Virus Outbreak Nebraska

Gov. Pete Ricketts speaks at a news conference about the coronavirus outbreak in Lincoln Thursday.

SUTTON — With community spread of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, in evidence here, the South Heartland District Health Department is asking all Sutton residents to self-monitor for symptoms associated with the viral infection.

South Heartland, which serves Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties, issued a news release Thursday morning urging the people of Sutton to be vigilant at this time, and specifically recommended that residents check their temperatures twice daily as well as watch for various other COVID-19-related symptoms. (These include cough, shortness of breath and several others that have been publicized.)

In an interview Thursday afternoon, Michele Bever, the health department executive director, said that when health officials have been asking people to self-monitor for symptoms throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been implicit that self-monitoring includes checking for fever twice each day.

While Thursday morning’s news release mentions the temperature checks explicitly, that doesn’t mean the situation in Sutton is any different from what would exist in any other town where community spread of the virus had been found, Bever said.

“Community spread” means health officials conducting contact investigations can’t trace a given case of the disease to another confirmed case.

That’s the way it is in Sutton at this time, so health department officials want to do what they can to raise public awareness of the situation and encourage all community members to consider themselves as potentially exposed to the virus, Bever said.

“It’s our obligation to let people know they could be exposed,” she said. “ ‘There’s potential exposures, and please monitor your symptoms.’ ”

To date, 23 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Clay County. South Heartland’s other three counties include Adams, with 260 cases to date; Webster, with five cases to date; and Nuckolls County, with one case to date.

(Three new cases in the district were announced on Thursday night. All three patients are Adams County residents — one woman in her 20s, one in her 60s, and one in her 80s.)

Of the district’s 289 total cases to date, at least 207 patients have recovered, South Heartland reports. Eleven — all Adams County residents — have died.

South Heartland had announced several days ago that community spread of COVID-19 was indicated in Clay County. But the entire South Heartland district spent several weeks recently under state-imposed directed health measures little or no different from those enacted for other locations in Nebraska where community spread has been recognized for some time.

Those directed health measures only began to be relaxed effective May 4, when in-person religious services were allowed to resume statewide. The restrictions for South Heartland and two of the adjacent districts, Two Rivers and Public Health Solutions, were further relaxed effective Monday, when restaurant dining rooms, barbershops and salons, and certain other establishments were allowed to reopen, albeit with many safety regulations and guidelines in place.

In Thursday’s news release, South Heartland encouraged Sutton and Clay County residents to stay home (“self-isolate”) if they or family members from the same household develop any symptoms consistent with COVID-19, and to contact their health care providers or the health department for testing.

Anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 is urged to continue self-isolating for the full time period prescribed, not just until he or she feels better.

“Many people have no symptoms of COVID-19, which makes it easy to spread the virus to others unintentionally,” South Heartland said. “This makes it important to practice social distancing and to wear masks when it is difficult to be socially distanced or you are with people outside of your household unit. This includes young people, too.”

South Heartland is encouraging residents of all communities to keep up their social distancing and to continue wearing masks anywhere it is difficult to be socially distanced, such as in stores or in other public and private enclosed spaces.

The health department also is encouraging businesses in all communities to require that employees wear masks and put measures in place to promote social distancing between customers and between customers and employees.

Employers across the health district are urged to encourage employees to stay home from work and self-isolate if they have any symptoms consistent with the novel coronavirus disease. More information and recommendations for social distancing, cleaning and disinfection, and other preventive measures for businesses are available on the health department website, southheartlandhealth.org.

In an email to Clay County residents on Thursday, Tim Lewis, the county emergency management director, amplified the information coming from South Heartland.

“Sadly, we have the confirmation of community spread of COVID-19 in Sutton,” Lewis wrote. “That means that people are getting the virus in Sutton and there has not been a common location or positive exposure patient that those new patients have come in contact with.

“We could have asymptomatic patients moving around our community and shedding the virus unknowingly. We know that up to 50% of patients show no symptoms. Some may have minor symptoms that they are not associating with COVID-19. We have a new list of symptoms that patients have been complaining of recently here in our four-county health district.”

Lewis said the practice of wearing a mask is unpleasant but necessary under the circumstances.

“We don’t enjoy wearing masks when we are in contact with members of the public. This is a key protection for our employees and their customers. Haley (Roemmich, the deputy emergency management director) and I do not enjoy wearing them, but we are doing it. We know we need to so that we are protecting others as well as ourselves.

“We know that people who pass away are often suffering from an underlying health issue, but they would still be alive if that issue had not been aggravated by their pre-existing condition. The data for people testing positive for COVID-19 are not our elderly in Clay County.”

According to South Heartland, 26% of individuals in the health district testing positive for the infection are in their 20s or below, whereas just 22% are age 60 and up. (Senior citizens and people with underlying health conditions are considered the most likely to become seriously ill with the viral infection.)

In the Central Health District, which includes Hall, Hamilton and Merrick counties, the tally of positive COVID-19 cases to date rose Thursday to 1,528. The district’s death toll related to the virus now stands at 50.

In the Two Rivers Public Health District, which includes seven counties to the west of the Hastings area, three new cases were confirmed on Thursday, bringing the districtwide tally to date to 994 cases. Tribland counties in the Two Rivers district include Kearney County, with 11 cases; Franklin County, with five cases; and Harlan County, with zero.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services shows Fillmore County with three cases to date and Thayer County with zero. Both those counties are in the Public Health Solutions Health District.

Statewide, Nebraska has confirmed 11,425 positive cases and 143 deaths to date, the state agency reports.

In neighboring Kansas, the statewide case tally stands at 8,539, with 178 fatalities, according to the state Department of Health and Environment.

Jewell County in Kansas, which is part of the Tribune’s coverage area, has recorded four cases to date. Neighboring Smith County has recorded two.

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