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First packet pickup 'full of emotions'

Hastings Public Schools elementary teachers and administrators were greeted Monday by families with smiles as well as tears during the first packet pick-up.

The pick-up allowed teachers to send homework for students after school was canceled until further notice to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes the illness known as COVID-19.

“I saw parents coming, and they were full of emotions,” Longfellow Principal Irina Erickson said. “They cried letting me know their kids are missing school and missing us. That was wonderful to hear because we feel the same way. It’s a very unusual situation for all of us, obviously, and for teachers not having kids at school it’s confusing. It’s upsetting. This is our profession. We love kids. We want to be with kids, and they’re not here. It’s just a very unusual situation.”

Each school handled pick-up differently.

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Watson Elementary kindergarten teacher Jade Bartunek waves to students Monday morning as they leave the school after picking up packets to work on at home.

At Longfellow, grade-specific packets were set on tables inside the gymnasium.

At Watson Elementary, families drove up to the school where they were met by teachers, rotating on an hourly basis, who retrieved packets and delivered them to their vehicles.

“It was good,” Principal Jason Cafferty said of seeing families drive up. “You miss the kids. You find out how much you really miss them when you get to see them in the car. I think almost every kid that came along with their parents sure seemed to miss school, missed being around their teachers. It’s kind of a little bit sad that you don’t get to see them because they are such a big part of your life.”

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Watson Elementary Principal Jason Cafferty talks to a family outside the school Monday during packet pick-up.

Cafferty said about 320 out of 330 packets were picked up Monday at Watson and more packets were picked up Tuesday. Any leftover packets were to be mailed home.

“We felt really good about how everybody came out and got their stuff,” he said.

At most there were four or five cars lined up at once, he said. Traffic was a trickle for most of the day.

“It was really pretty easily done,” he said.

At Lincoln Elementary, Principal Cara Kimball met parents at the school’s vestibule. Teachers then retrieved supplies and packets. She said it was nice to see families.

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Cars line up at Watson Elementary Monday to pick up packets of work and students’ belongings.

“I think that is why I had so many teacher volunteers to come help, because they were hoping to get a glance of their kiddos,” she said.

Principals hope students can continue the momentum of the school year even though classes no longer are meeting.

“Maybe build skills, but also not lose any skills because, of course, it would be a longer break, then, if we’re not able to come back this year,” she said.

Cafferty said the packet material is intended to provide enough work for one or two hours each day.

“We don’t want to overwhelm parents,” he said. “We know some parents are working all day. For them to come home and have to do hours and hours of homework and help their student is not what we’re shooting for.”

Beginning next week, the schools will start using old Hastings Tribune newspaper vending machines to make packets available.

“Parents, if they can’t get here Monday they can easily come pick one up on Tuesday because we’ll have them fully stocked the whole week,” Cafferty said.

The school encourages people to sanitize hands before and after using the vending machines, if they have that ability.

Custodians will wipe down the machines during the day.

The whole process of providing packets is intended to provide a sense of normality and consistency, Erickson said.

“That they feel like they are continuing to learn even though it is at home and it’s without their teacher,” she said. “We try to send home assignments that kids are used to, so they know how to do them, and are familiar for parents. So it’s not something new or overwhelming. We tried to keep it at a level that is easy to understand and is doable for kids. I also asked teachers to try and think of some creative things and fun and exciting assignments for kids. So when they sit down to work on something they don’t look at it as a worksheet that is mundane and something they have to check off their lists.”

Parks officials answer crowding with closures to fight virus

CHEYENNE, Wyoming — Three of America’s best-known national parks — Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Great Smoky Mountains — closed their gates Tuesday as parks struggle to keep popular recreation areas open while heeding warnings from officials urging them to prevent spreading the coronavirus at congested sites.

Social distancing wasn’t working at Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, where about 30,000 people lured by good weather, wildflowers and spring break visited each day last week, park officials said. The visitation that was higher than at the same time last year led to congestion at popular sites like Laurel Falls, Newfound Gap and Cades Cove prompted calls by local government leaders to close.

The decision to close Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, and neighboring Grand Teton came after pressure from state and local officials. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon were especially vocal about the need to close Yellowstone.

“The National Park Service listened to the concerns from our local partners and, based on current health guidance, temporarily closed the parks,” Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly and Grand Teton acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail said in a statement.

The parks join a growing list of national park sites from New York to California that have closed, including the Statue of Liberty and Alcatraz.

Rocky Mountain National Park closed indefinitely on Friday after a local mayor asked Bernhardt to do so to protect Estes Park, a gateway town where park visitors in pursuit of ice cream and souvenirs crowd the sidewalks during nice weather.

Yosemite, whose striking features like Half-Dome draws about 4 million visitors a year, closed indefinitely on Friday at the request of local health officials to all people except park employees, concessionaires and residents with homes inside the park’s boundaries.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt had promised last week that at parks still open, entrance fees would be temporarily waived to make it easier for people to get outdoors and “implement some social distancing.” He gave individual park superintendents the power to close or modify operations to adhere to health safety recommendations from the White House and Centers for Disease Control.

