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HC leaders: Health officials were consulted on travel decisions

Hastings College leaders say they consulted every step of the way with public health authorities before, during and after a recent international study experience that ended last week, including on how to bring the students, instructors and other sponsors home safely.

“The communication has just been extraordinary,” said Roger Doerr, chairman of the Hastings College Board of Trustees, especially citing the college’s ongoing dialogue with leaders of Mary Lanning Healthcare and the South Heartland District Health Department. “All the health professionals in the area have been with us 100% during this entire experience.”

In all, 106 Hastings College students and sponsors set out March 2 for international study experiences in France, Spain, the United Kingdom and Ireland. The groups returned to Nebraska on March 12.

Currently, most of those students are at home with their families for spring break, self-quarantining there and monitoring themselves for fevers or other symptoms that could be associated with the novel coronavirus disease, or COVID-19.

Eleven students who were unable to go home for the break are in quarantine in campus housing, with meals and amenities being provided by the college.

Those 11 students didn’t remain on campus because they were ill, but had planned to do so all along because of various work or athletic commitments or prohibitive travel distances to go home for the break, said Susan Meeske, vice president for admissions and student engagement at HC.

Sponsors, also, are in self-quarantine at home. One, an assistant professor of teacher education in her 40s, now is self-isolating at her Hastings area residence after becoming the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the four-county South Heartland District. The positive test was announced Wednesday evening.

The district health department said Friday it is completing a “contact investigation” in regard to the positive test, seeking to identify anyone who might have been exposed. Potential contacts include other members of the group with which the woman traveled. Close contacts are in self-quarantine, and those recommended for COVID-19 testing have been notified.

As of Friday afternoon, the health department was reporting that a total of 16 tests for COVID-19 had been administered to date in Adams, Clay, Webster and Nuckolls counties. Of those 16 tests, one had come back positive, five negative, and results for the other 10 remained pending. The Tribune doesn’t know how many of the tests administered so far may relate to Hastings College or the single positive result.

The students’ and sponsors’ 14-day self-quarantine period ends March 26. In the meantime, college officials are checking in daily with all the students and sponsors, wherever they are, and are unaware of any illness other than with the faculty member who did test positive for COVID-19. (The woman had traveled to Spain.)

In the wake of the students’ and sponsors’ return to Nebraska last week, and the subsequent news about the one positive COVID-19 test, some local residents have raised questions to the newspaper about the wisdom of the students having been taken overseas this month and the procedures followed at re-entry.

On Friday, Doerr; Meeske; Patti Kingsley, the college’s director of information technology; and Matt Fong, college associate vice president for external relations, sat for a group interview with the Tribune via telephone to discuss how the travel experience went and how decisions were made during a tumultuous time in the world.

“I do think there are a lot of misconceptions,” Meeske said.

Effective with this academic year, Hastings College has implemented a new academic program known as “2.0,” which includes a block scheduling regime.

Both the fall and the spring semester include a two-week block that is be used, among other things, for international study experiences for sophomores. The two-week block in the fall semester is in August, while the two-week block in the spring is in the late winter timeframe.

In the fall and spring semesters in the 2019-20 academic year, HC students have ventured to Peru, Ireland, Spain, France, the United Kingdom and Canada. Travel arrangements for the spring travel block had been settled for quite some time.

“This was planned months ago,” said Doerr, who as HC board chairman has assumed an administrative role following the March 2 departure of College President Travis Feezell. “We had it planned last summer, actually.”

Anticipating the upcoming travel in March, faculty members had traveled to the destination countries by January to make sure all the arrangements were suitable, safe and in place, he said.

Doerr, a Hastings resident and retired longtime HC business professor who also served a stint as president of the Hastings College Foundation, took the reins as board chairman on Feb. 18. About that same time, the coronavirus problem was becoming a greater and greater concern in locations outside of China that included Italy.

Doerr said college officials began having daily reviews of the upcoming travel situation Feb. 20 or 21 and conferred extensively with state and local officials.

The determination, he said, was that as the departure date approached, there was no real reason the students should not travel to the planned destinations.

The main point of reference, he said, was the Level 1 Travel Advisory from the U.S. government then in effect for the countries in question. Level 1 indicates taking normal precautions.

The travelers included 22 students and three faculty in France; 29 students and one faculty member in Ireland; 31 students and two faculty in Spain; and 18 students and two faculty in the United Kingdom. None of the students or faculty crossed from one country into another during their time abroad, Meeske said.

