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South Heartland urges COVID-19 diligence in Sutton

SUTTON — With community spread of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, in evidence here, the South Heartland District Health Department is asking all Sutton residents to self-monitor for symptoms associated with the viral infection.

South Heartland, which serves Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties, issued a news release Thursday morning urging the people of Sutton to be vigilant at this time, and specifically recommended that residents check their temperatures twice daily as well as watch for various other COVID-19-related symptoms. (These include cough, shortness of breath and several others that have been publicized.)

In an interview Thursday afternoon, Michele Bever, the health department executive director, said that when health officials have been asking people to self-monitor for symptoms throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been implicit that self-monitoring includes checking for fever twice each day.

While Thursday morning’s news release mentions the temperature checks explicitly, that doesn’t mean the situation in Sutton is any different from what would exist in any other town where community spread of the virus had been found, Bever said.

“Community spread” means health officials conducting contact investigations can’t trace a given case of the disease to another confirmed case.

That’s the way it is in Sutton at this time, so health department officials want to do what they can to raise public awareness of the situation and encourage all community members to consider themselves as potentially exposed to the virus, Bever said.

“It’s our obligation to let people know they could be exposed,” she said. “ ‘There’s potential exposures, and please monitor your symptoms.’ ”

To date, 23 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Clay County. South Heartland’s other three counties include Adams, with 260 cases to date; Webster, with five cases to date; and Nuckolls County, with one case to date.

(Three new cases in the district were announced on Thursday night. All three patients are Adams County residents — one woman in her 20s, one in her 60s, and one in her 80s.)

Of the district’s 289 total cases to date, at least 207 patients have recovered, South Heartland reports. Eleven — all Adams County residents — have died.

South Heartland had announced several days ago that community spread of COVID-19 was indicated in Clay County. But the entire South Heartland district spent several weeks recently under state-imposed directed health measures little or no different from those enacted for other locations in Nebraska where community spread has been recognized for some time.

Those directed health measures only began to be relaxed effective May 4, when in-person religious services were allowed to resume statewide. The restrictions for South Heartland and two of the adjacent districts, Two Rivers and Public Health Solutions, were further relaxed effective Monday, when restaurant dining rooms, barbershops and salons, and certain other establishments were allowed to reopen, albeit with many safety regulations and guidelines in place.

In Thursday’s news release, South Heartland encouraged Sutton and Clay County residents to stay home (“self-isolate”) if they or family members from the same household develop any symptoms consistent with COVID-19, and to contact their health care providers or the health department for testing.

Anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 is urged to continue self-isolating for the full time period prescribed, not just until he or she feels better.

“Many people have no symptoms of COVID-19, which makes it easy to spread the virus to others unintentionally,” South Heartland said. “This makes it important to practice social distancing and to wear masks when it is difficult to be socially distanced or you are with people outside of your household unit. This includes young people, too.”

South Heartland is encouraging residents of all communities to keep up their social distancing and to continue wearing masks anywhere it is difficult to be socially distanced, such as in stores or in other public and private enclosed spaces.

The health department also is encouraging businesses in all communities to require that employees wear masks and put measures in place to promote social distancing between customers and between customers and employees.

Employers across the health district are urged to encourage employees to stay home from work and self-isolate if they have any symptoms consistent with the novel coronavirus disease. More information and recommendations for social distancing, cleaning and disinfection, and other preventive measures for businesses are available on the health department website, southheartlandhealth.org.

In an email to Clay County residents on Thursday, Tim Lewis, the county emergency management director, amplified the information coming from South Heartland.

“Sadly, we have the confirmation of community spread of COVID-19 in Sutton,” Lewis wrote. “That means that people are getting the virus in Sutton and there has not been a common location or positive exposure patient that those new patients have come in contact with.

“We could have asymptomatic patients moving around our community and shedding the virus unknowingly. We know that up to 50% of patients show no symptoms. Some may have minor symptoms that they are not associating with COVID-19. We have a new list of symptoms that patients have been complaining of recently here in our four-county health district.”

Lewis said the practice of wearing a mask is unpleasant but necessary under the circumstances.

“We don’t enjoy wearing masks when we are in contact with members of the public. This is a key protection for our employees and their customers. Haley (Roemmich, the deputy emergency management director) and I do not enjoy wearing them, but we are doing it. We know we need to so that we are protecting others as well as ourselves.

“We know that people who pass away are often suffering from an underlying health issue, but they would still be alive if that issue had not been aggravated by their pre-existing condition. The data for people testing positive for COVID-19 are not our elderly in Clay County.”

According to South Heartland, 26% of individuals in the health district testing positive for the infection are in their 20s or below, whereas just 22% are age 60 and up. (Senior citizens and people with underlying health conditions are considered the most likely to become seriously ill with the viral infection.)

In the Central Health District, which includes Hall, Hamilton and Merrick counties, the tally of positive COVID-19 cases to date rose Thursday to 1,528. The district’s death toll related to the virus now stands at 50.

