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Health workers once saluted as heroes now get threats
Health care workers who were once saluted for saving lives in the COVID-19 outbreak are now being issued panic buttons and ditching their scrubs before going out in public to avoid harassment
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OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — More than a year after U.S. health care workers on the front lines against COVID-19 were saluted as heroes with nightly clapping from windows and balconies, some are being issued panic buttons in case of assault and ditching their scrubs before going out in public for fear of harassment.

Across the country, doctors and nurses are dealing with hostility, threats and violence from patients angry over safety rules designed to keep the scourge from spreading.

“A year ago, we’re health care heroes and everybody’s clapping for us,” said Dr. Stu Coffman, a Dallas-based emergency room physician. “And now we’re being in some areas harassed and disbelieved and ridiculed for what we’re trying to do, which is just depressing and frustrating.”

Cox Medical Center Branson in Missouri started giving panic buttons to up to 400 nurses and other employees after assaults per year tripled between 2019 and 2020 to 123, a spokeswoman said. One nurse had to get her shoulder X-rayed after an attack.

Hospital spokeswoman Brandei Clifton said the pandemic has driven at least some of the increase.

“So many nurses say, ‘It’s just part of the job,’” Clifton said. “It’s not part of the job.”

Some hospitals have limited the number of public entrances. In Idaho, nurses said they are scared to go to the grocery store unless they have changed out of their scrubs so they aren't accosted by angry residents.

Doctors and nurses at a Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, hospital have been accused of killing patients by grieving family members who don’t believe COVID-19 is real, said hospital spokeswoman Caiti Bobbitt. Others have been the subject of hurtful rumors spread by people angry about the pandemic.

“Our health care workers are almost feeling like Vietnam veterans, scared to go into the community after a shift,” Bobbitt said.

Over Labor Day weekend in Colorado, a passerby threw an unidentified liquid at a nurse working at a mobile vaccine clinic in suburban Denver. Another person in a pickup truck ran over and destroyed signs put up around the clinic’s tent.

About 3 in 10 nurses who took part in a survey this month by an umbrella organization of nurses unions across the U.S. reported an increase in violence where they work stemming from factors including staff shortages and fewer visitor restrictions. That was up from 2 in 10 in March, according to the National Nurses United survey of 5,000 nurses.

Michelle Jones, a nurse at a COVID-19 ICU unit in Wichita, Kansas, said patients are coming in scared, sometimes several from the same family, and often near death. Their relatives are angry, thinking the nurses and doctors are letting them die.

“They cry, they yell, they sit outside our ICU in little groups and pray," Jones said. "Lots of people think they are going to get miracles and God is not passing those out this year. If you come into my ICU, there is a good chance you are going to die.”

She said the powerful steroids that have shown promise often make patients angrier.

“It is like ‘roid rage on people,” she said. “I’ve worked in health care for 26 years. and I’ve seen anything like this. I’ve never seen the public act like this.”

Across the U.S., the COVID-19 crisis has caused people to behave badly toward one another in a multitude of ways.

Several people have been shot to death in disputes over masks in stores and other public places. Shouting matches and scuffles have broken out at school board meetings. A brawl erupted earlier this month at a New York City restaurant over its requirement that customers show proof of vaccination.

Dr. Chris Sampson, an emergency room physician in Columbia, Missouri, said violence has always been a problem in the emergency department, but the situation has gotten worse in recent months. Sampson said he has been pushed up against a wall and seen nurses kicked.

Dr. Ashley Coggins of St. Peter’s Health Regional Medical Center in Helena, Montana, said she recently asked a patient whether he wanted to be vaccinated.

“He said, ‘F, no,’ and I didn’t ask further because I personally don’t want to get yelled at," Coggins said. "You know, this is a weird time in our world, and the respect that we used to have for each other, the respect that people used to have for caregivers and physicians and nurses — it’s not always there, and it makes this job way harder.”

Coggins said the patient told her that he “wanted to strangle President Biden" for pushing for vaccinations, prompting her to change the subject. She said security guards are now in charge of enforcing mask rules for hospital visitors so that nurses no longer have to be the ones to tell people to leave.

The hostility is making an already stressful job harder. Many places are suffering severe staffing shortages, in part because nurses have become burned out and quit.

“I think one thing that we have seen and heard from many of our people is that it is just really hard to come to work every day when people treat each other poorly," said Dr. Kencee Graves, a physician at the University of Utah hospital in Salt Lake City.

"If you have to fight with somebody about wearing a mask, or if you aren’t allowed to visit and we have to argue about that, that is stressful.”

Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

Associated Press writer Rebecca Boone contributed to this report from Boise, Idaho. Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas.

Iris Samuels contributed to this report from Helena, Montana. Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Superior family raising funds for Christmas presents for foster children

SUPERIOR — One family here exceeded its goal of raising $6,000 for gifts for foster children this holiday season in less than two months.

