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Council eyeing mask mandate for city
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When members of the Hastings City Council meet on Nov. 23, they will act on an ordinance requiring masks indoors when maintaining 6 feet of separation isn’t possible.

Council members discussed the proposed ordinance during their work session on Monday, emphasizing it isn’t a political matter.

The ordinance draft presented at the work session states everyone 5 and older will be required to wear a face covering their mouth and nose while indoors in premises open to the general public.

Among exemptions is anyone: seated at a bar or restaurant while eating or drinking; engaged in an occupation preventing the wearing of a face covering; obtaining a service or purchasing goods or services that requires the temporary removal of a face covering; removing a face covering to verify an identity; providing a speech to an audience as long as the audience is at least 6 feet away; or having medical conditions preventing the wearing of masks.

Individuals who are alone in an office, officiating at a religious service, exercising in an indoor facility where the level of exertion makes it difficult to wear a mask, or communicating with other individuals who have a disability making communication difficult also are among those exempted.

Mayor Corey Stutte discussed a sheet of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) statistics from the South Heartland District Health Department updated as of Monday. He said the “most disturbing” number was that 76% of hospital inpatients within the district are COVID-19 positive.

“I was a little bit shocked when we learned that number,” he said.

Throughout the pandemic local officials have asked the public to wear masks, social distance and practice good hygiene.

“It just hasn’t flattened the curve. We’re seeing some people who aren’t maybe complying on their own,” Stutte said.

He spoke with officials from the cities of Kearney and Grand Island, both of which are looking to also enact mask policies.

Stutte spoke with South Heartland Executive Director Michele Bever about what a mask policy may look like.

He said it’s important when looking at a directed health measure to have a regional plan.

He had a conference call earlier in the day Monday with mayors from the other Tri-Cities as well as health district officials.

“We decided we really should be consistent across the Tri-Cities, if possible,” Stutte said.

There are a lot of people commuting between the three communities.

The policy would go through the city’s Board of Health. Stutte said the city should receive an official recommendation on Tuesday.

“This isn’t just about the virus,” he said. “Really what we’re talking about is trying to make sure we keep the hospital capacity where it needs to be.”

He said it is important to keep first responders safe.

“What we’re focused on is making sure there is enough capacity here to serve the people that are sick, especially as we head into flu season,” he said.

The city doesn’t have plans to shut down businesses.

“We’re not shutting anything down, just to be clear,” Stutte said. “What we’re talking about is wearing masks, which is an extension of the current DHMs that require masks in other places already.”

City Administrator Dave Ptak said the city currently has 30 employees who either tested positive or were home quarantining.

“We’ve had more employees in quarantine or test positive last week than we did in the eight previous months,” he said. “So the uptick is real, and it’s getting close to home.”

Because this involves an infectious disease, the ordinance may take effect immediately after it is approved, according to Nebraska statute, instead of the typical 15 days after passing an ordinance.

The ordinance has a sunset date of 11:59 p.m. Feb. 23, 2021, which is 90 days after the council meeting. That duration is consistent with Grand Island and Kearney.

“It can be extended, or if things were to change it may be rescinded, certainly, before the 90 days,” Ptak said.

Councilman Scott Snell said enacting a mask policy isn’t about politics.

“I don’t want the general public to misconstrue this in any way as this being a political thing,” he said. “There are no politics involved. This is something we’re all in together. I know some people are going to read this in the newspaper and think this is some kind of political deal. It is not. It is a deal that will help us all get closer to a conclusion.”

Councilman Paul Hamelink said he expects pushback from the public.

“Not everybody will be happy about this,” he said. “Not everybody thinks there is a pandemic. On my block where I live there were signs a week ago about a ‘fake pandemic.’ Perhaps they needed to visit some of the fake patients in the hospital and see some of the fake graves in our cemetery. Nonetheless there are people who have issue with what is happening, so there will be pushback on this.”

Ptak said the city’s emphasis with the policy will be on education rather than enforcement.

“Our goal will be to not write tickets,” he said. “Our goal will be to educate and seek voluntary compliance.”

Hamelink said for many people in Hastings the mask policy won’t be a big change.

Walking through downtown to the City Building for Monday’s work session, Hamelink said he looked inside businesses.

“Almost 100% of the people were already wearing masks,” he said. “For a large portion of our community, this policy is already in effect. More and more people are already on board.”

Also during the work session, the council heard annual reports for Heartland Pet Connection, Hastings Public Library and Hastings Museum.

Chief is filling a need
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Chief Ethanol Fuels is filling a need at its plant east of Hastings to produce higher grades of ethanol for use as the active ingredient in hand sanitizer.

The company is able to provide a long-term supply of higher grades of ethanol into industrial alcohol markets. This includes specially denatured alcohol that passes Food Chemical Codex and U.S. Pharmaceutical purity testing.

“We were fortunate enough that our equipment could be adapted and we didn’t have to make a lot of capital investment,” said Patricia Beard, commodities director for Chief Ethanol Fuels.

