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Authorities provide details of county's first COVID-19 case

Adams County’s first positive case of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, is one of the adult sponsors who recently returned from a Hastings College student trip to Europe, authorities said during a news conference Thursday morning.

With the woman’s permission, Susan Meeske, executive vice president of enrollment and student engagement at Hastings College, identified Jessica Allen-Pickett as the first patient with a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 in Adams County and the South Heartland District Health Department service area, which includes Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties.

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Michele Bever, executive director of the South Heartland District Health Department, answers questions Thursday morning at the City Buildingl during a news conference regarding the first case of COVID-19 in Adams County. At left is Susan Meeske, executive vice president of enrollment and student engagement of Hastings College. A sponsor for a Hastings College trip to Europe tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Allen-Pickett, an assistant professor of teacher education at the college, chaperoned the journey of 106 students, instructors and chaperones to France, England, Ireland and Spain as part of the HC 2.0 new-look curriculum. During the two-week trip, the novel coronavirus disease continued to spread and was declared to be a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11.

Meeske said France and Spain were listed as level 3 travel advisory countries by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on March 12, the same day the HC group returned to the United States. The students and adults who had been in France and Spain were advised to comply with the CDC’s recommendation for 14 days of self-quarantine upon their return home.


Hastings mayor Corey Stutte speaks Thursday at the City Building during a press conference addressing the first case of COVID-19 in Adams County.

Most of the students returned to their permanent residences for spring break, though Meeske said 11 remain on campus, also in self-quarantine. Allen-Pickett went into self-quarantine at home, isolating herself even from her own family.

“She and her family took the recommendation seriously,” Meeske said.

Laura Beahm/Tribune  

Eric Barber, President & CEO of Mary Lanning Healthcare, speaks Thursday morning at city hall during a press conference addressing first case of COVID-19 in Adams County. At left are Michele Bever, Executive Director of the South Heartland District Health Department and mayor Corey Stutte.

Michele Bever, executive director of South Heartland District Health Department, said Allen-Pickett was one of five people who have been tested in the district’s four-county area. Three other tests were negative for the disease and results for the other one remain pending. She said the health department began tracking the students and staff involved in trip after their return, but only conduct tests as symptoms arise.

Bever said Allen-Pickett developed symptoms four days ago, including a mild cough, fever and muscle aches. The health department is taking steps to identify people who have been in close contact with the woman to monitor them for symptoms as well.

Meeske said the woman’s symptoms remain mild and she is in good spirits. She is continuing to self-isolate at home.

And Bever said that’s the way the health department plans to tackle the problem in the community. Preventing the virus from spreading needs to be the focus of the community and practicing social distancing will help. She explained the current guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend people stay 6 feet apart and limit groups in the same room to 10 people.

“We are encouraging everyone to do your part,” she said.

Though the death rate of the coronavirus is about 3%, Bever said, the main concern with the disease is for the elderly population. For example, the death rate for people 85 and older is 10-27%, causing health officials to be concerned with the safety of older adults and people with underlying health conditions.

While comparisons have been made to the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic in 2009, Bever said, familiarity with influenza helped prevent steps like social distancing to be necessary. As a form of influenza, H1Ni was more familiar to scientists, and a vaccine was able to developed more quickly.

“This is a coronavirus, so we really don’t know how this will play out,” she said.

The health department has been working with various agencies and businesses to make preparations for an increase in patients.

Eric Barber, president and CEO of Mary Lanning Healthcare, said the hospital has started limiting visitors to the hospital and is screening visitors as they enter. The hospital has postponed elective procedures and is stockpiling supplies that may be needed with an influx of patients with the disease.

Laura Beahm/Tribune  

Eric Barber, President & CEO of Mary Lanning Healthcare, speaks Thursday morning at city hall during a press conference addressing first case of COVID-19 in Adams County. Barber said Mary Lanning Healthcare is limiting visitors and elective procedures as they prepare for the novel coronavirus.