Brian Splater estimated Wednesday that Ambassadors of Kindness, the Superior-based nonprofit organization he started with his family, has exceeded the goal for its annual Toys4FosterCare drive so far by more than $400.

Those funds have been used to purchase toys for Epworth Village in York and People’s City Mission in Lincoln, local children in Superior, as well as a possible third organization. Splater; his husband, Austin Karnatz; and their children Ellie, 9; and Jaxon, 8, are working on the project.

The funds raised so far translate into 910 gifts. There have been 960 items purchased; multiple smaller items are combined into one gift.

Ambassadors of Kindness is collecting donations for Christmas presents through the end of October. The effort started Aug. 6.

“It’s wonderful, of course. It’s touching so many kids,” Splater said. “I never would have guessed it. I didn’t think we’d even beat last year’s (goal) of $4,200, to be honest, but we did.”

The total value of item donations in 2020 — monetary plus gifts — was $4,459.82. The 2019 total value was $3,207.56.

The family’s Victorian home in Superior is filled with stacks of toys waiting to go out to foster children.

It’s been an overwhelming response, Splater said.

“I still can’t believe we are where we are in 22 months, especially for where we are located,” he said.

Despite its size, Superior has shown up huge for Ambassadors of Kindness.

Ambassadors of Kindness also has benefited from a presence on TikTok.

The family documents its daily life, including raising funds and gathering presents, through the account life_of_two_dads, which now has more than 16,000 followers from around the world.

“I believe hugely in visibility for our family, just because we’re the only ones around here,” he said. “Everybody in town and this area know who we are, know where we live.”

TikTok really took off for the family in June, when Jaxon decided to run every block in Superior while holding a pride flag to show awareness and “support his two dads.”

Splater said he wants his family to be a role model for gay and trans youth who have had a hard time and have been bullied.

“We can show the world and communities that ‘You can do it. You can be who you are and if you set your dream you’re going to catch it,’ ” he said.

Likewise, he hopes his family encourages acts of kindness among others.

“I want our kids and what they’re doing to encourage others — even if it’s not getting involved with us, getting involved in their community, do kindness, do things for others and you’re going to reap the rewards like we have,” he said. “We have reaped so many rewards by doing this. That’s not something we set out to do. It just happened.”

He’s amazed by his children’s commitment to their goal of eventually giving a gift to every one of the nearly 7,000 foster children in Nebraska. They are already about one-third of the way there with 2,170 children reached, including the expected number this year.

“They’re my heroes,” he said of Ellie and Jaxon.

Splater believes his children are so committed to helping foster children because of their own experiences going through the foster care system.

Another ongoing effort for Ambassadors of Kindness is comfort bags.

The family has duffle bags they fill with age-appropriate supplies — everything from stuffed animals to deodorant, so foster children aren’t carrying trash bags and grocery sacks full of their belongings.

Splater said his neighbors, Darrell and Nancy Brandt, make blankies for the comfort bags.

Splater said Nebraska foster children average six to 10 foster homes over their lifetimes.

“That’s a lot of homes,” he said.

For more information go to www.facebook.com/AmbassadorsofKindness and @life_of_two_dads on TikTok.

US says ivory-billed woodpecker, 22 other species extinct
Death has come knocking a last time for the splendid ivory-billed woodpecker and almost two dozen other birds, fish and other species
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BILLINGS, Mont. — Death’s come knocking a last time for the splendid ivory-billed woodpecker and 22 more birds, fish and other species: The U.S. government on Wednesday declared them extinct.

It’s a rare move for wildlife officials to give up hope on a plant or animal, but government scientists say they’ve exhausted to find these 23. And they warn climate change, on top of other pressures, could make such disappearances more common as a warming planet adds to the dangers facing imperiled plants and wildlife.

The ivory-billed woodpecker was perhaps the best known species the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared extinct. The woodpecker went out stubbornly and with fanfare, making unconfirmed appearances in recent decades that ignited a frenzy of ultimately fruitless searches in the swamps of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.

Others such as the flat pigtoe, a freshwater mussel in the southeastern U.S., were identified in the wild only a few times and never seen again, meaning by the time they got a name they were fading from existence.

“When I see one of those really rare ones, it’s always in the back of my mind that I might be the last one to see this animal again,” said Anthony “Andy” Ford, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Tennessee who specializes in freshwater mussels.

The factors behind the disappearances vary — too much development, water pollution, logging, competition from invasive species, birds killed for feathers and animals captured by private collectors. In each case, humans were the ultimate cause.

Another thing they share: All 23 were thought to have at least a slim chance of survival when added to the endangered species list beginning in the 1960s. Only 11 species previously have been removed due to extinction in the almost half-century since the Endangered Species Act was signed into law.

The announcement kicks off a 60-day comment period before the species status changes become final. Wildlife officials citing the extinctions also said they would resume criminal enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to punish companies responsible for preventable bird deaths. Prosecutions ceased for several years under President Donald Trump.

Around the globe, some 902 species have been documented as extinct. The actual number is thought to be much higher because some are never formally identified, and many scientists warn the earth is in an “extinction crisis” with flora and fauna now disappearing at 1,000 times the historical rate.

It’s possible one or more of the 23 species named Wednesday could reappear, several scientists said.

A leading figure in the hunt for the ivory-billed woodpecker said it was premature to call off the effort, after millions of dollars spent on searches and habitat preservation efforts.

“Little is gained and much is lost” with an extinction declaration, said Cornell University bird biologist John Fitzpatrick, lead author of a 2005 study that claimed the woodpecker had been rediscovered in eastern Arkansas.

“A bird this iconic, and this representative of the major old-growth forests of the southeast, keeping it on the list of endangered species keeps attention on it, keeps states thinking about managing habitat on the off chance it still exists,” he said.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a Switzerland-based group that tracks extinctions globally, is not putting the ivory-billed woodpecker into its extinction column because it’s possible the birds still exist in Cuba, said the group’s Craig Hilton-Taylor.

Hilton-Taylor said there can be unintended but damaging consequences if extinction is declared prematurely. “Suddenly the (conservation) money is no longer there, and then suddenly you do drive it to extinction because you stop investing in it,” he said.

But wildlife officials said in an analysis released Wednesday that there have been no definitive sightings of the woodpecker since 1944 and “there is no objective evidence” of its continued existence.

They said the 23 extinction declarations were driven by a desire to clear a backlog of recommended status changes for species that had not been acted upon for years. They said it would free up resources for on-the-ground conservation efforts for species that still have a chance for recovery.

What’s lost when those efforts fail are creatures often uniquely adapted to their environments. Freshwater mussel species like the ones the government says have gone extinct reproduce by attracting fish with a lure-like appendage, then sending out a cloud of larvae that attach to gills of fish until they’ve grown enough to drop off and live on their own.

The odds are slim against any freshwater mussel surviving into adulthood — a one in a million chance, according to Ford of the wildlife service — but those that do can live a century or longer.

Hawaii has the most species on the list — eight woodland birds and one plant. That’s in part because the islands have so many plants and animals that many have extremely small ranges and can blink out quickly.

The most recent to go extinct was the teeny po’ouli, a type of bird known as a honeycreeper discovered in 1973.

By the late 1990s just three remained — a male and two females. After failures to mate them in the wild, the male was captured for potential breeding and died in 2004. The two females were never seen again.

The fate of Hawaii’s birds helped push Duke University extinction expert Stuart Pimm into his field. Despite the grim nature of the government’s proposal to move more species into the extinct column, Pimm said the toll would probably have been much higher without the Endangered Species Act.

“It’s a shame we didn’t get to those species in time, but when we do, we are usually able to save species,” he said.

Since 1975, 54 species have left the endangered list after recovering, including the bald eagle, brown pelican and most humpback whales.

Climate change is making species recovery harder, bringing drought, floods, wildfires and temperature swings that compound the threats species already faced.

How they are saved also is changing. No longer is the focus on individual species, let alone individual birds. Officials say the broader goal now is to preserve their habitat, which boosts species of all types that live there.

“I hope we’re up to the challenge,” said biologist Michelle Bogardus with the wildlife service in Hawaii. “We don’t have the resources to prevent extinctions unilaterally. We have to think proactively about ecosystem health and how do we maintain it, given all these threats.”

Human remains found inside car pulled from reuse pit near Minden
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MINDEN — A grisly discovery inside a vehicle pulled from an irrigation reuse pit south of here Tuesday may resolve the case of a Kearney man who went missing 15 months ago.

According to a news release Wednesday evening from the Nebraska State Patrol, the vehicle was found about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, submerged in the reuse pit near Nebraska Highway 10 about three miles south of Minden.

The vehicle was towed from the water, and the remains of a deceased person and a deceased dog were found inside.

After preliminary investigation, authorities believe the deceased person is Scott Rockefeller of Kearney, who disappeared in late June 2020.

Kearney County sheriff’s deputies responded to the scene Tuesday afternoon and were joined by officers from the Kearney Police Department and NSP on the belief the vehicle may be associated with a missing-person investigation, NSP said in its news release.

According to an October 2020 article in the Kearney Hub, Rockefeller, 30, last had been seen leaving an area just west of Minden near 29 and K roads the previous June 29, and was believed to be traveling with his brown Labrador-mix dog named Zoe.

He was believed to be driving a silver, four-door 2014 Nissan Altima sedan.

In October, Kearney police were asking farmers and rural residents to check their property for Rockefeller, on the chance that with leaves falling off the trees he might be easier to find.

A Kearney police investigator said at that time that Rockefeller’s social media and banking accounts had seen no activity, and that no foul play was suspected.

Kearney County Attorney Melodie Bellamy has ordered an autopsy in the case and has requested that the State Patrol’s Investigative Services Division conduct the investigation, NSP said in its news release Wednesday.

No signs of foul play were found at the scene, the patrol said.