City Administrator Dave Ptak offered a red plastic fire helmet to Troy Vorderstrasse as he was sworn into his new role as assistant fire chief for Hastings Fire and Rescue on Thursday at Lincoln Park Fire Station.
“I’ve waited a long time for this,” Ptak said.
Ptak said the offering was reminiscent of a multi-directional hat Vorderstrasse had given Ptak when he became city administrator. The hat could display Ptak’s previous role of city attorney or be turned backward to reflect his new position as city administrator.
Hastings Fire and Rescue celebrated Vorderstrasse’s promotion with the formal ceremony during which the new assistant chief swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, Nebraska laws and city ordinances. City Clerk Kim Jacobitz administered the oath.
Vorderstrasse’s wife, Lori, pinned a new badge on his uniform — another tradition of the fire department.
Fire Chief Brad Starling said it is important to have firefighters sworn in publicly since it is an official oath they uphold — a statement of purpose and a promise to serve the community. Swearing an oath in public brings accountability to the fire department and ensures that the community’s trust in the department continues.
“Today’s ceremony is more than just a tradition,” he said.
Mayor Corey Stutte reflected on an interview Vorderstrasse had with city leaders seeking a new fire chief in 2018.
“He was asked what sets you apart,” Stutte said. “He said, ‘I know the employees. I know the crews, and I know the station.’ ”
He said Vorderstrasse brings great institutional knowledge of the department to the position.
Vorderstrasse began serving as a volunteer for the fire department in 1992 before being hired as a full-time firefighter in 1994. He was promoted to the position of lieutenant in 2003 and then fire prevention officer in 2017.
Stutte also thanked Vorderstrasse’s family members for their sacrifice.
“Thank you for sharing him,” Stutte said.
After the ceremony, Vorderstrasse thanked his family for their patience as he was called away from birthday parties or sporting events during his 28-year career.
“They’re the heroes in it because they miss out on a lot,” he said.
Vorderstrasse said he enjoys working for the city, but the real reason he’s stayed with the department for nearly three decades is the opportunity to help people.
As with many in his profession, he said, firefighting is in his blood. Even when they feel tired or sore, firefighters answer the call for service when needed.
Vorderstrasse will continue to answer calls in his new position, just as Chief Starling and other firefighters do.
“Most of the guys who do this, they’re not in it for the glory,” he said. “I hope the public understands, we’re here for them.”
Hastings’ Downtown Center Association is asking the public to join in a Food Fight in order to raise money to buy groceries for area residents in need.
Tammy Orthmann, director of the organization, said the idea originated a couple years ago when she was bringing donated food from a Christmas party to the Hastings Food Pantry. While interacting with the pantry, she realized the constant need for the hungry in Hastings.
She said the Downtown Center Association decided to pursue the food fight because the food pantry has been stretched thin as a result of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19.
“We wanted to do something to give back,” she said. “With the pandemic and being mid-winter, I’m sure the need is the greatest it has been. It could really impact a lot of people.”
Instead of asking for donations of canned goods or other foods, she said, organizers opted for cash donations in order to best serve the Hastings Food Pantry. Customers at participating businesses can donate their change toward the cause. Funds raised then can be used to target food areas where the pantry is short.
Another goal in asking for monetary donations is to leverage the buying power of larger grocery stores. Orthmann said Allen’s of Hastings and Russ’s Market will be in charge of purchasing the requested supplies for the food pantry. As grocers, they will be able to make purchases at a lower cost.
Splitting the downtown area at Second Street, organizers have created a friendly rivalry between the north and south sides of the area. Donations will be collected at participating businesses through Feb. 14, when the two sides will compare numbers and see who came out on top.
The north side businesses include Bath Bliss Gifts, Bockstadter and Glen Law, Imperial Jewelers, and Special Scoops. Russ’s will be making the food purchases for the north side.
The south side businesses include Allo Communications, Avani Day Spa, Calico Cottage, First Street Brewery, LC Gifts, Queen City Interiors, and Wynk Boutique. Allen’s will be buying food for the south side.
Overall, Orthmann said that given the level of participation in past events, she believes the downtown businesses and area customers will step up and help out needy people in the city.