“We’re doing everything we can to be prepared,” he said.

Ron Pughes, director of Adams County Emergency Management, said he has been working with local firefighters and police to outfit emergency responders to be protected as they continue providing essential services to the community.

Laura Beahm/Tribune  

Adams County Emergency Manager Ron Pughes talks about Hastings’ first responders Thursday morning at city hall during a press conference addressing the first case of COVID-19 in Adams County.

“We must ensure their safety,” he said. “We thank them for their service.”

Mayor Corey Stutte said the city of Hastings has faced challenges in the past and will emerge victorious if the citizens heed the warnings of health officials and start taking the pandemic seriously. City services will remain open, though limiting access to city hall is part of the effort to stop the spread of the disease.

“Hastings is open for business, but it might just look different for a while,” he said.

For up-to-date information from the health department, visit southheartlandhealth.org. The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has opened a statewide coronavirus information line to help answer questions: 402-552-6645.

Unable to meet in person, local congregations finding ways to connect

In a week where the first case of the novel coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, was reported in Adams County, area churches have turned to social media to help maintain the bonds of community while preventing the potential spread of the disease at their places of worship.

Local congregations have turned to putting their services online, with many using their Facebook pages for live streaming their Sunday services. Though obviously not something any pastor would choose as a method of teaching valuable lessons to his or her congregants, the virus has afforded them the opportunity to draw lessons from the isolation and other challenges that they will face in their respective faith communities in the coming weeks.

The Very Rev. Katie Hargis, dean of St. Mark’s Episcopal Pro-Cathedral, was among the first clergy in town to offer online services last week. St. Mark’s also will be live-streaming the annual Sermons a la Carte Lenten series on the church’s Facebook page the next two Wednesday noons.

Each installment of the ecumenical series includes a brief worship service, including a scripture reading and prayers, and a sermon by a local religious leader.

“It’s really weird to preach to an empty church,” Hargis said Thursday. “One of the difficulties we face is that a lot of our churches, especially St. Mark’s, have an older congregation. Not all older folks are used to it. That’s one of the biggest complaints we’ve had: ‘I don’t know how to find the Facebook stream or link.’ “

The church’s response to this challenge is a prime example of how church leaders are looking for the silver lining in what has become a challenging and limiting environment for worship.

“St. Mark’s loves to do outreach to the community,” Hargis said. “This has turned into a really great moment for families and other folks to help older folks.

“It’s definitely changed things. Our message is reassurance and that we can get through this and will be OK. The church is not a building; it is the people out helping those around us.”

Hargis said St. Mark’s will continue to use such online sites as Zoom video conference platform to stay in touch with other area churches and its own congregation.

“Thankfully we have the structure,” she said. “I’ve sat in on a lot of meetings over the phone or internet.”

A shepherding program at St. Mark’s will help keep families connected during the crisis, she said. Members of the team will strive to connect with up to five families each to keep them up on the latest information pertaining to church activities and concerns of members.

Hargis said she especially is impressed by how area churches have banded together to share information and support one another. A Zoom online meeting Wednesday included 15 area pastors meeting to discuss strategies concerning the virus.

“We hope it wraps up as quickly as it began, but it’s really great to see all our churches working together,” she said. “It’s too bad it took a pandemic to make it happen.”

The Rev. Gregory Allen-Pickett, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, notified his congregation by email of the church’s intention to cancel in-person worship on Sunday and broadcast the service online on the church’s Facebook page and radio station KICS 1550 AM. The challenge facing Allen-Pickett and other church leaders going forward will be to find ways to make the impersonal format of preaching to an empty church vibrant, interesting and relevant to those watching on television or listening on the radio.

“It’s making us think creatively about what it means to be the church,” he said. “So much of our life together as a church is coming together as a community to praise God, make music and love. So how do we do that in a time of coronavirus when we can’t physically gather together?