While the groups were abroad, a Level 2 Travel Advisory was put into place based on the public health threat. Then, on March 12 — the same day the students returned to the United States — both France and Spain were moved up to a Level 3 advisory, which means to avoid non-essential travel.

“At Level 3, the concern goes up significantly,” Doerr said.

(Ireland and the United Kingdom were added to the Level 3 designation on March 15.)

Because of world uncertainty over the coronavirus issue, Doerr said, college officials back home in Hastings were monitoring the situation abroad at all hours of the day and night, checking in constantly with the group leaders overseas and asking about any health problems group members were experiencing.

“They were being continually apprised of every bit of information,” Doerr said.

Students had been given a chance to back out of the travel experience without penalty, but in the end only one did so, the college leaders said, and they believe it was for a reason other than the coronavirus threat.

“We really tried to be mindful of any concerns they would have or their parents would have,” Doerr said.

The leaders said they are aware of only one student who became ill during the trip. That student visited a clinic, tested positive for influenza, self-isolated for a time and had fully recovered before returning home.

While the travelers in Spain did modify their itinerary because of virus concerns, Meeske said, those in the other countries did not. The students visiting France were in Lyon in the south of France, which wasn’t a “hot spot” for the illness.

With the novel coronavirus seemingly on the move in western Europe, the college leaders said, they discussed the possibility of bringing the traveling groups home early but would have been unable to do so without breaking up the groups and having students re-entering the United States on numerous flights and passing through various airports.

“Logistics were secondary,” Meeske said. “Our primary concern was the health and safety of our students.”

“Keeping the groups intact and knowing we had plane reservations that were intact was reassuring,” Doerr said.

In the end, all students made it home on schedule and on their originally planned flights. (One subgroup that had been scheduled to overstay the rest of the HC contingent did return at the same time as everyone else, so earlier than planned.)

On arrival back in Nebraska, all the students were given printed instructions for self-reporting their travel to the state of Nebraska, guidelines for monitoring their health and social distancing at home, and what to do in the event they became ill in the coming days. Self-quarantine was recommended for students coming from Level 3 countries.

Some students were picked up at the airport by their families, while the rest returned to Hastings on four charter buses. All the students who had been in one country traveled together on the same bus.

Back on campus, the students who planned to head home the following day were allowed to spend the night on the lower level of one residence hall, which had been prepared for their arrival. The next day, college staff helped the students gather their belongings for the trip home.

The rest of the student body had been dismissed for spring break a day early to prevent intermingling with students who had traveled abroad.

“I think it was for the health and safety of both populations of students,” Meeske said.

She complimented the college staff for the care and attention being paid to the students still on campus in quarantine, who are having meals and snacks delivered to them and have access to amenities like a gaming system.

“The team has done an excellent job making sure the students are as comfortable as possible in extenuating circumstances,” she said.

Doerr said the students still on campus seem to be doing well, and that in conversations with various students and families who traveled this month he is getting positive feedback.

“What I’m hearing is nothing but ‘thank you’ from parents,” he said. “ ‘Thank you for handling it so well. We appreciated the way you treated our kids.’ ”

Hastings College classes will resume online on Monday and continue that way for the balance of the semester.

Connecting in spite of social distancing

Born out of a desire to contribute to society and create a sense of community while still practicing social distancing amid the threat of the new coronavirus, Hastings-area people are finding creative ways to connect with each other.

Retired Hastings High School English teacher Carla Hedstrom is among people taking to social media to bring people together. She began reading “This Tender Land” by William Kent Krueger on Wednesday — one chapter each night beginning at 9 p.m. — through Facebook Live.

Megan Arrington-Williams with Prairie Interactive, a registered yoga teacher with more than 500 hours of experience, began live streaming yoga classes on Facebook Live from her living room on Tuesday.

“It was something I could offer to the collective that really felt needed,” she said. “It was a quick, knee-jerk, instinct reaction.”

Hedstrom said she was inspired by videos of self-quarantining Italians singing from their balconies

“I thought the way we live here doesn’t lend itself necessarily to doing things like that because we live further apart,” she said. “But I thought everybody I know is on Facebook while this is going on.

“I thought ‘What do I do?’ I read. I can read a good book that would entertain everybody.”

When she taught, Hedstrom read aloud to her high school students as a way to get them hooked into a book.

By Friday afternoon Hedstrom’s Wednesday night reading had about 440 views.

“I was really pleased,” she said Thursday. “What will be interesting is to see how many come back. I had a lot of positive, ‘Oh this is really nice.’ ”

After finishing chapter 2 on Thursday, Hedstrom wrote on Facebook she had listeners in Hawaii and Norway.

