OMAHA — Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts threatened Thursday to reimpose the same social-distancing restrictions that forced some businesses to close this spring if the record number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continues to rise, but he remained opposed to a statewide mask mandate.
Ricketts said he’s concerned that the sharp increase in cases over the last month will soon overwhelm the state’s hospitals, a chaotic situation that would almost certainly lead to more deaths.
“If we see hospitalizations continue to increase, we will be taking additional restrictive measures,” he said at a news conference via a video link, after he and Nebraska first lady Susanne Shore were exposed to the virus earlier this week.
Ricketts, a Republican, never issued a formal stay-at-home order as most other states did, but his “directed health measures” earlier this year had a similar effect.
Public gatherings were limited to 10 people. Salons, tattoo parlors and nearly all bars were forced to close. Schools, daycares, gyms and libraries had to cap the number of people in a room at one time. Restaurants were restricted to take-out or delivery service only, and all but the very smallest church services, weddings, funerals and sporting events were canceled.
“All of those options are on the table,” Ricketts said as he implored residents to follow the state’s voluntary guidelines, which encourage mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent hand-washing.
Ricketts said he’s still opposed to a statewide mask mandate, arguing previously that it breeds resentment among residents and may be difficult to enforce.
His dire warning came as Nebraska reported more than 2,000 new coronavirus cases for the second day in a row Wednesday and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 remains at record levels in the state.
The state said 2,209 new virus cases and one death were reported Wednesday to give the state 89,942 cases and 731 deaths. And the number of people hospitalized with the virus increased to set another new record at 885.
The surge in cases has significantly increased demand for testing. At sites run by the state’s main testing service, TestNebraska, the wait to get a test increased to 48 hours this week at most sites in Omaha and Lincoln. Officials with the state Department of Health and Human Services said testing capacity was increased in those cities recently to help meet the demand.
The state continues to have the sixth-highest rate of infection, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, and over the past week, one person in every 137 people in Nebraska was diagnosed with COVID-19.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Nebraska has more than doubled over the past two weeks, going from 852.43 new cases per day on Oct. 28 to 1,953.29 new cases per day on Wednesday.
For most people, the new virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Ricketts has spent the last several days underscoring the pandemic’s seriousness with stories from residents who were hospitalized with the virus. Steve Schrader, of Omaha, spent 37 days in the hospital and 19 days on a respirator after contracting the virus. His wife, Ann Schrader, called the experience “gut wrenching, to say the least.”
“It’s Russian roulette,” she said. “People who get it don’t know if they’ll have slight symptoms, no symptoms, or end up on a ventilator.”
Steve Schrader said he initially believed his symptoms were allergies, but his condition quickly worsened. He said he has mostly recovered but still worries about the virus’ impact on his health.
“We’re still learning what (the virus) does to us and what the long-term issues are,” he said.
Even though Ricketts has already reinstated some restrictions, Nebraska’s top public heath official urged residents to start acting as they did in the spring, when the state’s coronavirus caseload was more manageable.
“Please, we need to slow this down,” said Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska’s chief medical officer. “We have to do what we did back in the spring. We have to limit our gatherings, we have to wear masks, we have to wash our hands.”
Hastings Utilities customers have a new way to submit payments.
The new drive-up window at North Denver Station, 1228 N. Denver Ave., opened Thursday.
Contractor Farris Construction of Hastings started work April 13 on the business office remodel. The total estimated cost for the project was $675,562.
“We’re very encouraged that we have the opportunity and very appreciative of the council and the advisory board giving us the approval to spend the money to have this option available to customers,” Utility Manager Kevin Johnson said in an interview Thursday morning.
He said a lot of customers may just want to drop off their payment or have a quick comment or ask a quick question.
“To give them that opportunity to stay in their car, especially during bad weather, would be an ideal situation,” Johnson said. “The city hall is a great pilot for us, availability while this was being constructed. It got a lot of utilization. Hopefully that just continues here.”
With the HU business office closed due to construction, as well as the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, pandemic under way, a temporary drive-up window was available on the east side of the City Building, 220 N. Hastings Ave.
With the new drive-up window now available at the North Denver Station, customer service representatives no longer are available at the City Building drive-up window.
Johnson said the city may use that window for other functions.
Remodeling of the customer service area inside North Denver Station, which includes a public restroom as well as a cubicle to use if a private conversation is needed regarding billing or other utility functions, also is complete.
