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Officials: Don't let up on efforts to thwart COVID-19 spread

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.

A time to say 'thank you'

GENEVA — As we stop on Memorial Day to honor all the men and women who died serving in the U. S. military, we would like to say, “Thank you for guarding the freedom and peace in this great country of ours. You are not forgotten.”

There’s a special feeling in many hearts, as this year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War ll, which resulted in millions of military casualties, but with some of its veterans, and others who served on the home front, still alive today.

The Lincoln Star newspaper shown in the photo with this story takes one back to that war era — April 13, 1945. Discovering such an artifact by pure accident, as I did among my late parents’ belongings, can cause one to gasp, for the front page alone measures 17 ½ inches by 22 inches and the photos of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Vice President Harry S. Truman are each 5 ½ by 7 ½ inches — a dramatic size capable of grabbing one’s attention.

Reading on, one sadly learns the top news of that day: That the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his fourth term of presidency, has passed away in the midst of the seemingly endless war, and that Vice President Harry S. Truman is stepping up to his command.

The war would end 119 days later.

World War ll, fought from 1939-1945 and known as the deadliest war in history, resulted in six years of conflict, 66 countries involved with about 60 million casualties, and a $2 trillion price tag.

Due to unsolved problems of World War l, the rise of dictatorships and the desire of Germany, Italy and Japan to possess more territory, the war began on Sept. 1, 1939, with Germany’s invasion of Poland; thus, the European Theater (war zone) surfaced. Then, with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands on Dec. 7, 1941, Roosevelt declared war on Japan, opening the Pacific Theater.

Young people enlisted, women went to work in factories converted to war production, and air bases were built. It is said that people on the home front were as important as the men and women in combat, with many historians believing the tremendous war production was the major key to the Allied victory.

Seventy-five years ago this month of May: In the European Theater, German troops in Italy surrendered; Berlin surrendered to Russian troops; and on May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered to the Allies. In the Pacific Theater, U.S. Marines were battling on Iwo Jima and Okinawa islands. To follow would be the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki on Aug. 9, bringing the war officially to an end on Sept. 2, 1945 — three years, eight months and 22 days after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

Maurice W. Costello, 93, originally of Fairbury and now of Ohiowa, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942, received basic training at Whitefield, Texas, attained the rank of sergeant, was discharged in 1948, and then served in the Reserves from 1948-52.

Costello worked with medical supply in England and France and said those supply kits were “his piece of the war.” In England he was stationed with the Eighth and Ninth Air Force where they were in charge of supplying medical kits to the B-17 and B-24 bombers. Then in France he’d fly medical kits to troops and to the Free French, as the United States partnered with them in the war. After the European Theater surrender, Costello was sent to Germany to help transfer thousands and thousands of troops back to the U.S., some needing medical attention first.

Costello said he thought the war would last longer, for things were not going well in Japan and Germany, but was glad it was over. Everyone was so very happy that it was — even the Germans, for they had run out of everything.

“We had had enough, didn’t need any more and just wanted to go home,” Costello said.

Costello felt Roosevelt and Truman were good leaders for the war.

“They did the best they could considering what they had to deal with. Truman had served in World War I, so he had valuable experience.”

Costello said the worst part of the war, for him, was seeing all the wounded people he had indirect contact with — people transferred through the medical department, where they would patch people up.

Costello said the stress of the war really didn’t bother him.

“We all had a job and were really busy doing it, so we didn’t have time to think about stress,” Costello said. “The war was like a big picture. Everyone painted their own little piece to make it work.”

He was glad to get home where everything still looked the same and all fell into place for him.

“Everybody wanted to simply get back to the states, marry their girlfriend and go to school,” Costello said. “It was so great to see Mom and Dad (LeRoy W. Costello, a 1st lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who had been called to duty in Africa seven days after Pearl Harbor’s attack) and my three cousins who had also served. We all made it home alive, and it was quite the reunion.”

Costello is very grateful for all the women who pitched in on the home front and believe they were the reason the Allies won the war.

“They built airplanes, ships, tanks, trucks, ammunition, bombs, planted Victory Gardens for the food supply, ran their husbands’ businesses, farms, did everything else that was needed, and they prayed,” Costello said.

Costello summed up their success by saying, “We had the support of the women and the Lord. We all gave our maximum effort. No one sloughed off.”

As we celebrate this monumental year in the history of World War ll, we are grateful to all the veterans and everyone else who was able to convert all the darkness of those days into a shining victory.

Your story is truly inspirational, and we thank you, salute and applaud all of you who, magnificently, earned the title you did: “The Greatest Generation.”

And we will never forget you.

Dianne Girmus, a Tribune news correspondent, writes from her home in Geneva.

Memorial Day tempts Americans outdoors, raising virus fears

Millions of Americans are getting ready to emerge from coronavirus lockdowns and venture outdoors to celebrate Memorial Day weekend at beaches, cookouts and family outings, raising concern among public health officials that large gatherings could cause outbreaks to come roaring back.