Hedstrom said former students who live continents apart have been able to connect while listening to her read.

“I thought, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool,’ ” she said. “I always said one of my talents is bringing people together. This is just another way to bring people together.”

“This Tender Land,” which has more than 60 chapters, appealed to Hedstrom for a public reading for a few reasons.

“I didn’t want to have anything too racy because you don’t know who is going to listen,” she said. “And I wanted something where at the end you were going to feel good. There are a lot of post-apocalyptic out there that I’ve read but really I don’t want to go there or books about suffering and loneliness and all that kind of stuff. This one has great characters that are very memorable. Very cool relationships are formed along the way. I always like books where people who aren’t family end up kind of creating family. This is what happens in this novel too.”

Arrington-Williams said there was an outstanding turnout with 45 students who stayed for the entire yoga class, including people from throughout the country.

She promotes the classes as “connection over isolation.”

She plans to offer classes when she has spare time as well as her scheduled classes. For instance, Arrington-Williams typically teaches a 5:30 p.m. Thursday yoga class at Enlightened Athlete in downtown Hastings. So she live streamed a class at that time from home.

She plans to live stream a class 1 p.m. on Sunday when she normally would teach yoga at the First Street Brewing Co., where she is the director of operations and marketing.

The yoga classes are streaming through Facebook Live, which notifies people in the Facebook group of planned classes. Some of the classes Arrington-Williams teaches are free; on others she asks for a small contribution through Venmo.

“Teaching yoga does take quite a bit of work,” she said. “There’s a lot of planning that goes into each class. It’s not something I just throw together.”

The classes give participants an opportunity to exercise.

“It’s a great opportunity to get the body moving and also focusing a lot on calming the nervous system,” she said. “That’s what a lot of my current classes will be offering, how to calm down in this time that feels extremely stressful for a lot of folks.”

Adams Central transitions to remote learning

The Adams Central School District is working to transition to remote learning for students in the wake of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

Superintendent Shawn Scott said the district is following the recommendations set out by the South Heartland District Health Department and canceled classes until further notice.

In order to keep students engaged in learning through the end of the school year, Scott said teachers at both the elementary and secondary levels have been working to create packets of learning materials for students or provide education opportunities that can be accessed online.

“We’re going to do our best to change everything over to some kind of remote learning,” he said. “For every challenge, there’s an opportunity in front of us. We owe it our kids to do the best we can.”

Starting on Thursday, parents were able to start picking up learning materials teachers had prepared. Scott said the goal is to teach students as much of the curriculum as they can without being able to host students in a classroom setting.

The high school students already use a lot of online resources for classes, so the transition hasn’t been as jarring. Elementary teachers had to think of new ways to reach students outside of the classroom. For some, it’s a matter of preparing learning materials that can be taken home. Some classes are having tablet computers checked out to students.

Scott said the elementary teachers have embraced the idea wholeheartedly.

“To see all the creative things teachers have come up with is amazing,” he said. “I really appreciate the extra time teachers are putting in for our students.”

While learning is going to look different, Scott said it has been an opportunity for teachers to consider alternative teaching methods. It’s also a chance for parents to be more involved in their child’s education.

He acknowledged that seniors may end up missing out on sporting events and other activities that normally occur during the last of the year. Without knowing how long the pandemic will hinder public gatherings, he said activities such as prom, musicals and graduation are still up in the air.

But despite the hardships on students and families, Scott said there are chances to use the experiences for good.

“No matter what comes out of this, I think we need to stay positive,” he said. “It all comes down to perspective.”

Health care practices adjust to COVID-19 protocols

Following recommendations announced by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services during the White House Task Force press briefing Wednesday, non-emergency health care providers across the United States are suspending all elective surgeries and non-essential medical, surgical and dental procedures during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease, or COVID-19.

CMS oversees multiple federal healthcare programs.

Accordingly, providers across Tribland are limiting their hours of operation and services provided in hopes of limiting the spread of the virus, which had infected a confirmed 33 Nebraskans as of Friday afternoon.

In Hastings, dentists, chiropractors and other non-primary care providers remained busy Friday treating patients on a priority basis, with only those requiring immediate services being seen.

At Hastings Family Dental, Dr. Charles Bauer has remained plenty busy providing root canal procedures and other emergency care, though not busy enough to avoid cutting regular office hours by half.

Bauer said area dentists are heeding guidelines handed down Monday by the Nebraska Dental Association to shut down for all but necessary procedures through at least April 1.