Other parks that remain open have closed shuttles, campgrounds, visitor centers and some trails to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Zion National Park in Utah announced Monday it is closing its campgrounds and part of a popular trail called Angel’s Landing that remained crowded with people over the weekend. The park tweeted on Sunday with a picture of the trail taken on Saturday and the caption, “Practice #SocialDistancing! CDC says to avoid groups larger than 10 and stay 6 feet apart. You can help slow the spread of COVID-19! We do not recommend hiking busy narrow trails (like Angels Landing).”

The top part of the hike that is being closed is bordered by steep drops and ascends some 1,500 feet (457 meters) above the southern Utah park’s red-rock cliffs, offering sweeping views. Park officials had previously closed shuttles used to take people through a narrow canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park stopped its popular river trips Tuesday, in line with the suspension of river trips at other national parks such as Big Bend and Canyonlands. Several thousand people apply for about 460 annual permits for the private trips down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon through a lottery system. Commercial trips also are suspended.

Will and Michele Beemer were scheduled to be on the last private river trip to launch in the Grand Canyon on Monday after flying to Arizona from the East Coast but chose to postpone.

“Basically our whole trip went from close friends to people we barely knew,” Will Beemer, 71, said Tuesday. “We probably would have been the ones potentially at greater danger than the 20-somethings on the trip.”

The only other time Yellowstone has closed to all visitors aside from seasonal shutdowns was when wildfires burned over one-third of the park in 1988, Yellowstone historian Tamsen Emerson Hert said Tuesday. Tourism even continued during World War I and World War II, though the park’s hotels closed, she said.

The Yellowstone closure came at a quiet time for the park. Winter season — when roads are groomed for snowmobiles, snow coaches and cross-country skiers — ended March 15. As a result, the shutdown doesn’t immediately affect three other Yellowstone gateway communities — Cody and Jackson, Wyoming, and West Yellowstone, Montana — where the park’s east, south and west entrances don’t normally open until late April or early May.

An annual program underway to reduce the Yellowstone region’s bison population by rounding up and sending some of the animals to slaughter and herd others back into the park would continue as planned, park officials said.

Trump hoping to see US economy reopened by Easter amid virus

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said he is hoping the United States will be reopened by Easter as he weighs how to relax nationwide social-distancing guidelines to put some workers back on the job during the coronavirus outbreak.

Trump's optimism contradicted the warnings of some public health officials who called for stricter — not looser — restrictions on public interactions. But federal officials suggested that advisories could be loosened in areas not experiencing widespread infection.

With lives and the economy hanging in the balance, Trump said Tuesday he was already looking toward easing the advisories that have sidelined workers, shuttered schools and led to a widespread economic slowdown.

“I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter," he said during a Fox News virtual town hall. Easter is just over two weeks away — Apr. 12.

“Wouldn't it be great to have all of the churches full?" Trump said in a subsequent interview. “You'll have packed churches all over our country.”

And as scientists warned the worst is yet to come — with hospital systems tested beyond their capacity and health workers sidelined by exposure — Trump addressed the nation, saying he was beginning "to see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Trump's comments came even as White House officials urged people who have left New York City amid the outbreak to self-quarantine for 14 days after their departure, owing to the widespread rate of infection in the metro area. It also follows on the president encouraging lawmakers on Capitol Hill to pass a roughly $2 trillion stimulus package — estimated at roughly $6 trillion once the Federal Reserve's actions are included — to ease the financial pain for Americans and hard-hit industries.

Health experts have made clear that unless Americans continue to dramatically limit social interaction — staying home from work and isolating themselves — the number of infections will overwhelm the health care system, as it has in parts of Italy, leading to many more deaths. While the worst outbreaks are concentrated in certain parts of the country, such as New York, experts warn that the highly infectious disease is certain to spread.

The U.S. is now more than a week into an unprecedented 15-day effort to encourage all Americans to drastically scale back their public activities. The guidelines, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are voluntary, but many state and local leaders have issued mandatory restrictions in line with, or even tighter than, those issued by the CDC.

On Monday, the U.S. saw its biggest jump yet in the death toll from the virus, with more than 650 American deaths now attributed to COVID-19. Trump's comments come after dire warnings by officials in hard-hit areas. New York. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said his state's hospital system will soon hit a breaking point — resulting in avoidable deaths — even with the restrictions already in place.

“I gave it two weeks," Trump said during the town hall from the Rose Garden. He argued that tens of thousands of Americans die each year from the seasonal flu and in automobile accidents and “we don't turn the country off.”

When the 15-day period ends next Monday, he said, “We'll assess at that time and we'll give it some more time if we need a little more time, but we need to open this country up." He added, “We have to go back to work, much sooner than people thought.”

