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Health official urges COVID-19 safety steps for holiday season
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With Thanksgiving celebrations this week bringing people together from far and wide for food and fellowship, the executive director of the South Heartland Health District is pointing out one recipe no family will want to serve.

“Residents are preparing to gather with family and friends for upcoming holidays, they may be traveling, and they may be around people they haven’t seen for quite some time,” Michele Bever said in her weekly Tuesday update on local conditions related to the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, pandemic. “This is a recipe for additional spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is already at high (red level) transmission in our health district.”

The South Heartland district encompasses Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties, where local hospitals are continuing to see COVID-19 afflicting a large percentage of their in-patients.

As of Monday morning, 53% of all in-patients at Mary Lanning Healthcare in Hastings, Brodstone Memorial Hospital in Superior and Webster County Community Hospital in Red Cloud — 19 patients in all — were being treated for the viral infection, which can cause mild symptoms or no symptoms at all in some patients but can lead to severe illness, complications and death for others.

Health care systems across Nebraska are feeling the pressure at this time.

“Overall, the availability of staffed ICU (intensive care unit) beds has continued to be low locally, which is adding to the increasingly heavy burden experienced by our rural and urban hospitals statewide,” Bever said.

South Heartland logged 193 new laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 for the week ending Nov. 20 and another 52 new cases on Monday. Those new cases have pushed the district’s running tally of positive cases since March 2020 beyond the 7,000 mark, to 7,006.

Testing numbers were up sharply — 31% — last week compared to the previous week, Bever said. But she attributed the jump entirely to increased surveillance testing of staff and residents in long-term care facilities, which is required when they see positive cases.

Bever said the district’s local COVID-19 Advisory, which is informational and not regulatory in nature, will remain in place since community transmission levels remain high.

For the four-county district, the 7-day rate of new cases was 458 per 100,000 population on Monday.

The overall test positivity rate was 15.8% for the week ending Nov. 20. That includes positivity in the general public (excluding nursing homes) of 40.2%.

The test positivity rate is the number of new cases recorded in a given week, divided by the number of tests administered in that same time period. Any rate about 10% is considered high.

To help hold the risk of further transmission in check, the health department first and foremost is urging that everyone who is eligible be vaccinated against both COVID-19 and seasonal influenza, and that eligible adults receive COVID-19 vaccine booster shots.

Since last week, the federal government has extended eligibility for the booster shots to everyone 18 and older and has begun to urge those shots for anyone age 50 and up.

Bever noted that COVID-19 vaccines and flu shots can be received at the same time.

Here are some of the COVID-19 safety tips for the holidays issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Protect those not yet eligible for vaccination, such as very young children, by getting yourself and other eligible people around them vaccinated.
  • Wear a well-fitting mask over your nose and mouth in indoor public settings if you are not fully vaccinated. And even those who are fully vaccinated should wear masks in public indoor settings in communities with substantial to high transmission rates such as exist currently in this area.
  • Outdoor interactions and activities are safer than those that occur indoors.
  • Avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.
  • Don’t host or attend a gathering if you are sick or have symptoms.
  • — Get tested if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or have a close contact with someone who is positive for the infection. Symptoms can be mild.
  • If you are considering travel for a holiday or event, visit the CDC travel webpage, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/index.html, for useful information. CDC still recommends that people who aren’t fully vaccinated delay travel.

While this is the United States’ second Thanksgiving with COVID-19 in circulation, Bever said, public health recommendations for this holiday season aren’t that different from those that were in place in November 2020.

All prevention layers continue to be promoted. These include use of masks, social distancing and frequent hand washing.

Individuals with questions about vaccines or COVID-19 testing should visit with their health care providers or the health department, Bever said. For more information visit the South Heartland website, southheartlandhealth.org, or call the office at 402-462-6211 or 877-238-7595.

Social gatherings slowly returning pre-pandemic levels
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As families gather to count their blessings for the year, the pandemic and the way nearly every aspect of life has been affected still looms in people’s minds.

Many events, including family gatherings, were canceled last year due to the pandemic. This year, many have been brought back, but often with a lower attendance.

Mayor Corey Stutte said people are easing their way back into social gatherings after a year of being away.

“I think people are continuing to do what makes them feel comfortable,” he said. “I don’t think we are at pre-pandemic levels in terms of attendance at events, but that is because people are taking individual responsibility and taking part in events that they feel comfortable participating in.”

While the development of vaccines against the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, has improved community life compared to a year ago, Stutte said people still are being affected by the pandemic.

“I think science is a wonderful thing, and it is clear that access to the vaccine has improved things over the past year,” he said. “It has allowed a sense of pre-pandemic normality, with an understanding that we aren’t out of the woods yet.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is the community’s support for local businesses, which Stutte said has remained strong over the last two years.