“I’m very proud of the participation that we’ve had in our events,” she said.
For more information, visit www.hastingsdowntown.com or the Hastings Downtown Center Association’s Facebook page.
The South Heartland Health District’s COVID-19 risk dial reading for this week dropped again within the “elevated” zone as vaccinations of senior citizens continued.
The risk dial reading, which is updated once per week on Wednesdays, dropped to 2.2 from 2.4 for the previous week, the district health department said in a news release.
The new reading is toward the low end of the elevated zone, which is color-coded orange and includes readings of 2-3 on the dial.
The dial, which assesses danger associated with further local spread of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, is based on various metrics related to movement of the virus in local communities and related testing, tracing and treatment capacities.
The dial has four zones: Low risk (zero to 1), moderate (1-2), elevated (2-3) and severe (3-4). The South Heartland reading has bounced around within the orange zone for several recent weeks but now has dropped for a second consecutive week.
In Wednesday’s news release, Michele Bever, the district health department executive director, credited the current downward trend in daily tallies of new confirmed cases as a key factor in the risk reading’s decline.
“The main driver for this drop is the 14-day average of new daily cases, which decreased to 32 per 100,000 for the week ending Jan. 30,” Bever said.
As of Wednesday evening, the 14-day average had dropped to 30 new daily cases per 100,000, according to South Heartland’s COVID-19 dashboard posted online at www.southheartland.com.
That figure is extrapolated since the total population of the health district — Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties — is only around 45,000.
“Our high was a 14-day average of 118 cases per 100,000 on Nov. 20, and our goal is eight or fewer new daily cases per 100,000,” Bever said. “We are headed in the right direction.”
Bever said hospital capacity indicators were similar to Wednesday of last week.
According to South Heartland’s hospital capacity dashboard on Wednesday, 45% of intensive care beds in district hospitals were available for new patients. Nineteen percent of in-patients — seven in all — were COVID-19-positive, with one needing a ventilator.
The health district has three hospitals: Mary Lanning Healthcare in Hastings, Brodstone Memorial Hospital in Superior, and Webster County Community Hospital in Red Cloud.
In another news release Thursday night, Bever announced a total of 30 new COVID-19 cases being confirmed for Tuesday through Thursday — 15 in Adams County, six in Clay, eight in Nuckolls and one in Webster.
Meanwhile, injections continue in the health district under terms of the state of Nebraska’s vaccination plan. South Heartland is in its second week of vaccinations under Phase 1B of the plan, which covers the general population of senior citizens age 65 and up, plus other adults with underlying high-risk health conditions and designated categories of essential workers.
On Monday, Bever announced the health department had been told it would receive 800 first doses of the Moderna vaccine product this week — up by 200 doses from last week — and that about 340 second doses of Moderna vaccine would be administered in the district this week, as well.
The expected vaccine arrived Tuesday afternoon. By Thursday night, Bever said, 60% of it had gone into district residents’ arms.
Currently, two vaccine products have been approved for emergency use nationwide: the one produced by Pfizer and BioNTech and the one by Moderna. Supplies are limited, so a plan for orderly distribution is necessary.
South Heartland’s main focus at the moment is on vaccinating the senior citizens, with a reverse-age approach starting with the oldest.
“Ninety percent of this week’s vaccine allotment will be directed toward our elderly who are at highest risk,” Bever said. “We will again use a small percent of this week’s doses for essential workers such as law enforcement, fire department personnel, and utilities, as well as some health workers from Phase 1A.”
(Phase 1A, which began when the first Pfizer vaccines arrived in mid-December 2020, was for frontline health care workers and emergency medical services personnel, as well as for long-term care residents and employees. Vaccinations for the the long-term care group were coordinated by major pharmacies through a separate government program.)
South Heartland, which is headquartered in Hastings, is working with health care partners throughout the district to get the vaccines administered.
“Residents can register to get the vaccine on our website where we have a link to Nebraska’s vaccine registration system,” Bever said. “You will be notified when it is your turn to schedule an appointment. Watch the local news media, the health department website and the SHDHD Facebook page for updated information about the status and timeline of the vaccine distribution process.”