Chief Ethanol Fuels began producing pharmaceutical-grade ethanol in September. Getting there was a five-month process, including two months from the time Chief Ethanol Fuels obtained its gas chromatograph machine, which made it possible to make quick process changes as Chief received immediate in-house lab results.

While both fuel-grade ethanol and pharmaceutical-grade ethanol require a denaturant to be added to make the final product unsuitable for human consumption, Chief Ethanol Fuels’ pharmaceutical-grade alcohol is denatured with a product that tastes very bitter. Fuel ethanol is denatured with a petroleum-based product.

The allowable levels of organic impurities are much lower in ethanol used to make hand sanitizer.

Chief Ethanol Fuels tests for about 20 different organic impurities.

Acetaldehyde and acetal were the two main impurities that had to be reduced for pharmaceutical-grade alcohol. This was mostly achieved through process changes but also by adding a carbon filtration system.

Customers also were very concerned about smell. The carbon filtration system not only helped capture some impurities but also improved the odor profile.

The final product should be colorless and nearly odorless.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a temporary guidance in March to allow alcohol fuel plants to provide ethanol for use in hand sanitizer.

Beard said methanol, a toxic alcohol, made its way from Mexico into the U.S. hand sanitizer market, which resulted in serious illness and even some deaths.

The FDA issued a massive recall effort and updated the guidance to state ethanol must meet either FCC or USP grade requirements. The FDA later issued another update to add additional testing requirements specifically to prevent methanol from getting into hand sanitizer.

Chief Ethanol Fuels first met the FCC grade requirements in July and produced its first certified tank of pharmaceutical-grade ethanol in September.

“It’s just process improvement,” Beard said. “It was amazing how the industry reacted so quickly and also to have the government come out. That’s kind of hard for them to come out with emergency action like that.”

The plant is capable of providing close to 10 million gallons per year of higher purity ethanol and has plans for increased production. Chief Ethanol Fuels’ total production is 70 million gallons per year.

The plant has two 250,000-gallon dedicated storage tanks to help meet customer needs immediately.

Diversifying production this way is big for Chief Ethanol Fuels, especially given the fuel market at the beginning of the pandemic.

There was a dramatic drop in demand for ethanol going into the fuel market with all the stay-at-home orders and gas demand being off, Beard said.

“We saw that across the state, a lot of plants were closing temporarily,” she said. “Literally it got to where it didn’t matter what the price was, you just physically couldn’t move it anywhere because storage tanks were full and there was no need. (Pharmaceutical-grade ethanol) allowed us to continue producing and keeping our employees employed. Now we’re looking at it as a long-term investment just to diversify our products that we offer.”

Beard said it’s a belief shared by many in the industry that the FDA ultimately will require all ethanol used for hand sanitizer to be pharmaceutical grade.

“So we are pleased to already be meeting that standard,” she said.

Chief Ethanol Fuels is working toward other certifications, which Beard said shows current and future customers the company’s commitment to quality and that Chief wants to be in the market long term.

“There’s definitely a sense of pride watching our company — because it’s taken a lot of people within our organization to get to the point where we can make that product,” she said. “There is a sense of pride where you feel like you’re part of helping people stay healthy.”

Four days add 201 new COVID-19 cases to health district tally
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Two hundred-one newly confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, recorded Friday through Monday pushed the South Heartland Health District’s case tally to date to 2,231 and Adams County’s running tally past the 1,500 mark.

New-case totals for the four-day period include 128 in Adams County, 39 in Clay County, 20 in Nuckolls County and 14 in Webster County.

Since the first case was reported on March 18, Adams County has seen a total of 1,507 cases of the viral infection among its residents. Running tallies to date for the other counties are 338 in Clay, 214 in Nuckolls and 172 in Webster.

The South Heartland district’s test positivity rate for Nov. 8-14 increased to 17.5% from 15.5% for the previous week, Nov. 1-7.

The test positivity rate is the percentage of the number of tests administered in a given week that come back with a positive result. Positivity rates above 15% are considered to indicate widespread community transmission of the virus, whereas rates below 5% correlate to low spread.

In a news release Monday night, Michele Bever, executive director of the South Heartland health department, said she is “very concerned” about the explosion of COVID-19 cases across the health district, which is taking a toll on individuals, businesses and institutions in local communities.

“Many sectors are experiencing workforce issues due to COVID-19,” Bever said. “The increase in patients needing hospital care is straining our hospitals and their healthcare workforce, regionally and across the state.

“The public health workforce is struggling, too. Neither our staff nor the state contact tracing teams are able to consistently provide timely follow-up due to the huge load of case investigations and contract tracings. And many of the first responder organizations, long-term care facilities, schools, and service organizations in our district are also experiencing staff shortages due to COVID illness and exposures.