Customer service staff members are in the process of moving operations from the former board room, where those employees have been based while the interior construction occurred, back out to the permanent customer service area.
The HU business office will remain closed to foot traffic to reduce direct contact between customers and employees, but customers still can receive services through the new drive-up window or by calling 402-463-1371. Customers also can drop payments off at any drop box location across the city or pay online at https://www.cityofhastings.org/departments/utilities/pay-my-bill/.
Johnson said Hastings Utilities isn’t planning to get rid of the drop box on the circle drive around Fisher Fountain.
“That’s even more convenient for people just to drive up, throw an envelope in just like a postal mail box, and drive off,” he said.
Remodeling the customer service area provided greater separation between employees and customers.
For Johnson, who started with Hastings Utilities in October 2017, remodeling the HU customer service area was a priority to ensure the safety and security of utility staff members, as well as for customer comfort.
“So I’m excited to do our customer service a little different, while still providing that face-to-face opportunity, when we open back up, for those who need it and require it and expect it,” he said.
Johnson expects to also increase non-touch, non-face-to-face services for utility customers.
“There’s a lot of customers in today’s environment that would rather not talk to someone to figure out, ‘What’s my bill? When’s it due? Can I turn my service off or on with a few computer clicks?’ ” he said. “I think there’s more opportunity to expand those services while still providing to a certain segment and demographic of our customers who want to come in and make sure we get payment directly from them.”
The remodel also included new, heated sidewalks and an improved parking lot outside the customer entrance.
Johnson said customer access will be enhanced.
“Maybe not grandly enhanced, but it still will be somewhat enhanced,” he said.
Eleven months to the day after beginning a leave of absence to address medical and mental health ailments, the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln will resume his duties Friday.
The word that Pope Francis has authorized the Most Rev. James Conley to return to work was announced Thursday in a news release from the diocesan chancery, as well as in letters to the people of the diocese from Conley and from Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, who has been standing in for Conley as apostolic administrator of the Lincoln diocese.
Conley said it would be “with great joy” that he resumes his work in the diocese, which encompasses all of Nebraska south of the Platte River and involves more than 90,000 Catholics in more than 130 parishes — including all parishes in the Nebraska portion of Tribland.
“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we live in uncertain and unprecedented times, times when many have lost hope,” Conley said. “While it pained me to be away this long from my flock — the good people of the Diocese of Lincoln — I am eager to preach the message of Christian hope during these difficult times.”
Pope Francis granted Conley a medical leave of absence beginning Dec. 13, 2019, after Conley was medically diagnosed with depression and anxiety, along with chronic insomnia and debilitating tinnitus, a constant ringing of the ears.
Conley traveled to the Diocese of Phoenix in Arizona, where he lived and received treatment in the intervening months, all the while requesting privacy. In the spring, he wrote a letter to the people of the Lincoln diocese that was published in the diocesan newspaper, The Southern Nebraska Register, updating them on his progress and offering words of encouragement amid the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, pandemic.
“My doctors encouraged me to take the time to receive more concentrated medical and psychological treatment, and to get some much-needed rest,” Conley said in his Thursday letter to the diocese announcing his return.
“Before going on medical leave, I tried to overcome my depression and anxiety on my own. I’ve learned that this is simply not possible. Mental health problems are real health problems. And as with any illness, you cannot fix it yourself; you need the care of others.
“During the past 11 months, I have received wonderful care from my spiritual director, mental health professionals and medical doctors, along with the loving support and prayers of my family, my brother bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful. Through their help, I have been able to arrive at a positive path forward with more balance in my life, which, I pray, will allow me to serve the Diocese of Lincoln in a greater way.
“I cannot imagine trying to get through this dark time in my life without faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and the hope of sharing in his resurrection. It is hope that has sustained me.”
Conley, 65, was born in Kansas City, Missouri. He grew up in Colorado and in Kansas, where he graduated from high school in Shawnee Mission, a Kansas City suburb.
He then attended the University of Kansas, receiving a degree in English literature in 1977. He grew up in a Presbyterian family but converted to Catholicism in 1975, during his university days.
After stints doing construction work and farm work and traveling through Europe, Conley entered the seminary in 1980. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Wichita in 1985. His early years as a priest included advanced studies in Rome, pastoral work in parishes and on college campuses in Wichita and Rome, teaching college courses, and a 10-year stint as an official in the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican.
