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Ricketts pleased with TestNebraska program despite hiccups

OMAHA — Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said Wednesday he’s “very pleased” with a coronavirus testing program established by out-of-state contractors, despite uncertainty that it will meet a goal of 3,000 tests per day by the month’s end.

Nebraska announced the $27 million, no-bid contract with Utah-based Nomi Health and other firms on April 21. They hoped to hit the testing target within five weeks.

TestNebraska conducted just 1,197 tests on Tuesday, said Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical officer. That’s an increase since the beginning of May, when the program was averaging about 337 tests per day.

With just 12 days left until month’s end, Ricketts has said he still believes the program will reach its goal “at some point,” but backed away from earlier stated goals.

“We’re pushing the team hard to get that done by the end of the month, but a lot of that will depend on people signing up,” he said at a news conference.

Ricketts said the problem stems in part from residents who qualify for a test after filling out an online questionnaire, but don’t show up as scheduled. As many as 15% of the people who are deemed eligible are no-shows, he said.

The state also hasn’t launched all six of its mobile testing sites. State employees and members of the Nebraska National Guard are administering the tests at four mobile stations, with plans to open two more.

The program has faced criticism from some state lawmakers, who questioned why Nebraska wasn’t spending the money on local testing resources. Ricketts has defended the contract, arguing that the state is already using the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the state public health lab for testing and both have reached their capacity.

“I’ve been very pleased with the results so far with TestNebraska,” Ricketts said Wednesday, adding that it was “absolutely” worth the money.

On Wednesday, a state lawmaker who has criticized the contract sent a follow-up letter to Ricketts, saying some hard-hit areas still aren’t getting the tests they need.

“I recognize that TestNebraska was an opportunity to ramp up mass testing quickly, but it seems there is a disconnect between that testing program and the emergent needs in communities across the state,” said Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, of Omaha.

Meanwhile, officials reported that seven more people have died from the coronavirus, including five residents at a long-term care facility in Omaha.

The residents lived at the Life Care Center of Elkhorn, a facility that has been struggling with a COVID-19 outbreak among employees and the seniors they serve.

Long-term care facilities such as nursing homes are among the hardest-hit venues in Nebraska. Ricketts said Tuesday that the facilities have been linked to at least 62 of the state’s 132 coronavirus deaths. He said 89 facilities have reported infections among residents, employees or both.

The Life Care Center of Elkhorn said in a statement that residents who test positive are immediately separated into their own area of the building.

“We are doing everything we can to provide the best care for residents and to safeguard staff,” the statement said.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services reported 10,846 confirmed cases statewide as of Tuesday night. More than 72,300 people have been tested.

The number of new patients has been trending downward since a peak of 677 new cases on May 7, but public health officials say it’s precautions such as social distancing remain vital.

Nebraska’s hospital capacity for treating patients with the virus is fairly stable. The state’s hospitals report that 44% of their beds, 38% of their intensive care unit beds and 78% of their ventilators are available for use if needed.

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.

Willa Cather Spring Conference moves online for this year

RED CLOUD — While the novel coronavirus disease pandemic has upended plans for crowds to gather here the first weekend in June for the annual Willa Cather Spring Conference, the event will proceed online — and in a way more accessible than ever before to people from south central Nebraska and around the world.

Theme for this year’s 65th annual event is “Un/Tethered Cather on the Cusp of the 1920s.” The conference will celebrate the 100th anniversary of publication for Cather’s collection of short stories, “Youth and the Bright Medusa,” and explore the impact of the era on Cather’s writing in that stage of her career.

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Tracy Tucker, Education Director at the Willa Cather Foundation, leads a group of Anna Sadilek Pavelka’s decendants into the cellar on the Pavelka farm during the Cather Conference Saturday, June 2, 2018.

“For Cather and the nation, the dawn of the 1920s was a tumultuous time, marked by new freedoms and new entanglements,” the Willa Cather Foundation said in announcing plans for the Spring Conference. “The Great War had ended and women had won the right to vote, but 1919’s Red Summer and Palmer Raids signaled lingering social discord. Into this unsettled world, Willa Cather brought out ‘Youth and the Bright Medusa,’ her collection of short stories, where her artists move through a world that is by turns inspiring and enervating.”

Willa Cather was born in Virginia in 1873, then moved to rural Webster County with her family as a young girl. The Cathers soon moved into Red Cloud, where Cather graduated from Red Cloud High School in 1890.

Cather went on to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln before embarking on a professional career in journalism and literature that has made her name known around the globe. Her body of work includes novels, short stories and poetry, with many works inspired by her experiences growing up in the expanse of Webster County today referred to as “Catherland.” She won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for literature for her World war I novel “One of Ours,” which was set in the Red Cloud-Bladen area and inspired by the life and service of her cousin, G.P. Cather.