“We’re blessed that we’ve had a broadcast ministry for many years. We’ve actually been streaming our worship services online for two years, so that was an easy transition for us. We’ve been thinking of creative ways to engage with people sitting at home.”

Involving the congregation through online messages sent in during services and a planned Palm Sunday service where parishioners can stay in their cars and commute to various locations together for prayer are ideas that Allen-Pickett hopes will keep congregants engaged and connected in a time of disconnect. A number of pastoral care and counseling teams will stay in contact with 20-30 families each during the crisis to keep parishioners in contact with one another to stay informed on their latest concerns and needs.

“Through it all, we’re giving them a purpose,” he said. “We want to be able to hopefully reduce social isolation through identifying additional needs that our congregation has that we can respond to.

“Something important in the coming days and weeks is for people who aren’t able to go into work to give them a purpose. If that purpose is prayer, if the purpose is caring for our community, that’s a good purpose for us to live into. We’re going to rise to the occasion.”

The Rev. Barry Kennard, lead pastor at Lakeside Community Church, said he expects social media to play an important role in keeping his congregation cared for in the coming weeks. Kennard will rely on sharing congregational care responsibilities with other church leaders, using such tools as telephone calls, emails and a Sunday service Facebook page broadcast to keep members engaged and connected to one another as a church community.

“It’s been an interesting adjustment, but it’s been one we’re taking right in stride, trying to be very positive with our interactions,” he said. “We want to be good neighbors and want to do what we can to help the community by listening to our national, state, and local leaders and following the recommendations that are being handed out.

“Our biggest challenge with what I’ve been presenting to people is that we don’t want to respond out of anxiety or fear but out of love and what we can do to help. Our congregation is very positive, understanding the role we play to help flatten the curve (of COVID-19 spread). We’ll just have to do church a little differently in the near future.”

Social networking programs on Zoom and Facetime — along with the distribution of weekly activity bags — will help keep the church’s children’s ministry active by offering activities for youngsters to partake in online.

Kennard’s goal is to keep church services and activities as normal as possible during the crisis. Sermons and activities will remain the same as much as possible, he said.

“It hasn’t altered the preaching message or the teaching form of scripture that we’re discussing,” Kennard said. “The method is going to change, but the message hasn’t changed at all.

“It’s anybody’s call as to how long this will last. Right now it’s just indefinitely. Honestly, we’re making plans for picking a date when we meet together again to celebrate Easter together. We may have Easter in July. We may not be worshipping together in person, but that doesn’t mean we’re not worshipping together.”

The Rev. Christopher Kubat, pastor of St. Cecilia Catholic Church, said the coronavirus threat poses a challenge he has never had to face in his lifetime with the canceling of public Masses. He said he will be working extra hard to meet the technological challenges of staying in contact with parishioners through the various online services available as a means of keeping tabs on their spiritual, psychological and physical needs during the uncertain times ahead.

“I guess this is something new for all of us at this time,” Kubat said. “It’s a lot different day to day. With modern technology, we have new and different ways to stay connected with the faithful that really was not available just a generation ago.”

Church doors will remain open for parishioners to visit the church during the crisis, he said. Times of confessions, which will put a 6-foot buffer between priest and parishioner, and livestreamed Sunday Mass times are available on the St. Cecilia home page. Counseling appointments still will be available by appointment as needed.

Despite the isolation caused by the virus threat, Kubat said, parishioners have remained positive during what is obviously a challenging time for all people of faith.

“People are very understanding,” he said. “They know how serious this is. This is a highly contagious virus that affects the elderly much more than younger people, and we need to take this seriously.”

It isn’t going to last forever, said Kubat, a medical doctor who gave up his practice to join the priesthood.

“As pastor, the first thing I need to is get up in the morning and get on my knees and pray. That has to carry me through the whole day. And the last thing I have to do before I go to bed is pray for my parishioners and the people of Hastings. This isn’t our first challenge, and it won’t be our last, but we’ll get through this with the grace of God.”

