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Trumbull native featured on 'Today Show'

Betsy Thomas had no idea the impact she is making with her daily storytelling videos until she walked out of her house late last week to find her yard in Lincoln littered with her students from Kooser Elementary and their parents.

Her block was lined with cars, her grass full of smiling faces, and her eyes welled with tears.

A second-year librarian at the school, Thomas says she is just performing her job, reading to an online audience during the pandemic brought on by the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, as part of Lincoln Public Schools’ request of its librarians to post daily learning challenges on a webpage.

But for the last six weeks Thomas has been contributing in a unique way, using her “costume closet,” which is really a guest room in her basement, as a means for adding an even more vivid visual element to the experience.

Her effort has earned her national recognition, which was showcased with a six-minute segment on Tuesday’s episode of the “Today Show” on NBC, as part of its showcase of educators during Teacher Appreciation Week.

Thomas reads a story to a webcam each weekday, but it’s much more entertaining than that.

With each day comes a theme given by LPS. Based on that, she chooses a book, related costume and virtual background to display on her basement green screen.

It started in late March as a pirate.

“It just kind of snowballed after that,” Thomas said with a laugh.

Then on the first of April, Thomas’ clip began with a screen that read “Sorry, no video today,” before she quickly popped up to say, “April fools, guys! Did Mrs. Thomas trick you?”

Others include one representative of a scene from “Jurassic Park” where she sports a Tyrannosaurus rex costume on one half of the screen and the outfit of a paleontologist on the other. She’s also been a pencil, a ninja, a bumble bee, and Pooh Bear from “Winnie the Pooh,” just to name a few.

A few times, Thomas has even ventured out of her home to use a separate environment. A friend’s farm brought viewers live chickens and piglets to go along with story time. Her husband’s family farm provided the opportunity for her to operate a tractor. She also drove around a forklift in one video.

Sounds like a lot of preparation, right?

“It was tricky because initially I wouldn’t find out until 9 or 10 (p.m.) what the next day’s theme was,” Thomas said. “So I’d scramble to find a book and every night I’d be stressed wondering what it was going to be. But eventually I talked (the district) into picking themes a little further in advance so I have a little bit more time to plan and think and prepare. It’s helped a lot.”

Planning a few days ahead has aided Thomas in the process. So has her upbringing and background.

A native of Trumbull where her family farms, Thomas, formerly Betsy Rouse, graduated from Giltner High School before earning her bachelor’s degree at Hastings College and acquiring her master’s from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“I’m really proud to be from that area,” she said of Tribland. “I loved where I grew up. Some people think that small schools can’t give kids all of the opportunities that some of the big schools can, but I just think I had the best experience. I got to do a little bit of everything.”

Thomas, who worked in Elkhorn and Council Bluffs before Lincoln, owes some of her video production ability to Hastings College, where she took multiple courses in the field.

“The producer of the ‘Today Show’ told me ‘You know, you’re kind of good at making these videos,’ “ Thomas said with a laugh.

“I got a really well-rounded education.”

A week ago, Thomas was contacted by Kooser’s principal, Ann Jablonski, about the “Today Show” wanting to produce a story on her. It led to an introductory interview last Thursday with a producer before a shorter one with host Hoda Kotb Friday morning, that was used for the show’s package.

“I talked to (Hoda) for about five minutes and toward the end of the interview, Hoda asked me to go outside and I walked out my front door and I’d say at least 40-ish people were on my front yard — all students and their families, dressed in costumes that I’d read so far since this has all happened. It just really blew me away.”

Spirit Halloween, a seasonal pop-up costume store, donated Thomas an extra 40 outfits and a $1,000 gift card through the "Today Show," Hotb announced.

Thomas’ story had fellow host of the show, Craig Melvin, choked up and in tears speaking from his own experience parenting young kids during this time.

“As someone who gets to see his kids’ teachers on Zoom,” he said on the program, “this story is so moving this morning because the kids miss their teachers so much right now and teachers miss their kids just as much. And for those of us who have, like, small kids and you’re seeing this every day, it’s just hard, man. It’s hard. So little things like that — just thanks to all the teachers out there that are going the extra mile.”

Watching the segment back in full Tuesday morning, Thomas was in awe. She admittedly didn’t remember much.

“I was really excited because I didn’t remember all of what I said or what I did. I know I cried at one point and I don’t know if I heard everything that was being said after that,” Thomas said. “It was really fun to see it played back for me. I didn’t know, obviously, that the kids and their families would be outside so it was really neat to see all the things behind the scenes with that.

“And to see all the things the families did to prepare for that, it was so cute and I loved hearing my kids talk and they did such a good job. I felt like they kind of stole the show because they were just awesome. It just made me miss them, too.”