“This is unacceptable. We need to take care of our local people in our local communities. We need to take action now to help keep our workforce healthy so that all of these organizations can stay open and provide care and services.”

In the neighboring Two Rivers Public Health District, tallies of new cases reported for Thursday through Sunday include 42 in Kearney County, 16 in Franklin County and 13 in Harlan County.

On Monday, the Two Rivers health department also announced five additional deaths in the district related to COVID-19. The victims all were from Buffalo County and included a man in his 70s, a woman in her 80s and three women in their 90s.

The Two Rivers district includes Kearney, Franklin, Harlan, Buffalo, Phelps, Dawson and Gosper counties.

The district’s risk dial reading has pushed farther into the red (severe, or “pandemic”) zone for this week.

For more statistical information for the South Heartland district, visit www.southheartlandhealth.org. Two Rivers information is posted at www.trphd.org.

Governors ratchet up restrictions ahead of Thanksgiving
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From California to Pennsylvania, governors and mayors across the U.S. are ratcheting up COVID-19 restrictions amid the record-shattering resurgence of the virus that is all but certain to get worse because of holiday travel and family gatherings over Thanksgiving.

Leaders are closing businesses or curtailing hours and other operations, and they are ordering or imploring people to stay home and keep their distance from others to help stem a rising tide of infections that threatens to overwhelm the health care system.

“I must again pull back the reins,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday as he restricted indoor gatherings to 10 people, down from 25. “It gives me no joy.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he is pulling the “emergency brake” on efforts to reopen the economy, saying the state is experiencing the fastest growth in cases yet, and if left unchecked, it will lead to “catastrophic outcomes.” The move closes many nonessential indoor businesses and requires the wearing of masks outside homes, with limited exceptions.

The tightening came as Moderna Inc. announced that its experimental coronavirus vaccine appears to be over 94% effective, based on early results. A week ago Pfizer disclosed similar findings with its own formula.

The news raised hopes that at least two vaccines against the scourge could win emergency authorization and become available in the U.S. before the end of 2020.

A record-breaking nearly 70,000 people were hospitalized with the coronavirus in the U.S. as of Sunday, 13,000 more than a week earlier, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Deaths in the U.S. are running at more than 1,100 per day on average, an increase of over 50% from early October.

The virus is blamed for more than 246,000 deaths and over 11 million confirmed infections in the the U.S.

Thanksgiving was on the minds of leaders nationwide as they enacted tougher restrictions amid fears that the holiday will lead to more infections.

“We don’t really want to see mamaw at Thanksgiving and bury her by Christmas,” said Dr. Mark Horne, president of the Mississippi State Medical Association. “It’s going to happen. You’re going to say ‘Hi’ at Thanksgiving, ‘It was so great to see you,’ and you’re going to either be visiting by FaceTime in the ICU or planning a small funeral before Christmas.”

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s stay-at-home order went into effect Monday. Only essential businesses, including grocery stores and pharmacies, will be open.

Washington’s Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee ordered gyms, bowling alleys, movie theaters, museums and zoos to shut down indoor operations. Stores must limit capacity to 25%.

People from different households will be barred in Washington from gathering indoors unless they have quarantined. There is no enforcement mechanism. Inslee said he hopes people obey anyway.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called on residents in the nation’s third-largest city to restrict social gatherings to 10 people starting Monday. In instructions that were advisory, not mandatory, she urged residents to stay home except for essential activities, like going to work or grocery shopping.

Philadelphia banned all indoor dining at restaurants and indoor gatherings of any size, public or private, of people from different households, starting this Friday.

In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer warned she has the authority to issue a second stay-at-home order to curb the spiking coronavirus if necessary and said it was “incredibly reckless” for President Donald Trump’s science adviser Scott Atlas to urge people to “rise up” against Michigan’s latest restrictions.

Over the weekend, Whitmer announced that Michigan high schools and colleges must halt in-person classes, restaurants must stop indoor dining and entertainment businesses must close for three weeks. Gathering sizes also will be tightened.

Fourteen men were charged earlier this fall in an alleged plot to kidnap the governor in anger over her COVID-19 restrictions.

Atlas later tweeted that he “NEVER” would endorse or incite violence.

Even North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, who has resisted a mask mandate for months, put one in place over the weekend, amid a severe outbreak in the state. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds took a similar action and enacted a limited version of a mask mandate Monday.

Still, several other GOP governors were taking incremental steps, or resisting even those — continuing to emphasize “personal responsibility” rather than government edicts. Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt announced bars and restaurants must space tables 6 feet apart and end in-person service at 11 p.m.

In hard-hit South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem continued her hands-off approach and resisted a mask mandate or other restrictions.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in recent days has been emphasizing that new treatments and vaccines are expected to become available soon.

Vice President Mike Pence sounded an upbeat tone Monday on a call with governors, saying that the government is ready to help states where hospitals are nearing capacity and emphasizing that vaccines are coming.

“America has never been more prepared to combat this virus,” he said.