“I think the past two years — and this past year especially — have shown that we have a resilient community that is willing to support our local businesses and each other,” he said. “The pandemic has changed a lot of the way that we interact at work and in our social lives, but it hasn’t changed how our citizens support our community and believe in it.”

Mikki Shafer, president of the Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce, said the development of the vaccine helped encourage shoppers back into stores.

“Businesses are doing everything they can to get shoppers into their stores, but it is a slow return,” she said. “This Saturday will be a good gauge on what the holiday season may be like with Shop Small Saturday events going on all over town.”

Sales tax reports indicate there’s been an increase in nearly all counties in the state, but Shafer said they aren’t sure if that is due to more people making purchases or due to the rising cost of materials needed to produce items.

“It will be interesting to see just how much the increase will be from last holiday season to this holiday season,” she said. “These reports are usually two months behind, so it will take a while to get the data.”

Along with increased sales, the state’s unemployment rate is at a historical low of 1.9%.

Shafer said the local unemployment rate matches the state numbers.

“If someone is looking for a job in Hastings there is no reason they couldn’t find one,” she said. “In the upcoming months, the chamber will be looking at ways to address the staffing shortage. It’s every community’s number one problem.”

But even with the vaccine in place, businesses reopened and gatherings recommencing, health officials warn that the pandemic isn’t over.

Michele Bever, executive director of the South Heartland District Health Department, said developing the vaccine was a big step toward ending the pandemic, but not enough people have been vaccinated.

In some ways, the situation of public health is similar to a year ago, she said.

“One year ago we were in the midst of a huge wave of COVID cases,” Bever said. “The hospitals were full with COVID cases, and we were experiencing a surge of deaths associated with COVID. For the most part, people were more willing to follow public health recommendations to help protect themselves and others — and there were still state-directed health measures and a Nebraska state of emergency in place that helped us realize the severity of the situation.”

Now a year later, COVID case rates are on the rise again, this time along with infuenza, which had been suppressed last year due to social distancing. Hospitalization rates are climbing as medical centers begin to reach their capacity once more.

“It feels like we’re reiterating some of the same messages, and that’s because we are,” she said. “Our battle against these illnesses remains critical. This upward trend places our friends and neighbors at continued risk.”

Bever said there are some treatment options available now that weren’t available at the beginning of the pandemic. Monoclonal antibody therapy provides an infusion of antibodies to help a person fight off infection, and this has been successful in reducing the severity of illness in people who have received the therapy. She said health care professionals are looking forward to the emergency use authorization of antiviral pills that clinical trials have shown to be effective in fighting off the virus.

“Both the monoclonal antibodies and the antiviral pill therapy are treatments, not prevention,” she said. “The best case is not to get infected in the first place so vaccination and other prevention layers are still our key messages.”

With vaccination now available for ages 5 and up, Bever said there’s no reason not to take advantage of its protection. The vaccine offers increased protection against severe COVID illness, hospitalization due to COVID and deaths due to COVID.

The Nebraska state epidemiologist shared data Monday showing there is a 10 times higher risk of being hospitalized if a patient is unvaccinated compared to people who are fully vaccinated.

“Last November, we were looking gratefully forward to the vaccine arrival, it was our light at the end of the tunnel, it was such an important tool to help us fight the virus and virus’s devastating effects on our health, our relationships, our families, our economy, on the way we worked, studied, played, worshiped, on our lives,” Bever said. “We knew it could help us tame the pandemic and move us back toward a better normal. Unfortunately, the spread of misinformation and misleading information have taken away from what we could have accomplished with the vaccine if more people were vaccinated. Instead, a year later, the pandemic continues on — now especially hard-hitting to the people who are unvaccinated.”

As families consider holiday gatherings, she said people should evaluate what precautions are needed. She encourages people to get their influenza shot and to get their COVID shots and boosters, if they are eligible. These vaccines are very effective in reducing severe illness and hospitalizations for these respiratory viruses.

“We can have safer holidays if we put some of these precautions in place,” Bever said.

Mary Lanning CEO asks public for grace amid latest visitation policy change
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With local case numbers related to the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, again on the rise, Mary Lanning Healthcare once more is reining in its hospital visitation policy — and its CEO is asking the public for grace and understanding in a difficult time.

Effective Tuesday, hospital in-patients who aren’t positive for COVID-19 once again are allowed only a single visitor, and that designated person will be the only visitor the patient can have for the duration of that particular hospital stay.

With news of the change coming amid the Thanksgiving holiday week, when patients might especially appreciate visits from family and friends, Eric Barber, president and CEO of Mary Lanning Healthcare, wants the community to know he is as frustrated as they are by the lingering COVID-19 threat and related problems.

“This is not a punishment,” Barber said of the one-visitor policy in a news release issued Tuesday morning. “We have to ensure that our local hospital is available to take care of you when you need us. In order to do that, we need to have some help from the community of Hastings. We are asking for your understanding, patience and a little kindness toward our dedicated staff.”