Hastings in strong financial position

The city of Hastings continues to be fiscally strong, putting the city in a good position for upcoming projects and buffered against potential fallout from COVID-19.

That was how Roger Nash, the city’s director of finance, described the situation after the city received its annual audit report from Grand Island accounting firm AMGL.

Kyle Overturf with AMGL spoke about the audit during the Hastings City Council work session on Monday.

The audit was for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2019.

Nash said the audit isn’t unlike a financial physical for the city.

“Bringing in that outside source is like going to the doctor and saying ‘Come in and make sure we’re doing everything correctly’ and also give the public an overall picture of where we’re at financially,” Nash said.

Hastings finished above the recommended amounts for revenue and below for expenses in nearly every category.

“We exceed quite a few of the benchmarks based on our peer group,” Nash said during an interview on Tuesday. “But the sales tax, Kyle said it pretty good (Monday) if you’re not on that I-80 corridor — we’re being compared to places like North Platte; they are going to have more sales tax. That’s just the way it is.”

Even in the sales tax category, however, at $264 Hastings may be below the recommended level of $325 per capita but the city still increased $13 per capita from the 2018 amount of $251 per capita.

“Our sales tax has been running pretty strong,” Nash said. “I’m not sure what these current developments are going to do to that. I think the state has said for several months receipts have exceeded what they’d expected too for sales tax.”

Hastings finished the last fiscal year with $1.615 million in outstanding general obligation debt and is on pace to be at $1.105 million at the end of this fiscal year on Sept. 30.

Hastings finished with a debt to valuation ratio of .3% — much less than the recommended excellent threshold of 3%.

“If you’re less than 3% that is excellent and we’re .3% of debt versus valuations,” Nash said. “That number is extremely low, which puts us in a good position because of some of the capital projects we do have coming up. There could be the potential to incur some more debt with two Highway 6 projects and things like that coming up. So we’re in a good position to maybe have some room to maybe take on some more debt and be able to manage that.”

With $17.49 million in cash on hand, Hastings has more than twice the recommended amount of $7.83 million.

US-6 and US-34 in Hastings would include reconstruction of about 1.42 miles of roadway on U.S. Highway 6 and pavement repairs on 1.04 miles of roadway on U.S. Highway 34/281 in Hastings.

This is separate from the NDOT’s 2.47-mile proposed Hastings Southeast Project that includes widening and repaving Highway 6 on the east side of Hastings. Hastings Southeast begins at the J Street curve and extends just east of Showboat Boulevard.

“It’s a significant number but that’s good because again with the construction projects that are in process, things that are coming up, there’s going to be a significant strain on those,” Nash said of cash reserves. “We’re in a position to be able to handle some of those things. Next year you might see that number look a little different with some of the things coming down but it allows us to do those too.”

He is pleased with the city’s current financial picture.

“The city’s in good shape financially and in a good position to be able to take on these projects are coming and weather this current storm. How much is that going to affect sales tax revenues and things like that? With all the businesses being forced to do some sort of shutdown there could be a decrease in some of those revenues. We’re in a strong position, and I think we cannot only weather this storm but also tackle all these large capital projects we have coming up.”

Local food programs trying to keep up with demand

With aisles in grocery stores becoming more bare and more and more people unable to go to work, preparing a meal is developing into more of a challenge for some in Hastings.

The novel coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, has caused the demand for even simple grocery items to increase and has changed the way we go about our daily activities, including something as basic as eating. But four local food programs are continuing to put forth their best effort to make sure as many people as possible aren’t struggling to be fed.

Catholic Social Services, Hastings Food Pantry, Salvation Army and Crossroads Mission Avenue all are trying to make sack lunches and other meals available for those who need them.

“The Food Pantry has been around for a number of years, and it started out as an emergency response to hunger in the community, and that’s still what we’re doing,” said Don Gronemeyer, president of the Food Pantry board of directors. “Things were rolling along pretty good until this virus came, and now we’re needing to make some adjustments.”

