people had been tested in Nebraska, with The World-Herald counting 81 positive cases statewide.

Officials have said the actual number of Nebraskans with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is undoubtedly higher than the official count because testing has been limited so far.

In Iowa, there were 179 cases as of Thursday evening, with Pottawattamie County reporting its third case in a Council Bluffs woman between the ages of 41 and 60 who recently traveled on a cruise ship. She began quarantining at home after returning March 16.

Pour said she knows that the availability and scarcity of testing remains a sore point for many.

The Douglas County coronavirus hotline (402-444-3400) gets from 250 to 350 calls per day. Many callers ask why they can’t get tested, or where they can go for a test.

“Some people are frustrated,” Pour said.

The County Health Department is tracking 267 people who have been in contact with someone with COVID-19. They are monitored daily for possible symptoms and must check their temperature.

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said Omaha hospitals still have capacity. Using numbers provided by the Omaha Metropolitan Healthcare Coalition, a collection of local hospital systems, Stothert said there are:

“So you can see although some are occupied … we still have a good supply if more patients need to be hospitalized,” she said.Omaha hospitals are trying to procure more ventilators and more personal protective equipment like masks and gloves, Stothert said.

Others have expressed concern about hospital capacity statewide, with projections from the Legislative Research Office and a Lincoln doctor calling into question the ability to respond to a surge of patients requiring more serious care.

While the number of coronavirus cases is rising rapidly in parts of the East and West Coasts, particularly New York City,, Stothert said Omaha enacted restrictions on crowds, bars and restaurants early, before the state had many cases. People are largely staying home, and that seems to be stopping Omaha’s cases from exploding, at least so far. Because community spread cases of coronavirus have now been identified in several Nebraska counties, including Douglas and Sarpy, state-imposed directed health measures are in place in those counties.

Those measures include a mandatory10-person limit on crowd sizes, plus the closing of bars, in-house dining at restaurants and elective surgeries. Churches have also suspended services. The purpose, Gov. Pete Ricketts said, is to slow the spread of the virus and keep hospital beds available.

“In Nebraska, we are really still ahead of the curve,” Stothert said. “Even though the testing is limited right now, you can see the spread here is nothing like we see in the major cities and also that the restrictions we currently have in place … seem to be working.”

Stothert said she doesn’t have the authority to shut down the city or more businesses — she could only enact a curfew. Many retailers have closed voluntarily, she said, noting that NFM (formerly known as Nebraska Furniture Mart) showrooms will close indefinitely at 7 p.m. Friday. The store will shift to online shopping only.

Omahans have repeatedlyasked Stothert if she will order residents to stay home, a measure taken in larger cities such as San Francisco and New York and a number of states.

“If it is needed, we absolutely will do it,” Stothert said. But advice from local, state and federal health experts led her to believe that “at this point in time, we don’t need it.”

Other news from the briefing:

  • Michael Myers, the Douglas County corrections director, said one person in the Douglas County Jail was tested for the coronavirus, but the test came back negative.

He said he could not comment further on the cause of death of a 46-year-old inmate who died at the jail Wednesday. A grand jury will convene and review the details surrounding Trent Toline’s death, as happens in all in-custody deaths.

  • Bad news for parents: Brook Bench, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, recommended that families with children avoid playgrounds. Omaha has 197 playgrounds, he said, and there’s not enough staff to clean them every day.

City golf courses are still open, and walkers, joggers and families are still welcome to take advantage of parks and trails, as long as people don’t gather in groups larger than 10, he said.

Omaha community centers are closed, but the Parks Department is still preparing to open pools and hold camps this summer.

World-Herald staff writer Julie Anderson contributed to this report.