Thomas is humbled by the attention for something she considers her role in her career in education.

“It was really touching. I grew up in a family where you just do your job and you pitch in when you can and how you can,” Thomas said. “I guess I didn’t think what I was doing and how I was doing it was really worthy of the attention I’m getting from it.

“It makes me think about the impact that teachers do have and I think at times we can forget that. It’s a special relationship we have with our kids ... I feel very honored.”

11 attorneys general seek probe into meatpacking industry

BELLE PLAINE, Kan. — The attorneys general for 11 Midwestern states urged the Justice Department on Tuesday to pursue a federal investigation into market concentration and potential price fixing by meatpackers in the cattle industry during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, the state attorneys general noted that the domestic beef processing market is highly concentrated, with the four largest beef processors controlling 80 percent of the industry.

“Given the concentrated market structure of the beef industry, it may be particularly susceptible to market manipulation, particularly during times of food insecurity, such as the current COVID-19 crisis,” they wrote.

Although their letter does not name them, the nation’s largest processors are Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill, and National Beef. The companies did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

Mark Watne, the president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, said in a statement that in all the years they have called for stronger antitrust enforcement, they have rarely seen such obvious market abuses by the meatpacking industry.

“They’re posting record profits, while ranchers are suffering significant market price losses,” Watne said. “The situation definitely smells rotten, and it not only hurts ranchers, but consumers, too.”

The state officials criticized the disparity in the price of live cattle and the retail cost of boxed beef that is sold to consumers, arguing that it shows the market lacks fair competition. Live cattle futures recently hit 18-year lows, while both the price of boxed beef and consumer demand remain healthy as consumers stockpile meat in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The letter was signed by attorneys general in North Dakota, Missouri, Colorado, South Dakota, Montana, Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wyoming.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

The state attorneys general said they are eager to work with Barr on an examination of the competitive dynamics of the industry.

“Antitrust concerns about the cattle market are nothing new. Competition issues arising from agricultural markets existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic and will persist long after we defeat our current crisis,” they wrote.

Although most enforcement actions are civil, federal antitrust law is also criminal law and individuals and businesses that violate it may be prosecuted by the Justice Department, according the Federal Trade Commission.

Criminal penalties can reach up to $100 million for a corporation, along with up to 10 years in prison. The maximum fine may be increased to twice the amount the conspirators gained from the illegal acts or twice the money lost by the victims of the crime, if either of those amounts is over $100 million.

The state attorneys general wrote that if, after an investigation, there is no appropriate enforcement action that can be pursued, regulatory strategies should be explored to promote competition and protect consumers.

COVID-19 cuts 'deep scars' through meatpacking communities

IOWA CITY, Iowa — As the coronavirus spread from the nation’s meatpacking plants to the broader communities where they are located, it burned through a modest duplex in Waterloo, Iowa.

In the downstairs unit lived Jim Orvis, 65, a beloved friend and uncle who worked in the laundry department at the Tyson Foods pork processing facility, the largest employer in Waterloo. Upstairs was Arthur Scott, a 51-year-old father who was getting his life back on track after a prison term for drugs. He worked 25 miles (40 kilometers) away at the Tyson dog treats factory in Independence, Iowa.

The two men were not well acquainted. But both fell ill and died last month within days of each other from COVID-19 — casualties of an outbreak linked to the Waterloo plant that spread across the city of 68,000 people. Similar spread is happening in other communities where the economy centers around raising hogs and cattle and processing their meat, including the hot spots of Grand Island, Nebraska, and Worthington, Minnesota.

The virus is “devastating everything,” said duplex owner Jose Garcia, who received notification two days apart from his deceased tenants’ relatives. “These two guys were here last week. Now they are gone. It’s crazy.”

He said it’s possible one of the men infected the other because they shared an entryway, or that they each contracted the virus separately at their workplaces.

The virus threatens the communities’ most vulnerable populations, including low-income workers and their extended families.

“They’re afraid of catching the virus. They’re afraid of spreading it to family members. Some of them are afraid of dying,” said the Rev. Jim Callahan, of the Church of St. Mary of Worthington, a city of 13,000 that has attracted immigrants from across the globe to work at the JBS pork processing plant.

“One guy said to me, ‘I risked my life coming here. I never thought something that I can’t see could take me out.’ ”

In Grand Island, an outbreak linked to a JBS beef plant that is the city’s largest employer spread rapidly across the rural central Nebraska region, killing more than three dozen people. Many of the dead were elderly residents of long-term care facilities who had relatives or friends employed at the plant.