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Cather Conference attendees read an informational plaque June 2, 2018, while visiting the Pavelka farm north of Red Cloud.

While Cather never moved back to Red Cloud, she visited regularly for many years and maintained strong ties to the community throughout her life. Today, Red Cloud is home to the Willa Cather Foundation and its National Willa Cather Center, attracting scholars and fans from far and wide.

Normally, the Willa Cather Spring Conference includes meals, social hours and other opportunities for fellowship along with entertainment programs of interest to both scholars and Cather fans. Tours of the many historically interesting Cather-related sites in the Red Cloud area also are staples; many of the tour stops are described in Cather’s writing and/or figure importantly in the lives of the real people on whom her characters are based.

While in-person fellowship and physical tours won’t be feasible this year, an online conference will make “attendance” feasible for anyone with internet connectivity and a computer with speakers and keyboard, a tablet or laptop with built-in speaker, or a smartphone with built-in speaker.

All registered participants will be provided with a digital registration packet and can take part in the conference from the comfort of their own homes if they wish.

Registration will be available up through the event and is available for the full three days (excluding a Saturday evening fundraiser) or on a day-by-day basis. For more information or to sign up, visit www.willacather.org or call the National Willa Cather Center at 402-746-2653.

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People walk through the displays at the National Willa Cather Center on the opening day of the 64th annual Spring Conference May 30, 2019, in Red Cloud.

This year’s online conference begins June 4 with a welcome and orientation from 1-1:15 p.m. From 1:30-2 p.m., filmmaker and artist Michael Burton will speak as part of a virtual gallery opening for the exhibit “A Gold Slipper.”

The work in Burton’s exhibit will include animated scenes of Cather’s short story of the same name, as well as the physical objects used to create the scenes. “A Gold Slipper” was developed with support from the Cather Project at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Two panel discussions will consume much of the afternoon. From 2:30-3:30, a panel will address “Cather’s Art and Artists in the Classroom.” From 3:30-4:30, the topic will be “Cather’s Prototypes in ‘Youth and the Bright Medusa.’ ”

From 5:30-6:30 p.m., historian Erica Ryan will speak. Ryan is the author of “When the World Broke in Two: The Roaring Twenties and the Dawn of America’s Culture Wars.”

Ryan is an associate professor at Ryder University teaching modern American history. Her focus is on the intersections between ideas about gender, sexuality and political culture in the modern United States. Her book is described as a comprehensive history of America in the 1920s that presents the decade’s most compelling controversies as precursors to today’s social struggles.

June 5 brings a full day of activities beginning with the reading of award-winning essays by 2020 scholarship recipients from 9-10 a.m.

From 10:30-11:30, the audience will set the agenda for a question-and-answer session on “Teaching Cather.”

Joanna Blitch, illustrator of the “Youth and the Bright Medusa” commemorative edition, will provide the words for a virtual exhibit and artist talk from 12:30-1 p.m.

Cynthia Levis will speak from 1-1:30 p.m. in a virtual exhibit and artist talk on the “Celebrating Women” fiber arts exhibit.

Panel discussions then begin, with the topic “Place, Space and Settings in ‘Youth and the Bright Medusa’ ” from 2-3 p.m. and “Art and Economics” from 3:30-5.

Keynote speaker Alex Ross, author of the music compendium “The Rest is Noise” and the forthcoming book “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music,” will present from 6-7:15 p.m.

Ross is a music critic for The New Yorker magazine and a regular visitor to Red Cloud

June 6, the concluding day of the conference, begins at 9 a.m. with a service from the historic Grace Episcopal Church, where Cather and her family were members. Grace Church is one of the historically significant properties owned by the Willa Cather Foundation.

From 10-11:30 a.m., a panel will discuss “Analyzing Aphrodite!”

At 12:30 p.m., conference attendees will receive a primer on a regular Cather conference feature known as “The Passing Show.”

This year’s edition of the feature, titled “The Passing Show: Rules and Rebellion,” runs 1-2:30 p.m. Moderators are conference co-directors Dianne Prenatt of Marian University in Indianapolis and Elaine Smith of the University of South Florida. Panelists are Alex Ross, Erica Ryan, Mark Madigan and Sarah Young.

Invited speaker Sue McClain will present from 3-4 p.m. on “The New Woman’s Closet.”

Historian Erica Ryan will return to the program from 4:30-5 p.m., reading from her book “When the World Broke in Two: The Roaring Twenties and the Dawn of America’s Culture Wars.”

Alex Ross will follow from 5-5:30, reading from his book “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music.”