Medical experts warn that the virus won’t take a holiday for the unofficial start of summer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people stay home, avoid crowds and connect with family and friends by phone or video chat.

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said Friday that people can enjoy the outdoors if they stay at least 6 feet apart. Birx suggested playing tennis with marked balls, one for each player to handle, or not touching flags on the golf course.

“That is your space, and that’s the space that you need to protect and ensure that you’re social distanced for others,” Birx said at a White House briefing. She also suggested disposable utensils for picnics and potlucks.

Birx said COVID-19 is declining nationwide, but many healthy-seeming people are unknowingly infected, making social distancing, face coverings and frequent hand-washing necessary.

The holiday, which honors fallen service members, arrives amid the bleakest economy in decades. Tens of millions have been laid off since the virus hit hard in March and forced shutdowns. Unemployment has reached its highest level since the Great Depression. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell warned Thursday that prospects for a recovery will remain unclear until the health crisis is resolved.

Many Memorial Day commemorations have been canceled or downsized, including concerts and fireworks shows. Parks, beaches, campgrounds and swimming pools remain closed in much of the country.

But plenty of popular spaces will be open — with limits.

Californians headed into the weekend with both excitement and anxiety after restrictions eased in many areas. The nation’s most populous state has started seeing a decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations after being the first to order a statewide shutdown.

David Spatafore, who owns Blue Bridge Hospitality restaurant group, was looking forward to Friday’s reopening of patio seating at the group’s pizzerias and dining rooms at its high-end steakhouse in Coronado, across the bay from San Diego.

“I think people are going to be so happy to be able to go back out and not eat out of a plastic container or cardboard box,” he said. “I know I am.”

In Virginia Beach, Virginia, the famed 40-block boardwalk and sandy shoreline reopened, but with spacing guidelines and groups limited to 10. Group sports such as volleyball are prohibited, along with tents and alcohol.

Mayor Bobby Dyer said about 150 “beach ambassadors” in red shirts will “diplomatically” ask people to follow rules.

Without clear federal guidance, state and local officials have been left to figure out how to celebrate the holiday safely. Social distancing and bans on mass gatherings remain in place throughout much of the country.

Keeping holidays safe is a challenge worldwide. On the same weekend as Memorial Day, the Muslim world will mark the fast-breaking festival Eid al-Fitr. On Monday, residents in the United Kingdom get a bank holiday.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University, warned that being on holiday can lead some people to drop their guard.

“They forget to wear masks,” Schaffner said. “They’re not so keen on 6-foot distancing.”

Jersey Shore beaches will be open but there will be no fireworks, Ferris wheel rides, roller coasters, go-karts or arcade games. Atlantic City’s casinos remain closed.

Some locals plan to sit this summer out.

“The unfortunate thing is that all the out-of-town people have been cooped up the same amount of time that the locals have been here,” said Christine Barthelme of Point Pleasant, New Jersey. “My family will do mostly what we do on every holiday weekend here: relax in our backyard, have a barbecue and light the fire pit.”

Beaches, hotels and restaurants remain largely shut down in South Florida. The Urban Beach Week festival, which annually draws tens of thousands to Miami Beach for hip-hop and reggae shows, was called off.

“We saw what happened in early March with spring break crowds,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said, recalling the raucous scenes of youngsters partying in close quarters.

But up the coast in Palm Beach County, officials were preparing for beachgoers.

“Lifeguards and other parks staff will be monitoring the beaches and reminding park users to practice social distancing,” said Chris Korbelak, public engagement manager for the county parks department.

Theme parks are closed at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, but both have reopened their entertainment and restaurant complexes, where guests can expect mandatory masks, hand-sanitizing stations and other measures.

For the hard-hit tourism and hospitality industry, there is modest hope Memorial Day will mark the start of something resembling recovery.

“This weekend is an early indicator as to how consumers feel about coming back and partaking in normal social behavior,” said Jason Guggenheim of Boston Consulting Group, which has surveyed consumers.

Data and consulting firm Tourism Economics projects travelers will spend $4.2 billion on Memorial Day weekend, compared with $12.3 billion last year.

Airlines, meanwhile, have largely written off hope of a quick rebound. Air travel in the U.S. remains down about 90% from a year ago, according to Transportation Security Administration figures.

Oklahoma resident Seth Rott this week boarded a plane for the first time since the pandemic to visit a friend in Washington for Memorial Day. Rott said he had little concern about social distancing or safety, given airlines’ anti-virus measures.

“I think it will probably be the easiest flight that I’ve ever had just because of a lack of traffic,” he said.

But for most who leave home, it will be by automobile and for relatively short excursions to places like Washington state’s Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

“We’re expecting a bottleneck at some of the popular trails,” spokesman Colton Whitworth said, “especially the lower-elevation ones closer to Seattle.”

At an outdoor beach restaurant in San Diego on Friday, a server wearing surgical gloves and a face covering rushed by with a piña colada in a pineapple-shaped cup. Another employee stood by with cleaning supplies in a gloved hand, ready to sanitize empty tables.

Customer George Cruz could only imagine what crowds may come over the weekend, when he, his wife and 6-year-old daughter will be staying home.