In the Two Rivers Public Health District, which includes seven counties to the west of the Hastings area, three new cases were confirmed on Thursday, bringing the districtwide tally to date to 994 cases. Tribland counties in the Two Rivers district include Kearney County, with 11 cases; Franklin County, with five cases; and Harlan County, with zero.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services shows Fillmore County with three cases to date and Thayer County with zero. Both those counties are in the Public Health Solutions Health District.

Statewide, Nebraska has confirmed 11,425 positive cases and 143 deaths to date, the state agency reports.

In neighboring Kansas, the statewide case tally stands at 8,539, with 178 fatalities, according to the state Department of Health and Environment.

Jewell County in Kansas, which is part of the Tribune’s coverage area, has recorded four cases to date. Neighboring Smith County has recorded two.

Graduates discussed missed opportunities

Instead of wearing a cap and gown for what would have been his graduation ceremony on May 10, Tate Schmidt watched a Facebook Live event celebrating his class on that day.

The St. Cecilia High School senior said it was just one part of the weird ending to his senior year.

“It will definitely be something we’ll never forget,” he said. “It was a really unfortunate conclusion to what was supposed to be one of the best years of our lives.”

Area schools canceled in-person classes in March in an effort to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19. Senior students this year missed several spring activities that mark the end of their high school careers, such as prom, musicals and spring sports.

Connor Creech, a senior at Hastings High School, said one of the things he missed was an audience for the state high school basketball tournament. It was his first time as a player, but he had been to the tournament in past years and was used to thousands of people lining the stands and cheering on their favorite teams.

But due to the pandemic, only immediate family members could attend the games. At the time, Creech said he simply focused on playing his best, but in hindsight, he realizes it was something he missed out on.

His baseball season also was canceled, but he is keeping his spirits up.

“I don’t want to be sad and dwell on it,” he said. “I just want to focus on the good things.”

Morgan Baker, an Adams Central senior, said all of the normal milestones were disrupted, such as her the last day of classes and final performances with the dance team. Her last performance with the dance team ended up being at a basketball game, but it didn’t feel significant at the time.

“The hardest thing has been missing out on all of those ‘lasts,’ because we didn’t realize they were the last,” she said.

While there are a lot of things the senior class has missed out on, Baker said, she has cherished the extra time with family before she goes off to college in the fall.

“I was able to have that time with them before I go off to college,” she said.

Baker said she and her classmates had an amazing support system in their parents, as well as teachers.

Teachers continued holding classes through video conferencing.

“I felt we were getting that class experience that we needed,” she said. “I think they’ve done a great job of making sure we had the skills to go on to college.”

Evan Johnson, an Adams Central graduate, said the regular class periods helped keep a sense of “school” while he and his classmates had to remain separated. It was a chance to discuss topics and interact with fellow students.

“It felt a lot more like a class period,” he said. “I think having the ability to see your classmates made the whole situation easier because you’re still able to interact with the friends you’re used to seeing.”

lbeahm / Laura Beahm/Tribune  

Portraits of area high school seniors are displayed in downtown Hastings in many windows including at the Stein Building, seen Thursday.

Not only did the students miss out on the celebration, but the community did, as well.

Jessica McAndrew, executive director of the Hastings Public Schools Foundation, said she discovered that when several senior parents and area businesses expressed interest in finding another way to honor the seniors.

“I didn’t realize what a community celebration it is,” she said of graduation time. “The whole community gets excited. It’s a big deal to people.”

Each of the three local Hastings high schools had posters printed with the names and faces of each graduating student.

McAndrew said they made two posters for each student. One will be displayed in a downtown business. Another will be given to students as part of their eventual graduation ceremony, whatever that looks like.

(Hastings High, Adams Central and St. Cecilia all have penciled in July 26 as the date for their delayed commencement ceremonies, whether they take place in person or in another way.)

Hauli Sabatka, executive director of advancement at Hastings Catholic Schools, described the poster project as a fun way to celebrate the graduating class despite the unusual circumstances.

“It was just a way to honor seniors and do something special,” she said. “It’s nice for our community to do that. It’s great to see all of our schools coming together.”

Jordyn Barbee, an Adams Central senior, appreciated the gesture of both the schools as well as the business owners willing to celebrate with them.

“I think it is very thoughtful and a great idea so our community can see everyone who graduated,” she said.

For Barbee, her scheduled graduation day held a surprise. Her family organized a parade of cars to drive by her house to celebrate the day.

“They tried to make the best of it,” she said. “It was very sweet for me to see because I was not expecting that at all.”

Community response fund for COVID-19 making grants

The United Way of South Central Nebraska has awarded 24 grants totaling $35,822 to area nonprofits from the COVID-19 Community Response Fund, organizers of the fund said in a news release Thursday.

Grants have been awarded to address needs ranging from food and housing insecurities to operational changes for nonprofit groups to comply with directed health measures and social distancing.

The fund was established in mid-March as community groups began to deal with disruption from the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, pandemic.