Gronemeyer said the organization’s first goal is to stay open as long as possible in order to assist the community.

The Food Pantry has made some changes in the way its clients receive the food. Those scheduled to receive a food order will now do so by appointment at a scheduled time. The food will be ready at a designated location near the Pantry’s office so the client can pick up the order without any face-to-face interaction — an attempt to adhere to social distancing recommendations.

Phil Rosno, director of Catholic Social Services in Hastings, said his organization also is working to reduce the amount of person-to-person contact as well as implementing other changes that hopefully will prevent any future complications.

“We are assessing the situation day by day,” he said. “We are having a lot more conversations with our staff and volunteers as far as steps to take to try to slow the spread of this and how best to serve our clientele with the fact that so much is going on. We’ve made some adjustments in the way we’re doing things — just more precautions, more preparation, and more forward thinking about how to best handle the changing landscape that we’re dealing with.”

Rosno added that the number of staff and volunteers available has decreased. Some workers are performing their duties from home, while others are taking time off from helping to tend to family members.

While the number of people putting together meals or attending to other programs the Catholic Social Services offer may not be what it was earlier in the year, Rosno said, the effort hasn’t changed.

“We’re working with what we have,” he said. “But we have other volunteers that are stepping up and doing everything they can to try and help us operate as much as we can, as normal as possible.”

Able bodies aren’t the only supply that’s dwindling. As consumers clear out shelves in the grocery stores, available products used by some of the local food programs are becoming fewer. While Gronemeyer hasn’t seen a dire shortage yet, Food Pantry officials are unsure if that will be the case in the near future.

“We were pretty well stocked, but we’ve been really busy the last several days. We’re running short on some items. I’ve ordered some things from grocery stores, but they’re unsure if they’ll be able to get all of them. We’re trying; we’ll just distribute what we have,” Gronemeyer said.

Rosno said his organization was stocked full in anticipation of helping families with children who normally depend on getting their meals from school. But schools are providing those kids with meals already, leaving Catholic Social Services supplied to help anyone needing it.

“Fortunately, we have a pretty good stock of sandwiches and sacks ready to go, so we’re not hurting in that department yet,” Rosno said. “We haven’t been flooded with requests; it’s stayed pretty level, so there hasn’t been a huge influx of people coming in for sacked lunches.”

Catholic Social Services’ sack lunch program is Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon and 1-5 p.m.

Both Rosno and Gronemeyer said their organizations still are accepting donations, as they try to stay prepared for any amount of increase in people needing their services. Anyone looking to receive food orders through the Food Pantry must be referred. Gronemeyer said if anyone goes to the Salvation Army, Catholic Social Services, or even other churches and agencies in town, those establishments can relay the necessary information to the Food Pantry and have that individual or family set up to receive food orders.

Gronemeyer said that the best donation at this time is cash or a check.

“That would be the easiest donation for us right now. That helps us provide things that can’t store on the shelf forever,” he said.

Another change Catholic Social Services is making is that it is closing its thrift store, starting Friday, and it will be closed until further notice. Rosno said they are still accepting donations for the thrift store, which can be dropped off at the trailer in the parking lot starting Monday.

Normally during this time, the organization would be collecting donations for its Lent food drive. Catholic Social Services still will accept food drive donations, but donors will have to go to the parishes and pick up a donation sack, fill it with food and return the sack.

Rosno said the best way to get started volunteering or donating is to call the office’s number at 402-463-2112.

“If people want to donate or make a cash donation or donate canned goods for our food drive, we will accept all of that. We foresee that we will be needing that because we’re just getting started,” Rosno said. “Things are probably going to get worse before they start getting better.”

Catholic Social Services (402-463-2112), 325 W. Second St.

Hastings Food Pantry (402-463-2911), 918 W. Fifth St.

Salvation Army (402-463-2930), 400 S. Burlington Ave.

Crossroads (402-462-6460), 702 W. 14th St.