State and local government entities, private-sector philanthropic groups and media organizations from across Nebraska will work together on a unified campaign to promote best practices related to public health as the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, pandemic continues.
In a virtual news conference Thursday morning, leaders unveiled the “Do Right, Right Now” campaign, which will run over the next six to nine months, exhorting stressed and pandemic-weary Nebraskans to do their part in thwarting further spread of the virus.
“These messages will be promoted in a positive and upbeat manner,” said Dr. Adi Pour, health director for the Douglas County Health Department and one of the prime instigators of the campaign developed by the public relations firm Vic Gutman & Associates.
The campaign will include messaging in radio, television, print, digital and outdoor media across the state. The Hastings Tribune is among more than 45 Nebraska media outlets that have signed on as partners in the effort, agreeing to donate resources to disseminate campaign messages.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and his wife, first lady Susanne Shore, were among participants in Thursday’s news conference.
Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt also offered remarks, as the Nebraska Department of Education is a key sponsor in making what started out as an Omaha-centered campaign now statewide in its reach.
“The campaign is ultimately reinforcing things we’ve heard from CDC (the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), local public health and the governor, as well,” Blomstedt said.
The campaign is comprehensive and will feature diverse materials. Pour said some of the key messages will be urging Nebraskans to get their influenza vaccinations this fall and winter, encouraging them to get tested for COVID-19 when appropriate, and promoting awareness of available mental health services for those in psychological distress as a result of the pandemic.
“Our goal is to reduce the rate of new cases and hospitalizations across the state,” Pour said.
Dr. James Lawler of Nebraska Medicine, the health care network operated by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Bellevue Medical Center and UNMC Physicians, shared sobering statistics related to the current surge of COVID-19 cases across the state.
“We are in the most dangerous time of this entire pandemic,” said Lawler, an associate professor of internal medicine, director of International Programs and Innovation at the Global Center for Health Security, and director of clinical and biodefense research at the National Strategic Research Institute.
“Case counts are dramatically higher than they were in the spring, and they continue to go up at an alarming pace.”
Statewide, Lawler said, nearly 1,000 COVID-19 patients now are hospitalized, and the doubling time has been reduced to two to three weeks — meaning that by early to mid-December the state could have 2,000 patients in hospitals being treated for the viral infection.
According to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, the state’s 14-day average total number of staffed hospital beds was 4,561 as of Thursday. Lawler said the kind of growth in COVID-19 hospitalizations now on the horizon won’t be sustainably manageable unless things change.
“I have never been as frightened about the status of the health system as I am about the status of the health system in Nebraska right now,” Lawler said.
North Dakota and South Dakota, which have been featured prominently in the news in recent days as they face overwhelming hospitalization numbers, are two to three weeks ahead of Nebraska on the hospitalization curve, Lawler said.
“We’re now getting into the territory of North and South Dakota,” he said.
While planning for the Do Right, Right Now campaign began in September and the campaign always was planned to launch in November, Pour said, that launch is coming in the midst of a critical period for the state.
Dr. Matthew Bruner, chief medical officer at Regional West Health Services in Scottsbluff, said the current situation in the Nebraska Panhandle is right in line with what other officials described in eastern Nebraska.
As of Tuesday, the test positivity rate for the novel coronavirus in Scotts Bluff County was 68.2%. Statewide, the rate was 23.4%.
Bruner said health officials in his area are looking for support from city and county governments with measures to help thwart the spread of the virus, and that the new public relations campaign should help reach skeptical members of the public whose cooperation is needed.
“We have a stubborn population, so ‘Do the Right Thing, Right Now’ is exactly what our population would need,” Bruner said.
Ricketts has implemented additional directed health measures recently to help address the case surge. While he continues to oppose mask mandates — a position that seemed to put him at odds with some of the other speakers at Thursday’s news conference — the state has developed a phased approach that will lead to increasingly stringent restrictions as hospitalization thresholds are met.
Ricketts and other officials also are promoting a whole series of precautionary measures — such items as social distancing, wearing masks indoors when social distancing is difficult, and frequent handwashing, among others — that should layer over each other in a “Swiss cheese” manner to help protect public health.
“Nebraskans have always stepped up to take care of each other in times of need,” Ricketts said. “ … It’s time for us all to do the right thing, and do it right now.”
Like he did last spring, Ricketts again is encouraging Nebraskans to limit their trips to the grocery store to once a week, and for adults to shop alone rather than bring along their children.
Currently, many officials also are emphasizing the importance of small, household holiday celebrations this year rather than the large, extended family gatherings that could turn into superspreader events.
“This year we just have to think about our loved ones’ health and safety so they can be around to celebrate the holidays with us next year,” Blomstedt said.
Ricketts and Shore went into quarantine recently after having close contact with someone who subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.
Shore, who in the past worked as a hospital nurse, said she understands the difficult jobs hospital-based health professionals have to do even in good times, let alone during a pandemic.
“We need to start protecting ourselves so we can stay out of the hospital,” she said.
The Omaha Community Foundation and Nebraska Children and Families Foundation both are playing key supportive roles in the campaign.