“That’s why we decided to come now,” he said. “There definitely will be a surplus of people at the beach.”

“I just hope everybody is smart about how they go out,” Cruz added.

Officials evaluate opening of Aquacourt

Officials with the Hastings Parks and Recreation Department are doing everything they can to open the city’s Aquacourt Water Park in a safe manner.

“That’s why we want to take our time to do our homework for this coming week to make an educated decision,” Parks and Rec Director Jeff Hassenstab said Friday morning.

Hassenstab said he and other Parks and Rec officials currently are weighing their options and expect to make a decision by the end of next week.

“After hearing the directed health measure changes (Thursday) we’re evaluating whether we can open up the Aquacourt at this time,” Hassenstab said. “Since we’ve been on hold we have a lot of logistics to figure out. We’re in the evaluation stage on whether we can open up the Aquacourt and what that looks like.”

He is encouraged by the Phase 2 guidelines outlined Thursday by Gov. Pete Ricketts to take effect June 1, which state gatherings will be loosened to 25 people or 25% capacity, whichever is greater, but no more than 3,000 people.

That means the Aquacourt — which has a capacity of 1,000 — could handle up to 250 patrons at any one time during Phase 2 of restrictions meant to thwart the spread of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

Staffing is the biggest issue for reopening the Aquacourt at this point, Hassenstab said. He said some of the water park’s typical employees already have chosen to get different jobs.

“At this point we’re trying to figure out if it’s going to be possible,” he said. “We want to do as much as we can to get back to normal and get the water park opened, but I don’t want to give you an answer and then say later on it’s not feasible.”

One option for dealing with a staffing shortage would be to not open all areas of the Aquacourt.

“The only way we would need less staff is if we don’t open certain sections of the pool,” Hassenstab said. “So, for example, if we only open the main pool that would require less staff. If we say we’re not going to open the lazy river and the wave pool at all in the summer, then that changes the staffing requirements.”

To keep all areas of the Aquacourt open requires 18 lifeguards on duty during all hours of operation.

“Those are things we need to figure out and just make sure we have adequate staffing,” Hassenstab said. “All options are on the table.”

Once a decision is made, opening the Aquacourt takes three weeks of preparation — to train staff and ensure the pool is in working order.

Opening playgrounds and other parks facilities will happen much more quickly, although Hassenstab said they will remain closed at least until May 31.

“I could see the splash pad and wading pools being open prior to the Aquacourt opening, or even if the Aquacourt doesn’t open,” he said. “They are much more manageable for us in terms of numbers. We’re still evaluating park restrooms, playgrounds and the skate park, as well. (Thursday) really changed the guidelines considerably. It helped us out to see that downward trend in cases.”

Heavy rains cause flooding, damage Adams County roads
aroh / Amy Roh/Tribune  

Floodwaters cover Crystal Lake Avenue north of Ayr Saturday.

Heavy rains across a wide swath of Adams County throughout the day Friday caused significant damage to roads and sent the Little Blue River out of its banks, Adams County Emergency Management reported.

Unofficial rainfall reports include nearly 8 inches of rain north of Bladen and 6 inches at Holstein.

No damage to structures was reported, although the Holstein fire department sandbagged a residence and a sewer riser, Emergency Manager Ron Pughes said in a news release.

As of 6:30 p.m., the Little Blue River was out of its banks at Pony Express Avenue and Crystal Lake and was continuing to rise.

aroh / Amy Roh/Tribune  

Floodwaters cover a field north of Bladen Saturday.

At around 4 p.m., nearly 25 campers were evacuated from the Crystal Lake campground north of Ayr, with heavy equipment needed to pull some of the rigs to safety. The Hastings Rural Fire Department assisted with the operation, Pughes said.

Dawn Miller, Adams County highway superintendent, said all county roads have been damaged from the Kearney County line on the west to U.S. Highway 281 on the east and from the Webster County line on the south to 12th Street on the north.

Numerous roads had water crossing them Friday evening, and severe surface damage has occurred in many areas.

Adams County roads crews worked throughout the evening placing barricades to warn of road closures. The county did not have enough barricades available to properly mark all the closures, and motorists should use caution on all roads south of 12th Street and watch the flags on the shoulders that indicate where water has crossed roads, causing surface damage and erosion.

Motorists should not drive around barricades, the county officials said.

aroh / Amy Roh/Tribune  

A field is flooded north of Ayr Saturday.

Water is expected to continue rising through Saturday, and more rain is possible. The Little Blue River is expected to crest overnight and continue flooding downstream toward Deweese.

Adams County Emergency Management had not evacuated any residents as of 8:30 p.m. Friday, and no structural damage to personal property had been reported.

aroh / Amy Roh/Tribune  

A post with a “no hunting” sign sticks out of a flooded field along Powerline Road north of Bladen Saturday.

Everyone is asked to remember that water moves swiftly in ditches, creeks and rivers, and no one should attempt to go into the water at this time, Pughes said. People also are urged to stay out of standing water, and motorists should not attempt to drive through water crossing a roadway.