With the health department still relying on weekly allotments of vaccine and the large population of senior citizens in the South Heartland district, Phase 1B is expected to be a lengthy one.
“We are asking for patience with the vaccine,” Bever said. “Due to limited amounts of vaccine coming to us each week, it will take many months for everyone who wants the vaccine to get it. If you are in the current priority group of age 65+, it may still be many weeks before it is your turn.”
Although Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts recently relaxed directed health measures across the state due to current improvements in COVID-19 metrics, precautions remain critically important to preventing a resurgence in infections.
“All of these steps we are taking, all the tools we are using to block the spread of the coronavirus, are working to protect the health care system and to protect our most vulnerable,” Bever said. “We need to continue doing what’s working. We need to avoid the three Cs: avoid crowded places, avoid close contact, avoid confined spaces. We need to continue to wear masks that cover our noses and mouths, we need to stay home when we are sick, we need to disinfect frequently-touched surfaces and objects, we need to wash our hands, and we need to get the COVID vaccine when it is our turn.”
As of Thursday night, a total of more than 3,100 first doses of vaccine and more than 1,000 second doses had been administered in the district since mid-December. Those numbers don’t include the vaccinations delivered at long-term care facilities, which likely number in the hundreds.
As work continues to transform Hastings Public Schools’ Morton building into a preschool and district office, the district plans to hire an assistant director of special education to help plan with the transition and oversee services for the youngest students.
Kandance Garwood, HPS director of special education, gave a presentation about the new position at the Hastings Board of Education work session on Thursday.
The position would focus on the district’s students from birth to age 5. Garwood said all of Hastings’ peer districts have such a position, as do many nearby smaller districts.
Hastings Public Schools currently has three preschool classrooms at Alcott, three preschool classrooms at Hawthorne and two preschool classrooms at Lincoln.
Each classroom has a teacher and paraeducator.
Morning sessions are primarily for 3-year-olds. Afternoon sessions are primarily for 4-year-olds.
This school year, the district has 170 preschool students, although Garwood said that number is usually closer to 200.
In addition to preschool, the district also provides services for about 80 children in the birth to 3-year-old range and 14 children in the Sixpence program for teen parents.
Right now about 45% of preschool students receive special education services.
According to the rules and regulations the district follows when it comes to special education, the ratio of special education students has to stay under 50%.
“We want peer models for our students with disabilities,” Garwood said.
Other children are selected through an application process with priority given to at-risk students.
She said the percentage of peer models is higher at the beginning of the year, which allows the district to qualify more needs-based students as the year progresses.
Once preschool is moved into the Morton Building, the district no longer will have the support of principals of buildings with preschool classrooms. That includes Jason Cafferty, principal of Watson Elementary, which is the district’s Head Start building.
“We knew we were going to need a position like this for the 2022-2023 school year, once those students are in the Morton Building,” Garwood said. “However, as things have been going on this year and there are questions that we’re already getting asked and things we need to plan, I felt like it might be good to start this for next year.”
Having that extra year would allow the assistant director of special education to learn the district’s current preschool program, get to know staff, start training with a current principal and lead the transition to the Morton Building.
The assistant director of special education would support the staff serving Head Start students. That person could process new referrals as part of the evaluation process and offer staff support for life skill students, as well as coordinate the extended school year.
The assistant director of special education also would oversee the birth to 3-year-old program, Sixpence program and the district’s childcare partnership, as well as supervise nearly 30 staff members.
Funds for the position would be covered in part through special education reimbursement, and also from efficiencies gained through having all programs under one roof.
“And we’re hoping we will have more efficiencies once we’re all in one location,” Garwood said. “It’s kind of hard to picture what that is right now because we are in our different places.”
Pay for the position would be higher than that of a teacher but lower than elementary building principals or assistant principals due to the size of the building.
With 300 students it would be the smallest building and with 30 staff members it would be the smallest number of staff.
It would be a 215-day contract to allow for extended school year services.
Garwood said the ideal candidate would have an administrative degree, special education endorsement and hopefully experience in the 0-5 age range.
“Hopefully that person is out there,” she said.