The strictest “stay-at-home” measures imposed in states like California and New York to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus aren’t likely to go into effect in Nebraska — at least not yet.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and a spokesman for Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said that, by and large, Nebraskans are heeding calls to limit public gatherings and avoid close contact.
“My opinion? We do not need it,” Stothert said. “Currently in Omaha, people and business are being very compliant, and they are taking this very seriously.”
Douglas County has 35 confirmed cases, the county’s health director, Adi Pour, said Sunday. But more cases undoubtedly are occurring, she said, that haven’t been uncovered through testing.
“The more we test, the more we find,” Pour said. “We actually want to see more testing, because then we can identify what’s really going on.”
A World-Herald tally shows Nebraska had 51 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of Sunday evening, with most clustered in Omaha and Douglas County. The newest case involves a Dawson County, Nebraska, woman in her 40s. The woman had traveled recently, so her case may be related to that. She is self-isolating at home. Dawson comprises the Lexington, Cozad, Gothenburg area.
Iowa had 90 confirmed cases by Sunday afternoon, including two in Pottawattamie County.
Many of those with coronavirus disease, COVID-19, have mild symptoms, she said: “Be aware there is a range of symptoms that we are seeing.” Those with confirmed COVID-19 cases aren’t always experiencing a fever, Pour said.
Most of the Douglas County cases, she said, are related to travel. Someone coming back from a trip, she said, especially in an area with a lot of COVID-19 cases, should consider working from home or staying at home.
Governors in Illinois, New York, California and New Jersey — places more much heavily and densely populated than Nebraska — have issued “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” directives.
The orders vary by city and state. They are intended to limit people from going out in public for all but essential services, such as grocery shopping or visiting a doctor. Workers deemed essential have been exempted.
People still can leave their homes to walk the dog or go for a jog — while keeping a recommended 6-foot distance from others — but businesses considered nonessential are supposed to close.
In New Jersey, where the number of confirmed coronavirus cases surged to more than 1,300 on Saturday, including 16 deaths, Gov. Phil Murphy has even asked people to stay at home and off the roads between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Leaders in Omaha and Nebraska have stopped short of those measures while still asking people to take the threat of the virus seriously and gather only in small groups outside of work.
State and local health officials in Nebraska announced 10 new cases Saturday, the most of any day yet, as testing ramps up. Ricketts has said the unofficial numbers are almost certainly higher, because testing is not available to everyone who shows symptoms of COVID-19.
Last week, the confirmation of a second case of community spread of the coronavirus in Douglas County — a 46-year-old man whose illness had no known source — resulted in Ricketts closing schools in Cass, Douglas, Sarpy and Washington Counties for six to eight weeks. He also ordered restaurants and bars in those counties to close their dining areas immediately and move to takeout, delivery or curbside-only service until further notice.
Douglas County health officials already had issued a public health order prohibiting all public gatherings with more than 10 people through April 30.
“The measures currently used in Cass, Douglas, Sarpy and Washington Counties are the most restrictive measures the governor anticipates implementing at this time,” Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Ricketts, said Saturday. “Once community transmission is confirmed in other parts of the state, the same limits will be put in place in those regions.”
“We’ve asked Nebraskans to comply with these rules using common sense and good judgment, and almost universally Nebraskans have stepped up to meet this challenge and have followed the state and CDC directives,” he continued.
Stothert said she doesn’t have the power to place more restrictions on businesses or residents in Omaha — only Ricketts and Pour do. Stothert said she visited a Target, Trader Joe’s and Hy-Vee on Saturday.
“People were shopping, but there were very few customers and they were practicing social distancing and good health practices,” she said. Other stores are voluntarily closing.
Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said Sunday that his officers have not had to issue a single ticket for noncompliance with the crowd limits.
“Right here, right now, thank you to the people in Omaha,” Stothert said Sunday afternoon. “What we are doing right now, we think, is working.”
Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health, said the social distancing efforts across the United States are “necessary but insufficient.”
The United States’ initial response to the outbreak was too slow, he said, and social distancing is important now to slow the number of people getting infected and prevent hospitals from being swamped.
But “we can’t use social distancing alone,” Khan said.
Restrictions on crowds and social mingling also must be bolstered by aggressive public health measures, including more testing to find and isolate all COVID-19 patients, tracking down all the people who potentially may have been exposed and quarantining them. Detective work through contact tracing and instituting quarantines helped stop the spread of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo several years ago, Khan said.
“You can close schools, isolate 70-year-olds and do general social distancing ... but we need the public health part to kick in,” he said. “This isn’t about the people who are healthy, we need to find the ones who are ill and pull them out of the system so they’re not infecting others.”
Italy is in lockdown, but coronavirus cases, and the death toll, continue to surge there, as officials complain about people flouting the rules.
“I love this idea of ‘stay at home,’ but you’ll get maybe 70% compliance with that,” Khan said.
All it takes is one infected person popping out to get more food from the grocery store or letting a friend stop in to say hi, and all the benefits of a lockdown are erased.
The United States must learn from Italy’s mistakes and the successes of other countries who appear, for now at least, to have somewhat contained the coronavirus, such as South Korea, Khan said. Patchwork efforts that vary by state and city will not contain infection alone — there’s nothing to stop Iowans from crossing the river to Nebraska, or Nebraskans from visiting Colorado.
“If we hadn’t let this get away from us,” he said, “we wouldn’t have to take extreme measures.”