Bauer identified what is categorized as essential procedures during a recent telephone conversation with Dr. Dennis Anderson, president of the Nebraska Board of Dentistry. The list includes: facial swelling or pain, trauma to the face, broken teeth, abscesses, dislodged filling or crowns, and ill-fitting denture sores.

Bauer said he and fellow dentists across Hastings are implementing procedures to limit patient exposure to the virus. Examples include restricting office usage to a few rooms and vigorously disinfecting them between patients; requiring patients to sanitize their hands before coming into the office; and placing restrictions on waiting room protocol, such as not having patients arrive early and not allowing guests to be with them.

Just how long the virus will continue to impact Bauer’s and other practices across Hastings is unclear, he said. The situation is unlike any he has encountered before.

“I’ve been working for 42 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this in my career,” he said. “It’s pretty much unprecedented. But we will get through it.

“When you’re used to going 60 miles an hour and then have to put on the brakes and do 10, that’s kind of how it feels. But that’s what needs to be done. Everybody is in the same boat, and we all have to look out for each other.

“Obviously, all the dentists in town are using standard protocol for infection control. We have been in contact with each other and have closed our offices except for those emergencies. We need to get through these two weeks and it will be re-evaluated. It may go longer.”

Bauer encouraged area residents to follow CMS recommended safety procedures and to remain level-headed during the crisis. To date, he said, patients have been gracious during the transition process when notified of cancellations of their appointments.

“Typically when we call they say, ‘We were kind of expecting this,’ “ he said. “Personally, I’m not anxious about it. We all need to keep our heads about this thing here.”

At Hastings Vision Clinic, routine eye care was suspended beginning Thursday, following recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and guidelines put forth by national and state optometry associations.

Dr. Richard Arneson, optometrist with Hastings Vision Clinic, said the front door is locked, but staff members still are working and patients can pick up glasses or contacts and needed. Staff will meet patients at the door

“We do a lot of the adjustments ahead of time, so they don’t necessarily need to come in,” he said. “We’re trying to minimize staff exposure.”

The clinic is mailing eye care products to patients as possible.

“If they have something we need to see, more of an emergency-type thing, we can see them,” Arneson said.

Arneson and his son, Eric, who also practices at Hastings Vision Clinic, have been talking to other optometrists elsewhere in the country to see how they are handling the current situation. Hastings Vision Clinic doctors also are talking to other local eye clinics and to other types of physicians, as well.

Arneson said during normal operations the lobby of his clinic can become congested.

Hastings Vision Clinic staff members have been even more diligent than normal cleaning surfaces.

“There’s part of our exam where we’re fairly close to a patient and just with contacts there’s that fluid if you’re touching around their eye with a contact,” he said. “We just want to be careful that if something did happen that we were vigilant in trying to not spread it.”

At the Murray Natural Health & Chiropractic clinic, Christopher Murray and his staff have remained busy providing services he said will help keep emergency rooms less taxed during the crisis. The clinic offers patients a less crowded location to seek various kinds of health care treatment and testing, enabling emergency providers to see more patients who may be in need of services while limiting potential patient exposure to the virus.

“What are non-essential health care services?” Murray said. “I would argue that some of the services that chiropractors offer are elective, but some are essential. I would say that taking care of somebody’s overall health is definitely important.”

The impact of the COVID-19 virus hit home last week with Murray and some 500 other chiropractors from across Nebraska when their state conference in Omaha was canceled partway through on March 13. Several attendees now will need to make up the conference to meet their continuing education requirements.

“A week ago, we were still holding it (conference) with a little trepidation, sitting around with about 500 chiropractors and saying, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t be here, ‘” Murray said. “Our board said we needed to close down, so at 3 p.m. Friday we closed down the conference. It was supposed to go through Sunday.”

Although he agrees with recommendations made by the CDC pertaining to the virus, Murray said that list omits some important steps that could be taken to help limit the spread of the disease. He is sharing those steps with patients who continue to seek treatment, both through social media, phone or in person.

“I did four phone consultations today for more than three hours,” he said Friday. “That reduces the risk of exposure for people coming to our office. We’ve also asked patients to stay in their cars and call us to let us know they are here. We call them when we’re ready. That’s worked out fine so far.

“We want to talk about prevention. How about making sure people are getting plenty of sleep and exercise? And practicing proper nutrition habits (by) staying away from excessive alcohol and fine sugars and stimulants?

“We’ve had a huge spike of people wanting nutrition supplements, like vitamin D or iron. Nobody is really talking about these things, but these are things you can do that will give patients a real feeling of control over what’s going on.”