In Waterloo, local officials blame Tyson for endangering not only its workers and their relatives but everyone else who leaves home to work or get groceries. They are furious with the state and federal governments for failing to intervene — and for pushing hard to reopen the plant days after public pressure helped shut it down.

“We were failed by people who put profit margins and greed before people, predominantly brown people, predominantly immigrants, predominantly people who live in lower socioeconomic quarters,” said Jonathan Grieder, a high school social studies teacher who serves on Waterloo’s city council. “This is going to be with us for so long. There are going to be very deep scars in our community.”

Grieder cried as he recounted how one of his former students, 19, lost her father to the coronavirus and has been left to raise two younger siblings. Their mother died of cancer last September.

Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said he first became concerned after touring the Tyson plant April 10 and witnessing inadequate social distancing and a lack of personal protective equipment. As hundreds of workers began getting sick or staying home out of fear, Thompson joined the mayor and scores of local officials in asking Tyson to close the plant temporarily on April 16.

But Tyson, with support from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, waited until April 22 to announce that step after the outbreak intensified. The company warned of the significant economic consequences even a temporary shutdown would create.

The Iowa Department of Public Health reported Tuesday that 444 Tyson workers at the plant have tested positive, about 17% of those tested.

The plant, which can process 19,500 hogs per day, is now poised to resume production after President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to require meatpackers to stay open.

Reynolds and Tyson have argued that the plant with 2,800 workers is critical to the nation’s pork supply and the regional farmers who sell millions of hogs to Tyson.

In three weeks, Black Hawk County’s cases skyrocketed from 62 to 1,546 — more than 1% of its 132,000 residents. Deaths rose from zero to 18. The county’s public health director said 90% of the cases are “attributed or related to the plant.”

A Tyson spokeswoman said “workplace safety continues to be a top priority.”

Thompson said the plant’s outbreak decimated the community’s “first line of defense” and allowed the virus to spread to nursing homes and the jail he oversees.

“These are the places we did not want to fight the COVID-19 virus,” he said.

The losses are quickly mounting.

A refugee from Bosnia died days after falling sick while working on the Tyson production line, leaving behind her heartbroken husband. The virus also took an intellectually disabled man who died at 73, years after escaping forced labor at an Iowa turkey plant and happily retiring to Waterloo.

Scott, who went by the nickname Dontae, was planning to reunite in June with two teenage children he had not seen in person since he was incarcerated on federal drug charges in 2011.

A former small-time heroin distributor who suffered from addiction, he and his wife divorced during his prison term, and she moved to Mississippi with the children. Since his 2018 release, friends said he was doing well and rebuilding relationships.

Scott told his daughter, Destiny Proctor, 18, that he suspected he became infected at the Tyson pet food factory, which has stayed open under federal guidance classifying the industry as critical infrastructure.

Proctor and her 15-year-old brother were looking forward to living with their dad this summer. Instead, their final talk was a video call from a hospital where he struggled to talk.

“It was so, so sad,” said Proctor, who described her father as funny and caring and frequently sending her cards and gifts. “He told me he couldn’t breathe.”


Associated Press writers Amy Forliti in Minneapolis and Grant Schulte in Lincoln, Neb., contributed to this story.

YMCA plans to reopen in June

The Hastings Family YMCA announced plans to reopen programming and facilities in a video on Facebook posted Tuesday.

In the video, CEO Troy Stickels said they miss being able to see members visit and want to get people back as soon as possible while following guidelines set out by health officials.

“We know how important the Y is to a lot of people,” he said. “We can’t wait for the day to be able to open back up fully.”

The tentative plan is to reopen the 16th Street location on June 1, though with some limitations.

Stickels said the 18th Street location is still being used to provide emergency child care for people in the community who still have to go to work.

“We need that entire space to spread kids out and keep them safe,” he said. “We hope everybody understands that and until those guidelines change, we’re going to have to use that entire building for child care.”

But before the 16th Street building is reopened, the YMCA will begin outdoor offerings as the weather warms.

Stickels said beginning May 11, fitness classes will be held outdoors. These classes will be limited to nine people plus an instructor and will gather in the parking lot or nearby fields. Participants must be active members and reserve a spot in class. Each class participant will have a designated space in order to maintain distance from others.

Classes will include kickboxing and yoga. For more information on the available classes or schedule, visit the YMCA website, www.hastingsymca.net.

The miniature golf area will open for the season on May 15, though with similar limitations to protect the safety of guests.

“If we follow the rules, that’s a pretty safe thing families can do,” Stickels said.

Groups will be limited to four or a single-family household. Only one person from a party will be asked to check in, pay and distribute balls from the mini-golf shack. Only nine groups are allowed on the course at once. Marked areas will be designated for groups who are waiting.