“The impact of COVID-19 on our nonprofit community seems to expand and evolve every day,” said Jodi Graves, executive director of United Way of South Central Nebraska. “Our Community Response Fund is designed to be responsive to those changing needs. The Response Fund committee meets weekly, sometimes more, to review requests and respond to needs as quickly as possible.”

To date, $112,700 has been raised for the COVID-19 Community Response Fund. The United Way of South Central Nebraska and the Hastings Community Foundation partnered to provide the initial funding. Additional dollars have been raised from charitable foundations and private donations.

“The impact of COVID-19 on our community is going to be long term, so we need this fund to be long term, too,” said Dan Peters, executive director of the Hastings Community Foundation. “The Response Fund committee is not only awarding dollars. Based on the grant requests, we’re also able to identify opportunities for organizations to work together to create efficiencies and maximize donor dollars.”

Examples of Community Response Grants that have been awarded include:

  • $1,000 to United Harvest to support the monthly food distribution program
  • $2,000 to Goodwill Industries to allow Developmental Disability Services to meet with clients remotely
  • $2,580 to Senior Action/Meals on Wheels for increased meal cost associated with COVID-19 restrictions
  • $500 to Harvard People’s Project to provide emergency aid to individuals

Nonprofit, 501 ©(3) organizations serving Adams, Clay, Nuckolls and Webster counties are eligible to make a grant request. Organizations don’t need to be United Way agencies.

Requests are awarded based on applicants’ ability to serve affected populations and limit the spread and impact of the virus. No grants will be awarded to individuals or families.

Additional gifts to the Community Response Fund can be made online at www.unitedwayscne.org/give or mailed to United Way of South Central Nebraska, 301 S. Burlington Ave., Hastings, NE 68901. The grant application is available at unitedwayscne.org/covid-19-resources or hastingscommunityfoundation.org/for-nonprofits-grants.

Nebraska to loosen more coronavirus restrictions in June

OMAHA — Nebraska will let bars, zoos, movie theaters and swimming pools reopen and allow small concerts and auctions to resume on June 1 in all but four hard-hit counties, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Thursday as the number of coronavirus deaths continued to rise.

Ricketts announced plans to further loosen social-distancing restrictions, saying he’s trying to strike a balance between public health and the need to move back toward normal life as people grow restless.

“We’re taking this a step at a time,” he said at a news conference.

He made the announcement as state officials reported six more coronavirus deaths and 276 new cases in Nebraska as of Wednesday night, bringing the statewide totals to 138 deaths and 11,122 confirmed cases. Nearly 75,900 people have been tested.

The number of new cases has trended downward, however, since the one-day peak of 677 on May 7. Ricketts has said he’s using Nebraska’s hospital capacity to judge when to ease restrictions, and those numbers have remained fairly stable. Even so, public health officials say people still need to practice social-distancing measures to keep the virus from spreading.

Businesses that do reopen will still face mandatory social distancing restrictions. For instance, the number of patrons allowed in bars will be limited to half of the venue’s rated capacity, and groups of customers will have to remain at least six people apart. Patrons won’t be allowed to play pool, darts or arcade games or eat at the bar.

Nebraska will also allow gatherings of up to 25 people or 25% of a venue’s rated occupancy, whichever is greater, as long as the total crowd doesn’t exceed 3,000 people.

The new requirement will replace the state’s current 10-person limit and will apply to both indoor and outdoor venues, including stadiums, fairgrounds, meeting halls, zoos, libraries and swimming pools. Individual groups will still be capped at six people and required to stay away from other groups.

Additionally, any event expected to draw more than 500 people will need prior approval from the county’s public health director. In Omaha’s Douglas County, the threshold is 1,000 people.

Ricketts will also ease rules for sports, allowing baseball, softball and volleyball teams to resume practices on June 1 and play games on June 18. Rodeos can begin on June 1, but contact sports such as football, basketball and wrestling will remain prohibited.

The changes won’t apply to Hall, Hamilton, Merrick or Dakota counties, some of the hardest-hit regions in Nebraska. Hall and Dakota counties have seen particularly large spikes driven by local meatpacking plants.

On Thursday, a coalition of Latino Americans called on Ricketts and local meat packers to do more to protect plant workers who now account for a large share of Nebraska’s coronavirus restrictions. Activists said conditions at the plants have generally improved, but they’re still hearing reports about inconsistent use of protective equipment at some facilities.

“Unfortunately, these efforts may be seen as too little, too late,” said Yolanda Nuncio, a former member of the Nebraska state Latino American Commission. “Some of these plants have not lowered production rates, so when workers go on standard breaks, their coworkers must maintain the same rate of production.”

Asked about the criticism on Thursday, Ricketts said he has talked by phone with plant workers and union leaders to discuss their concerns.

He also has said that local public health officials from the University of Nebraska Medical Center have gone out to plants to help them establish safety procedures to keep the virus from spreading.

For some infected people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe illness or death. But for most people, it causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks.