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Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis lies in state at Capitol

WASHINGTON — In a solemn display of bipartisan unity, congressional leaders praised Democratic Rep. John Lewis as a moral force for the nation on Monday in a Capitol Rotunda memorial service rich with symbolism and punctuated by the booming, recorded voice of the late civil rights icon.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Lewis the “conscience of the Congress” who was “revered and beloved on both sides of the aisle, on both sides of the Capitol.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised the longtime Georgia congressman as a model of courage and a “peacemaker.”

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” McConnell, a Republican, said, quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “But that is never automatic. History only bent toward what’s right because people like John paid the price.”

Lewis died July 17 at the age of 80. Born to sharecroppers during Jim Crow segregation, he was beaten by Alabama state troopers during the civil rights movement, spoke ahead of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington and was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the nation’s first Black president in 2011.

Dozens of lawmakers looked on Monday as Lewis’ flag-draped casket sat atop the catafalque built for President Abraham Lincoln. Several wiped away tears as the late congressman’s voice echoed off the marble and gilded walls. Lewis was the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Rotunda.

“You must find a way to get in the way. You must find a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble,” Lewis intoned in a recorded commencement address he’d delivered in his hometown of Atlanta. “Use what you have … to help make our country and make our world a better place, where no one will be left out or left behind. ... It is your time.”

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus wore masks with the message “Good Trouble,” a nod to Lewis’ signature advice and the COVID-19 pandemic that has made for unusual funeral arrangements.

The ceremony was the latest in a series of public remembrances. Pelosi, who counted Lewis as a close friend, met his casket earlier Monday at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, and Lewis’ motorcade stopped at Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House as it wound through Washington before arriving at the Capitol.

The Democratic speaker noted that Lewis, frail with cancer, had come to the newly painted plaza weeks ago to stand “in solidarity” amid nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality. She called the image of Lewis “an iconic picture of justice” and juxtaposed it with another image that seared Lewis into the national memory. In that frame, “an iconic picture of injustice,” Pelosi said, Lewis is collapsed and bleeding near the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, when state troopers beat him and other Black Americans as they demanded voting rights.

Following the Rotunda service, Lewis’ body was moved to the steps on the Capitol’s east side in public view, an unusual sequence required because the pandemic has closed the Capitol to visitors.

Late into the night, a long line of visitors formed outside the Capitol as members of the public quietly, and with appropriate socially distant spacing, came to pay their respects to Lewis.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden paid his respects late Monday afternoon. The pair became friends over their two decades on Capitol Hill together and Biden’s two terms as vice president to President Barack Obama, who awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

Notably absent from the ceremonies was President Donald Trump. Lewis once called Trump an illegitimate president and chided him for stoking racial discord. Trump countered by blasting Lewis’ Atlanta district as “crime-infested.” Trump said Monday that he would not go to the Capitol, but Vice President Mike Pence and his wife paid their respects.

Just ahead of the ceremonies, the House passed a bill to establish a new federal commission to study conditions that affect Black men and boys.

Born near Troy, Alabama, Lewis was among the original Freedom Riders, young activists who boarded commercial passenger buses and traveled through the segregated Jim Crow South in the early 1960s. They were assaulted and battered at many stops, by citizens and authorities alike. Lewis was the youngest and last-living of those who spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington.

The Bloody Sunday events in Selma two years later forged much of Lewis’ public identity. He was at the head of hundreds of civil rights protesters who attempted to march from the Black Belt city to the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery.

The marchers completed the journey weeks later under the protection of federal authorities, but then-Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, an outspoken segregationist at the time, refused to meet the marchers when they arrived at the Capitol. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on Aug. 6 of that year.

Lewis spoke of those critical months for the rest of his life as he championed voting rights as the foundation of democracy, and he returned to Selma many times for commemorations at the site where authorities had brutalized him and others. “The vote is precious. It is almost sacred,” he said again and again. “It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democracy.”

The Supreme Court scaled back the seminal voting law in 2012; an overhauled version remains bottle-necked on Capitol Hill, with Democrats pushing a draft that McConnell and most of his fellow Republicans oppose. The new version would carry Lewis’ name.

Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the last time Sunday on a horse-drawn carriage before an automobile hearse transported him to the Alabama Capitol, where he lay in repose. He was escorted by Alabama state troopers, this time with Black officers in their ranks, and his casket stood down the hall from the office where Wallace had peered out of his window at the citizens he refused to meet.

After the memorial in Washington, Lewis’s body will return to Georgia. He will have a private funeral Thursday at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, which King once led.

Experimental COVID-19 vaccine is put to its biggest test

The biggest test yet of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine got underway Monday with the first of some 30,000 Americans rolling up their sleeves to receive shots created by the U.S. government as part of the all-out global race to stop the pandemic.

The glimmer of hope came even as Google, in one of the gloomiest assessments of the coronavirus’s staying power from a major employer, decreed that most of its 200,000 employees and contractors should work from home through next June — a decision that could influence other big companies.

Final-stage testing of the vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., began with volunteers at numerous sites around the U.S. given either a real dose or a dummy without being told which.

“I’m excited to be part of something like this. This is huge,” said Melissa Harting, a 36-year-old nurse who received an injection in Binghamton, New York. Especially with family members in front-line jobs that could expose them to the virus, she added, “doing our part to eradicate it is very important to me.”

Another company, Pfizer Inc., announced late Monday that it had started its own study of its vaccine candidate in the U.S. and elsewhere. That study also aimed to recruit 30,000 people.

It will be months before results trickle in, and there is no guarantee the vaccines will ultimately work against the scourge that has killed over 650,000 people around the world, including almost 150,000 in the U.S.

“We’ve been sitting on the sidelines passively attempting to wear our masks and social distance and not go out when it’s not necessary. This is the first step of becoming active against this,” said Dr. Frank Eder of Meridian Clinical Research, the company that runs the Binghamton trial site. “There’s really no other way to get past this.”

As if to underline how high the stakes are, there were more setbacks in efforts to contain the coronavirus.

In Washington, the Trump administration disclosed that national security adviser Robert O’Brien has the virus — the highest-ranking U.S. official to test positive so far. The White House said he has mild symptoms and “has been self-isolating and working from a secure location off site.”

The move to restart the national pastime ran into trouble just five days into the long-delayed season: Two major league baseball games scheduled for Monday night were called off as the Miami Marlins coped with an outbreak — the Marlins’ home opener against the Baltimore Orioles, and the New York Yankees’ game in Philadelphia, where the Marlins used the clubhouse over the weekend.

As for relief from the economic damage done by the virus, Republicans on Capitol Hill rolled out a $1 trillion package that includes another round of $1,200 direct payments but reduces the extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits that expire for millions of Americans on Friday. Republicans proposed $200 a week, saying the generous bump discourages people from returning to work. Democrats call the added benefits a lifeline for those who have lost their jobs.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows worked through the weekend on the GOP proposal and have agreed to negotiate with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer. House Democrats passed a $3 trillion relief package a couple of months ago.

In Europe, rising infections in Spain and other countries caused alarm only weeks after nations reopened their borders in hopes of reviving tourism. Over the weekend, Britain imposed a 14-day quarantine on travelers arriving from Spain, Norway ordered a 10-day quarantine for people returning from the entire Iberian peninsula, and France urged its citizens not to visit Spain’s Catalonia region.

Scientists set speed records getting vaccines into massive testing just months after the coronavirus emerged. But they stressed that the public shouldn’t fear that anyone is cutting corners.

“This is a significant milestone,” NIH Director Francis Collins said after the first test injection of Moderna’s vaccine was given, at 6:45 a.m. in Savannah, Georgia. “Yes, we’re going fast, but no, we are not going to compromise” on proving whether the vaccine is safe and effective.

“We are focusing on speed because every day matters,” added Stephane Bancel, CEO of Massachusetts-based Moderna.

After volunteers get two doses a month apart, scientists will closely track which group experiences more infections as they go about their daily routines, especially in areas where the virus is spreading unchecked.

The answer probably won’t come until November or December, cautioned Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIH’s infectious-diseases chief.

Among many questions the study may answer: How much protection does just one dose offer compared with the two scientists think are needed? If it works, will it protect against severe disease or block infection entirely?

Don’t expect a vaccine as strong as the measles vaccine, which prevents about 97% of measles infections, Fauci said, adding he would be happy with a COVID-19 vaccine that’s 60% effective.

Several other vaccines made by China and by Britain’s Oxford University began smaller final-stage tests in Brazil and other hard-hit countries earlier this month. But the U.S. requires its own tests of any vaccine that might be used in the country.

Every month through the fall, the government-funded COVID-19 Prevention Network will roll out a new study of a leading candidate, each with 30,000 volunteers.

The final U.S. study of the Oxford shot is set to begin in August, followed by a candidate from Johnson & Johnson in September and one from Novavax in October.

That’s a stunning number of people needed to roll up their sleeves for science. In recent weeks, more than 150,000 Americans filled out an online registry signaling interest, Collins said. But many more are needed.

NIH is working to make sure that the study isn’t just filled with healthy, younger volunteers but includes populations hit hardest by COVID-19, including older adults, those in poor health and African-Americans and Latinos.

“We really are going to depend upon that sense of volunteerism for individuals from every different corner of society if we’re going to really find out how this vaccine, and its potential to end this terrible pandemic, is go to work in each of those groups,” Collins said.

Engineers discuss findings within viaduct forensic exam

What is known about the below-ground support structure for the 16th Street viaduct substructure doesn’t look good, and what is unknown may be even scarier.

That was the opinion of Anthony Siahpush, president of Engineering Specialists Inc. of Omaha, whose firm recently completed a forensic evaluation about the 85-year-old structure.

Siahpush provided a presentation about the evaluation and accompanying 260-page report during the Hastings City Council’s regular meeting Monday. He was joined by ESI associate Paul Douglas.

The viaduct has been closed since May 2019 because of concern about its deteriorating condition. Many Hastings residents have expressed interest in having the structure repaired and reopened, and the council is planning to put the issue to a vote of the people in the November general election.

Both Siahpush and Douglas stated the structure can’t be repaired and would have to be replaced.

“We can comfortably say that pier one, possibly two and three have some kind of a surprise under the surface,” Siahpush said. “However, the rest of them are still unknown. They are still 85 years old. The life expectancy of treated timber for piles is 75 years.”

ESI’s report includes more than 200 photographs, many of which show crumbling concrete, exposed rebar, and rusted and corroded rollers that have eliminated seasonal expansion and contraction.

Monday’s presentation didn’t require any immediate action by the council, but the election ballot language concerning the viaduct’s future needs to be approved by Sept. 1.

According to ESI’s report, the estimated cost for a replacement for the existing 570-foot long, 26-foot-wide, two-lane bridge with a 590-foot-long, 38-foot-wide, four-lane bridge would be between $6.838 million and $7.062 million.

Including engineering and architectural design of $512,857 to $529,672.50 — based on a 7.5% fee for the total cost of construction — ESI estimates the project would cost around $7.5 million.

That amount doesn’t include the costs associated with working with the Union Pacific Railroad on the project.

Siahpush said the support piles are built more than 70 feet into the ground.

The report states it is ESI’s determination that the condition is unknown for the subsurface foundation concrete pile caps and related steel reinforcement, treated timber and steel piles. That condition can’t be definitively confirmed without causing distress or damages, nor is it economically feasible.

“The critical element here is below the surface,” he said. “We can’t see below grade.”

He was asked if it would be feasible to repair the structure’s piers and preserve the existing deck.

“If we were to renovate and repair the piers we have to remove the superstructure to the deck,” he said. “If you were to touch the superstructure the state of Nebraska may require the width of the bridge to come in compliance with the current code.”

That requirement is for a width of 38 feet.

The piles have shown evidence of damage and deterioration, so the piles would need to be removed.

“To remove the pier and remove the pile, you’ll end up with a new bridge,” Siahpush said.

ESI estimates the cost to demolish the structure would be $1.452 million, which is similar to the $1.46 million demolition estimate from Olsson.

It was pointed out Monday that amount doesn’t include funds for work on adjacent streets affected by the demolition of the viaduct, however. That additional cost has been estimated to be around $1 million.

Siahpush estimated demolition could take about two weeks, done in a certain sequence and in conjunction with railroad.

He said reconstruction would take 90-120 days.

While there are still a lot of unknowns, especially when it comes to working with Union Pacific, Mayor Corey Stutte said ESI’s forensic study of the viaduct already has given the city a better idea of what the project may cost.

“We were talking about a not-to-exceed of $5 million,” he said. “We didn’t want to be Lucy with the football and pull it out from under the voters after they did work to pass a $5 million ballot measure and then say, ‘Hold on. This is a $7 million project.’ “

Also during the meeting, the council honored 22 city employees who celebrated service anniversaries from April to July.

The council recognizes milestone anniversaries for employees each month but was unable to while holding remote meetings.

In other business, the council:

— Voted 6-0 to approve a resolution approving the application of Boys 3 MCP Inc. doing business as Coach’s Corner Convenience Store for a Class “D” Liquor License at 3212 Osborne Drive East. Council members Jeniffer Beahm and Matt Fong were absent.

— Unanimously approved the manager application of Leah S. Ratzlaff in connection with the Coach’s Corner Convenience Store application.

— Unanimously approved awarding the $98,795 contract to Precision Sprinklers of Hastings for boring and installing fiber innerducts from the Bypass Substation to the North Denver Station.

— Unanimously approved sending a letter to the Nebraska congressional delegation in support of a loan program for public power utilities and electric cooperatives as a result of the effects of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

— Unanimously approved reappointing several members to city boards: Robert Parker was reappointed to the Civil Service Commission, Dan Schwartzkopf was reappointed to the Board of Adjustments, Tom Krueger was appointed to the Board of Adjustments, Jake Smidt was reappointed to the electrical board, and Dave Bierman was reappointed to the library board.

South Heartland sees more COVID-19 cases, dip in positivity rate

While 15 more residents of the South Heartland Health District were confirmed as positive cases of the novel coronavirus disease Friday through Monday, all the news reported out by the district health department on Monday night was not negative.

For the week that ended Saturday, the district’s so-called “positivity rate” — that is, the number of new confirmed positive cases of the viral infection known as COVID-19 — dropped to 5.1% from 7.5% for the previous week.

It must be noted, however, that the 7.5% rate for July 12-18 was up significantly from 3.9% the week before that. The district’s positivity rate hit its all-time low point the week of June 7-13, when it was just 0.7%.

Health district officials have been expressing concern recently about the rising positivity rate and the number of new COVID-19 cases being confirmed districtwide. The South Heartland district encompasses Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties.

The district also recently unveiled a new “risk dial” assessing the danger of COVID-19 spread in the district based on several factors. The district’s risk reading rose from 1.7 as of July 11 to 1.9 as of July 18, moving to the high end of the “moderate” risk range on the dial. A new risk reading for the week that ended Saturday hadn’t been posted as of Monday evening.

