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With the rate of COVID-19 cases in the South Heartland Health District continuing to decline, officials are asking the public not to let up in their efforts to thwart the spread of the viral infection.

Local officials emphasized continuing those efforts during the city’s news conference on Friday morning.

“I think people have done a great job of being safe, but I’m starting to see some people that aren’t necessarily working as hard as they have in the past,” Mayor Corey Stutte said.

He was at a Hastings grocery store on Thursday where only about half of the customers were wearing masks.

He encouraged the public to continue to continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing as part of the local response to the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, pandemic.

“I think we will be able to flatten this curve, as we’ve already seen, and I think you’ve done a great job doing that,” he said. “I’d like to thank you for everything you continue to do as citizens in our community.”

South Heartland Executive Director Michele Bever said the rate of positive tests for the week of May 10-16 was 6%, which was a decrease from 9% the previous week. The positivity rate has dropped a little lower each week since mid-April.

“This trend, along with the trends in hospital utilization, hospital capacity that Mr. Barber has talked about, those are all important because they help us know how well our social distancing and prevention measures are working to flatten the curve,” she said, referring to Eric Barber, president and CEO of Mary Lanning Healthcare. “These trends, as the mayor mentioned, are continuing to move in the right direction. It’s important though that we continue to prevent the spread of the virus because the virus isn’t gone. It’s still in our community. It’s important that we wear masks when we can’t easily social distance. That we clean and disinfect surfaces; we’re washing hands, we’re staying home when we’re sick, and that we’re following the governor’s six rules about staying home, staying healthy, staying connected.”

An individual may have very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, but the virus can still spread through close person-to-person contact, with or without symptoms.

Close contact is within 6 feet and typically for 10 minutes.

“We still need to practice these things or our flattened curve will not remain flat,” Bever said.

Six new cases of COVID-19 — all in Adams County — were reported by the South Heartland district on Friday night. The new patients include three females — one under 20, one in her 20s, and one in her 30s — as well as one male child, one male under age 20 and a man in his 30s.

As of Friday night, the running tally of positive COVID-19 cases among South Heartland residents stands at 295 — 266 in Adams County, 23 in Clay County, five in Webster County, and one in Nuckolls County. At least 207 of those patients have recovered, and 11 — all from Adams County — have died.

Bever said contact investigations for positive cases have shown consistent trends.

“It’s the social gatherings with people outside of your household,” she said. “It’s close contact at work and close contact in other settings. That’s where people are being exposed to the virus, and this is where the new cases of COVID-19 are coming from that are reported to us each day and that we’re reporting out to the public. We’re urging South Heartland residents to continue to practice social distancing and prevention to prevent the spread and to protect those of us who are at risk.”

The South Heartland health department, which is headquartered in Hastings, serves Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties

Bever encouraged people at higher risk to get tested. TestNebraska events are coming to the South Heartland area, which will make testing more accessible.

Those in the high-risk demographic include anyone with symptoms, anyone with contact with a known case, health care workers and first responders, those 65 or older, and those with underlying medical conditions

Participants must preregister at testnebraska.com. Short risk assessment survey will ask about occupation, underlying medical condition and exposure.

“Then it will let you know whether you qualify for testing,” Bever said.

TestNebraska testing will occur in Hastings and Clay Center, May 26 and 27.

That includes 8-11 a.m. and 3-6 p.m. on May 26, and 8-11 a.m. on May 27 at the Adams County Fairgrounds.

Testing will also occur 3-6 p.m. May 27 on the Clay County Fairgrounds.

Additional testing helps understand the prevalence of the virus in the South Heartland counties. It also helps keep people safe from the spread of the disease.

Social distancing continues to be a key component of the eased restrictions associated with Phase 2 of reopening, to go into effect on June 1.

“We’re going to be asking you all to keep the good trends going, so we can move through Phase 2 and into Phase 3,” Bever said. “We’ll keep on moving in this direction.”

Barber said Mary Lanning currently has one COVID-19-positive patient. The past week at Mary Lanning has seen one COVID-19 death and one patient successfully recovered and released.

Mary Lanning has treated several patients with convalescent plasma — administering plasma from someone who had recovered from COVID-19 as a treatment to another patient. Barber said the patient who was released on Thursday was among those who received the treatment.

A patient who died received the convalescent plasma treatment, as did a patient still on a ventilator.

“I guess that means it’s kind of a mixed result so far,” he said.

In addition to continued testing at the hospital, Barber said, Mary Lanning is going to start testing for antibodies.

Mary Lanning recently received a supply of Remdesivir from the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Barber said Mary Lanning has an adequate supply of personal protective equipment, treatments and testing.

“I think we have successfully flattened the curve,” he said. “We have watched the trend go in the right direction where there’s fewer and fewer patients admitted to the hospital.”

Ron Pughes, Adams County Emergency Management director, highlighted National Emergency Medical Services Week, which is May 17-23.

“EMS providers are there at the birth of life and at death,” he said.

He thanked EMS providers and encouraged the public to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“So when we speak of wearing masks in public, taking social distancing measures and protecting others from contracting this virus, we’re also taking care to protect the ones who protect us,” he said.

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