The conference wraps up at 6 p.m. with a “virtual happy hour” and fundraiser with special guest Littleton Alston, who has sculpted a new image of Willa Cather for Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol; and “Flicker of Fame,” an oldtime radio show based on stories from “Youth and the Bright Medusa,” created and presented by Lone Tree Live. Cocktail and recipe suggestions will be provided in advance.

Alston is a working sculptor and associate professor of sculpture at Creighton University in Omaha. He is the first African-American sculptor whose work will be on display in the National Statuary Hall Collection.

Fillmore County Fair entertainment shelved for 2020

GENEVA — Entertainment activities associated with the annual Fillmore County Fair here will fall by the wayside for 2020, one more consequence of continuing concerns over the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

The Fillmore County Agricultural Society, which sponsors the fair each year, announced the decision to shelve the activities in a social media release.

Fair board members consulted at length with health officials before making the decision. As is the case in all other Tribland counties, the Fillmore County Fair is a mainstay of summer social life in Geneva and the surrounding communities.

The decision boiled down to public health and concern for the potential negative ramifications of letting the fair go forward as scheduled July 8-13, the Ag Society said.

“With heavy hearts after discussion within our group and discussion with community members, along with federal, state, and surrounding area officials, the Fillmore County Agricultural Society regretfully reports that the entertainment activities scheduled for the 2020 Fillmore County Fair will be postponed until 2021,” the ag society announced. “With the COVID-19 virus still very prevalent throughout the state of Nebraska, and few guidelines to offer guidance to protect not only our own county communities, but the well-being of people of all ages who would be potential visitors to this great annual event, the board feels an inadequacy to provide safety and protection for all who would attend.”

Decisions about 4-H and FFA activities associated with the fair remain pending and should be known throughout Nebraska by June 1, the Ag Society said.

“The Ag Society will do as needed to assist and protect these children as they compete in whatever direction the state advises,” the news release stated.

The Fillmore County Fair is known for robust entertainment offerings that in past years have included not only midway amusements but also concerts, demolition derbies, rodeo events and other crowd-pleasers. This year’s fair features were to have included shows by country music artist Ned LeDoux and the country-rock band SwitchBak on July 10.

“The Fillmore County Fair’s annual goal has been to present a fair that would attract people of all ages and abilities,” the Ag Society said. “Sadly, there is no protection we could offer that would create a dome of protection over all of those who might attend or be among the many that volunteer at this great event. Keeping our communities safe and moving forward to returns to school, jobs and life going forward must be all of our first priorities.

Organizers will focus on being back with a bang next summer, the Ag Society said.

“Our goal going forward is to plan for a fantastic fair in 2021 with even more offerings. We look forward to celebrating with everyone in 2021. While saddened, we feel much more secure knowing the public will have some protection from this virus, by our decision. We ask for your understanding, and we pray that in doing this, all people may be protected in as much as possible from this potentially deadly virus.”

Adams County COVID-19 case count up by four

Four more Adams County residents have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, according to numbers from the South Heartland District Health Department.

As of Thursday night, South Heartland’s running tally of laboratory-confirmed positive cases showed four more cases for Adams County than it did the previous night.

Adams County now shows 257 cases to date, along with 23 in Clay County, five in Webster County and one in Nuckolls County, for a total of 286. The Clay, Webster and Nuckolls county tallies remained unchanged from Wednesday to Thursday. The first positive case in the district was reported on March 18.

At least 175 of the 257 patients have recovered. The district’s death toll related to COVID-19 stands at 11.

In a news release Wednesday night, South Heartland announced that TestNebraska will be on hand in two locations within the district next week: The Adams County Fairgrounds in Hastings from 8-11 a.m. and 3-6 p.m. May 26 and 8-11 a.m. May 27; and the Clay County Fairgrounds in Clay Center from 3-6 p.m. May 27.

To register for these events, go to testnebraska.com.

“TestNebraska provides an opportunity to expand our local testing capacity for COVID-19,” said Michele Bever, South Heartland executive director. “More testing helps us know the level of the virus in our communities so that we can reduce the spread of the disease.”

The hard-hit neighboring Central Health District, which includes Hall, Hamilton and Merrick counties, had confirmed a running total of 1,528 positive cases to date. That district’s death toll stands at 50.

The Two Rivers Public Health District, which includes Kearney, Franklin, Harlan, Phelps, Buffalo, Gosper and Dawson counties, announced just one new case on Wednesday. That district’s running tally of positive cases stands at 991, including 11 in Kearney County, five in Franklin County and zero in Harlan County in Tribland. Eight hundred fifteen of the cases have been in Dawson County.

Statewide, Nebraska had seen 11,122 positive cases of COVID-19 as of Thursday evening, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services reported. The statewide fatality count is 138.