The risk dial, weekly positivity rates and other statistical information are available on South Heartland’s Data Dashboard, which is posted to the district website,

As restrictions on gatherings, restaurant and bar operations, and other social and economic activities have loosened in recent weeks, many Triblanders have been circulating more than they had in several months, attending church services, weddings and funerals, sports events, graduations and other events. Many don’t follow the health department’s recommendation to maintain physical distance of at least 6 feet from others in public and wear a face covering in public, especially in settings where physical distancing is difficult.

The new cases of COVID-19 confirmed Friday through Monday include 10 in Adams County and five in Clay County, with ages ranging from under 20 (three) to the 70s (one).

In a news release Monday night, Michele Bever, the South Heartland health department executive director, announced last week’s lower positivity rate and explained that her agency is beginning to track positivity rates by county to provide a clearer picture of public health conditions around the district.

“Adams County had a steady decline in positivity over the past three weeks, from 5.8% three weeks ago to 3.2% last week,” Bever wrote. “Nuckolls County went from 0% to 10.8% and back down to 3.1%. Webster County’s positivity was 6.3% last week, up from 4.4% two weeks ago and 0% three weeks ago. Clay County saw a large jump in positivity over the past three weeks, from 3.4% to 12.5%, then up to 16.9% last week.

“We want the positivity rate to be in the low single digits. This would tell us there is low spread of the virus in our communities.”

Clay County has seen a surge in new cases of the infection since mid-July, related in part to cluster outbreaks involving gatherings.

Bever also used Monday’s news release to explain the role isolation and quarantine can play in helping thwart the spread of the novel coronavirus after a person has been confirmed positive for the infection or has learned he or she might have been exposed.

“People who have COVID-19 symptoms and people who test positive for COVID-19 are instructed to isolate,” she said. “Isolation keeps an infected person away from healthy people in order to stop the spread of the virus.

“Isolation means staying at home and away from other people except to get medical care. Stay in a separate part of your home, in a specific ‘sick room,’ and use a separate bathroom, if available. Avoid sharing personal household items or utensils with anyone else, clean your hands often, and make sure all high-touch surfaces are disinfected every day.

“Quarantine is for people who are not sick, but who might get sick because they have been around someone who has coronavirus. If I am exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, I need to quarantine so that others are not infected during the period before I develop my own symptoms, which can take up to 14 days. This virus can be passed to others up to two days before we experience our own symptoms and it can also spread to others when we only have mild symptoms.”

“Quarantine” means staying at home for 14 days from the date of potential exposure and monitoring for development of any symptoms. If symptoms develop while someone is in quarantine, he or she should immediately isolate from others and call his or her health care provider and the health department, Bever said.

Of the 404 total cases of COVID-19 confirmed among South Heartland residents since March 18, 363 had been classified as resolved through recovery as of Monday evening.

A running total of 22 district residents have spent time in the hospital in connection with a COVID-19 diagnosis. That number ticked up by one on July 17, changing for the first time since May 29.

Eleven district residents have died in connection with a COVID-19 diagnosis. All 11 were Adams County residents.

Across Nebraska, a total of 281 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed on Monday, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported. For Saturday through Monday, a total of 860 new cases were confirmed statewide.

That three-day total was down from the total for the previous three days, Wednesday through Friday, when a total of 984 new cases were confirmed.

Statewide, 39% of all hospital beds, 40% of intensive care beds and 81% of ventilators were available for new patients who might need them.

In the Two Rivers Public Health District, which includes seven counties to the west of the Hastings area, a total of 28 new COVID-19 cases were reported Friday, Saturday and Sunday. All those cases were among residents of Buffalo and Dawson counties. That district’s risk dial reading stands right on the line between “moderate” and “elevated.”

On Saturday, the Two Rivers health department reported the death of a 10th district resident in connection with COVID-19. The victim was a Dawson County man in his 80s.

In the Central Health District, which includes Hall, Hamilton and Merrick counties, a total of 23 new cases of the viral infection — 18 of them in Hall County — had been confirmed since Friday as of Monday afternoon. That district’s risk dial reading now stands at 1.9, at the high end of “moderate.”