Conley was named an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Denver in 2008. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him Bishop of Lincoln to fill a vacancy created by the retirement of the Most Rev. Fabian Bruskewitz.
Conley will resume his work one week shy of the eighth anniversary of his installation as bishop in Lincoln. He returns to a diocese that has been vexed, especially over the last two to three years, by clergy personnel issues. Several priests of the diocese at this time remain on administrative leave related to cases of various sorts of misconduct or alleged misconduct or due to personal issues.
Lucas has led the Archdiocese of Omaha since 2009. In that role, he is also the “metropolitan archbishop” for the ecclesiastical Province of Nebraska, which includes the Omaha archdiocese and the suffragan dioceses of Lincoln and Grand Island. The three jurisdictions are autonomous of one another, but their leaders work together in many ways.
In his Thursday letter to the people of the Lincoln diocese, Lucas thanked them for their kindness over the 11 months of his temporary leadership, saying their prayers and support had meant a great deal to him. He encouraged prayers for Conley as he resumes active ministry.
“I am glad to have Bishop Conley back home,” Lucas wrote. “I look forward, along with Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt of Grand Island, to once again working with Bishop Conley on matters that affect the common good here in Nebraska.”
The South Heartland Health District recorded a combined total of 169 new cases of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, in residents Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
The case tally update was provided in a news release from the district health department Thursday night.
The additional cases pushed beyond the 2,000 mark the running tally of COVID-19 cases confirmed in the four-county health district since March 18. As of Thursday night, the case tally to date stood at 2,031.
To date, the district has recorded 1,380 cases in Adams County along with 299 in Clay, 194 in Nuckolls and 158 in Webster. New cases for Tuesday through Thursday include 130 in Adams County, 24 in Clay, nine in Nuckolls and six in Webster
While Adams County has by far the largest population of the four counties and by far the largest number of cases among residents to date, that number as a percentage of the county’s total population — 3.8% — actually is the smallest of the four.
In Nuckolls County, the total number of positive cases to date equals 4.36% of the population. The percentages are 4.35 in Clay and 4.27 in Webster.
As of Thursday, 24 health district residents had died of COVID-19, the disease that results from infection with the virus.
A total of 81 district residents had spent time in a hospital for treatment of the disease.
More than 725 COVID-19 cases in the district had been classified as recovered as of Oct. 16, the last time that particular number was updated.
The South Heartland district’s risk dial reading for this week stands at 3.0, on the line between the orange (elevated) and red (severe) risk zones. The district’s test positivity rate for Nov. 1-7 was 15.5%, indicating widespread community transmission of the virus.
In Thursday night’s news release, Michele Bever, South Heartland executive director, said the health department is struggling to keep up with the increased volume of new positive tests being reported daily.
“South Heartland has been partnering with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services to expand our disease investigation team,” she said. “However, even with these extra human resources, we are not always able to meet our goal of completing contact investigations within 24 hours of receiving the positive test results.”
Bever encouraged basic COVID-prevention practices for anyone who has symptoms.
“First, if you have symptoms, self-isolate right away and get tested for COVID-19,” she said. “While you are awaiting results, you should self-isolate to protect your friends, co-workers, and loved ones from getting sick, too. Self-isolating means avoiding all contact with other people and staying in a part of your house separate from everyone you live with.”
Bever said when people are tested for COVID-19, they almost always receive their test results before the health department does.
“If your test result is positive, you should continue isolating for 10 days after the day your symptoms first appeared,” she said. “Also, make sure that the people you live with self-quarantine. This reduces the chance they will spread the disease if they are infected, but not yet sick or symptomatic. Self-quarantine means staying home, monitoring for symptoms and staying at least 6 feet away from others.”
Bever has been promoting the state’s guidance to “avoid the three Cs” to thwart additional spread of the virus in the community.
The “three Cs” are crowded places, close contact, and confined spaces with poor ventilation.
The district also is promoting use of face coverings and social distancing.
“It is up to each of us to protect others and ourselves everywhere we go, in everything we do,” Bever said.
In other area COVID-19 news, Kearney County recorded 18 new cases, Franklin County 14 and Harlan eight for Monday through Wednesday, the Two Rivers Public Health District reported.
Two Rivers also includes Buffalo, Dawson, Gosper and Phelps counties.
For more South Heartland statistics, see www.southheartlandhealth.org. For more information from the Two Rivers district, see www.trphd.org.