Trump's Easter target was not immediately embraced by Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator for the White House task force, who indicated any move would have to be guided by data still being collected. She suggested that public health professionals could recommend a general easing, while pushing for local restrictions to remain in the hardest-hit areas.

Trump acknowledged that some want the guidance to continue, but claimed without providing evidence that keeping the guidance in place would lead to deaths from suicide and depression.

“This cure is worse than the problem,” Trump said.

During a press briefing Tuesday evening, Trump said public health officials and economists were “working to develop a sophisticated plan to open the economy as soon as the time is right — based on the best science, the best modeling and the best medical research there is anywhere on earth.”

Trump's enthusiasm for getting people back to work comes as he takes stock of the political toll the outbreak is taking. It sets up a potential conflict with medical professionals, including many within his government, who have called for more social restrictions to slow the spread of the virus, not fewer.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases and a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, did not appear at the virtual town hall, but Trump denied there were any tensions between the two men.

“I will be guided very much by Dr. Fauci and Deborah,” Trump said.

At the press briefing later, Fauci said, “No one is going to want to tone down anything when you see what is going on in a place like New York City." But he suggested he would be willing to examine the potential for easing the CDC advisories in areas that have been less affected by the outbreak.

Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser, told reporters Tuesday that “public health includes economic health."

“That’s the key point. And it’s not either-or. It’s not either-or, and that’s why we’re taking a fresh look at it,” he said.

During a private conference call with roughly 30 conservative leaders on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence reinforced Trump’s eagerness to lift coronavirus-related work and travel restrictions “in a matter of weeks, not months.”

When pressed on a specific timeline for lifting restrictions, Pence said there would be no formal decisions made until the current 15-day period of social distancing was complete, according to a conference call participant who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of the private discussion.

Pence told the group that accommodations would need to be made for the highest-risk populations if and when restrictions begin to be lifted.

Despite Trump's rosy talk, other elements of the government were digging in for the long haul. Top defense and military leaders on Tuesday warned department personnel that the virus problems could extend for eight to 10 weeks, or even into the summer.

Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a Defense Department town hall meeting that restrictions could go into late May or June, possibly even July. He said there are a variety of models from other countries, so the exact length of the virus and necessary restrictions are not yet clear.


Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Steve Peoples in New York contributed to this report.

MLH oncologist says some cancer patients at heightened risk from coronavirus

While most people understand that the novel coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, is of particular danger to the elderly, not everyone is aware that those being treated for cancer also are likely to be more susceptible to serious illness should they contract the virus.

Because cancer patients receiving chemotherapy treatment may have weakened immune systems as the result of the treatment, Dr. M. Sitki Copur, medical oncologist/hematologist at the Morrison Cancer Center on the Mary Lanning Healthcare campus, wants those patients being treated and those who come in contact with them to be especially cognizant of the added risk posed by the disease as a result of their treatment.

“We’re taking about patients who are already dealing with a life-threatening illness,” Copur said. “Anyone caring for cancer patients should be following (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines for proper hygiene and hand-washing techniques. If you are sick, do not visit with a cancer patient.”

Though there have been no direct links reported indicating cancer patients receiving chemotherapy are more likely to contract a serious case of the virus, Copur said the common-sense guidelines of proper hygiene and hand washing should be followed at all times, in much the same way they are for other contagious respiratory illness, including influenza.

Those concerned about the potential added risk of infection while receiving chemotherapy should contact their cancer care provider to discuss any potential treatment alternatives before making any changes to their cancer therapy.

“The key is to talk to your doctor,” he said. “In general, our approach has not changed too much. At the end of the day, coronavirus is not as deadly as cancer.

“We make our decisions case by case. There are certain types of cancers of the immune system, multiple myeloma, Hodgkins and non-Hodgkins leukemia, and chronic lymphocytic leukemia, that even if in remission, these patients are susceptible to a compromised situation. You need to be more careful with those patients.”

While patients receiving classic-type chemotherapy treatment are likely to be more compromised and susceptible to catching a virus as a result of lowered blood count from treatment, those receiving newer treatments such as adjuvant chemotherapy, immunotherapy or hormone therapy aren’t at any more risk because of treatment than anyone else, Copur said.

The CDC is recommending that some elective procedures, screenings and appointments be postponed at this time. But not all procedures are of equal importance. Some, in fact, can be critical to a cancer patient’s treatment regimen, said Sally Molnar, Morrison Cancer Center director.

For this reason, Molnar said, the center is taking all precautions possible to keep patients safe. Before considering canceling an appointment for treatment or follow-up, patients should speak with their provider, she said.

For those patients receiving bone marrow transplants, Copur said, expert studies from Washington are recommending postponement of procedures unless absolutely necessary so as to avoid possible exposure to the virus. Recommendations also suggest testing bone marrow donors for the novel coronavirus disease prior to their procedure.

“There are times when even follow-up appointments can be critical for patients,” Molnar said. “So please, before you cancel an appointment, talk with one of us so we can provide the best advice.”