Groups must stay at least 10 feet away from other groups. No concessions will be available. Following the game, equipment will be returned to buckets to be cleaned.

Hours will be 4-8 p.m. Friday and 1-8 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

The batting cages also will be open but users must bring their own equipment.

On May 18, the YMCA will reopen the pool, using the back door on the north side of the facility as an entry point.

Stickels said members will need to schedule their use in advance in 30-minute intervals and only lap swimming, water walking and water exercise will be allowed. Swimmers will be spread out in different lanes.

“There will be no recreation swimming,” he said. “This will be for individuals who really need the water for health and wellness reasons.”

Hours will be Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. To make an appointment, contact aquatics director Becky Galvan at 402-303-6058 or email aquatics@hastingsymca.net.

Locker rooms, steam room, sauna and hot tub will remain closed. No towel service will be available and a family changing room with a shower will be used only if absolutely necessary.

“We will have a couple family changing rooms available if somebody has to shower here but we prefer if you don’t do that,” Stickels said. “That’s just more opportunity for the virus to spread.”

He said they will provide an update on summer programs in the next few days, but people can expect several changes as programs are pushed back to conform with health guidelines.

“We appreciate everybody’s support,” he said. “We can’t wait to get back to normal.”

Mass COVID-19 testing completed at Good Samaritan nursing home

Good Samaritan Society-Hastings Village has completed mass testing of residents and employees for the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, and has learned that nine additional skilled-nursing facility residents and eight employees have been confirmed as positive cases, the organization announced in a news release Tuesday.

The additional positive cases mean a total of 12 residents and eight employees have tested positive on the Hastings campus commonly known as Good Samaritan Village.

“We are deeply saddened to report that four of these residents passed away following their COVID-19 diagnosis,” the organization said. “All of our residents are like family to us at Good Samaritan Society. Today, we pray for and with their families for comfort, healing and guidance during this incredibly difficult time.”

Six of the eight employees have experienced no symptoms, the organization said.

Skilled-nursing residents on the Hastings campus who test positive for COVID-19 are isolated in a specific care area in the facility with dedicated staff caring for them.

Employees there continue to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on COVID-19 preventative measures, including restriction of visitors, masks for all employees, and frequent monitoring of employees and residents for signs and symptoms of respiratory illness, the organization said.

“We continue to work closely with the department of health to help ensure we do all we can to protect our residents and staff members from this illness. The health and safety of our community remains our highest priority.”

The Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, operates more than 200 senior care facilities. The organization merged in January 2019 with Sanford Health, another nonprofit organization based in Sioux Falls that operates 44 hospitals in several states.

Altogether, Adams County has recorded six deaths to date related to COVID-19. The South Heartland District Health Department on Tuesday night reported the sixth death — that of a man in his 60s who had underlying medical conditions.

“It is with sadness that we report another COVID-19-related death in our district,” said Michele Bever, South Heartland executive director, in a news release.

South Heartland also announced one additional confirmed COVID-19 case on Tuesday night — an Adams County woman in her 40s. The one new case pushes the district’s running total of confirmed positive cases to 222, including 204 in Adams County, 13 in Clay County, five in Webster County and zero in Nuckolls County.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Central District Health Department, which serves Hall, Hamilton and Merrick counties, had reported a running total of 1,350 positive COVID-19 cases in the three counties, including 1,285 in Hall, 50 in Hamilton and 15 in Merrick.

The health department announced two additional deaths on Tuesday, bringing the district’s COVID-19-related death to 39.

The Two Rivers Public Health Department, which serves Kearney, Franklin, Buffalo, Phelps, Harlan, Gosper and Dawson counties, announced one new Kearney County case on Tuesday along with seven in Dawson County and one in Buffalo County.

Kearney County now has recorded six positive cases to date. Franklin County has recorded five, and Harlan County has recorded none.

As of Tuesday, the Two Rivers health district has recorded a total of 689 cases, which also include 551 in Dawson County, 108 in Buffalo, 10 in Gosper and nine in Phelps.

The Public Health Solutions District Health Department, which serves Fillmore, Thayer, Jefferson, Saline and Gage counties, had reported a total of 311 cases as of Monday, including three in Fillmore County and none in Thayer County.

Saline County has recorded 265 positive cases, Gage County has recorded 39, and Jefferson County has reported four. The district’s positive cases include 101 employees of Smithfield Foods in Crete.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday evening was reporting a statewide total of 6,438 positive COVID-19 cases to date, with 82 deaths.

In neighboring Kansas, the statewide case count to date stood at 5,458 as of Tuesday, with 137 deaths. So far, Jewell County, which is part of the Tribune’s coverage area, has recorded four cases. Smith County, also in Tribland, has recorded two.