The Mary Lanning visitation rules have been altered multiple times since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

When conditions permitted, the rules were relaxed to some extent — but they never have been returned to pre-pandemic status.

Lately, however, local conditions related to the virus have worsened in important respects. Daily and weekly numbers of new cases have increased, as have hospitalizations.

As of Monday, 53% of all hospital in-patients in the four-county South Heartland Health District were being treated for COVID-19, the district health department announced.

The district covers Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties. Its three hospitals are Mary Lanning in Hastings; Brodstone Memorial Hospital in Superior; and Webster County Community Hospital in Red Cloud.

The increases aren’t what Barber or his Mary Lanning colleagues were wanting to see. Hospital officials are as tired as everyone else of dealing with the virus and its variants and all the trouble they bring.

“Everyone, especially those who work in health care, has grown weary of COVID-19,” Barber said. “But MLH must continue to follow some protocols to assure that we have the capacity to care for the next patient who walks through the door.”

Mary Lanning, an independent nonprofit health care organization, is Hastings’ largest employer. It serves patients from birth to end of life and provides services at every level from primary care to neurosurgery, oncology and other specialties.

Because of federal guidelines from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Mary Lanning and other health care organizations continue to require visitors to wear masks and be screened at the door. Employees must wear masks in public areas and when caring for patients.

Barber on Tuesday issued a “plea” that the community try to understand health care organizations are held to a higher health and safety regulatory standard than are other businesses.

The pandemic has been hard on health care workers, many of whom are “just plain tired,” the news release said.

Besides a heavy workload, they now are having to deal with patients, family members and other would-be hospital visitors who are frustrated by the ongoing public health situation and impatient to see their loved ones.

“Our staff needs your support as much now as they did a year ago, if not more,” Barber said. “It seems health care workers have gone from heroes to zeroes for no apparent reason.”

Under the visitation policy as now revised, all hospital visitors must enter at the north entrance, be screened and receive visitor identification to wear. Visitors must wear masks at all times.

Visiting hours are 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. No visitor access is allowed past 7 p.m.

The rule of one visitor per hospital stay applies to all in-patient units.

Outpatient surgery patients are allowed two visitors at a time. Those in Diagnostic Services may have one visitor at a time.

In the Family Care Center, patients may have two visitors in addition to the support person. No visitors under age 16 are allowed.

Pediatric patients are allowed two documented parent/support person visitors. Siblings aren’t allowed to visit at this time.

Emergency room patients are allowed one visitor.

Patients who are positive for COVID-19 aren’t allowed any visitors. Video visitation can be arranged with the nursing staff.

Barber is asking for the community to respect the challenge the hospital is facing and help its employees keep everyone safe.

“Hastings and Mary Lanning have proven over time that we can get through pretty much anything,” he said. “We just need to work together, and MLH staff members need your appreciation and cooperation.”

Fighting gas prices, US to release 50 million barrels of oil
President Joe Biden is ordering a record 50 million barrels of oil released from America's strategic reserve to help bring down energy costs
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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Tuesday ordered a record 50 million barrels of oil released from America's strategic reserve, aiming to bring down gasoline and other costs, in coordination with other major energy consuming nations including India, the United Kingdom and China.

The U.S. action is focused on helping Americans coping with higher fuel and other prices ahead of Thanksgiving and winter holiday travel. Gasoline prices are at about $3.40 a gallon, more than 50% higher than a year ago, according to the American Automobile Association.

“While our combined actions will not solve the problems of high gas prices overnight, it will make a difference,” Biden promised in remarks at the White House. "It will take time, but before long you should see the price of gas drop where you fill up your tank.”

The government will begin to move barrels into the market in mid- to late-December. Gasoline usually responds at a lag to changes in oil prices, and administration officials suggested this is one of several steps toward ultimately bringing down costs.

Oil prices had dropped in the days ahead of the announced withdrawals, a sign that investors were anticipating the moves that could bring a combined 70 million to 80 million barrels of oil onto global markets. But in trading after the announcement, prices shot up roughly 2% instead of falling.

The market was expecting the news, and traders may have been underwhelmed when they saw the details, said Claudio Galimberti, senior vice president for oil markets at Rystad Energy.

“The problem is that everybody knows that this measure is temporary,” Galimberti said. “So once it is stopped, then if demand continues to be above supply like it is right now, then you’re back to square one.”

Shortly after the U.S. announcement, India said it would release 5 million barrels from its strategic reserves. The British government confirmed it will release up to 1.5 million barrels from its stockpile. Japan and South Korea are also participating, and U.S. officials said it’s the biggest coordinated release from global strategic reserves.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, said it was “a sensible and measured step to support global markets” during the pandemic recovery. Blain added that the country's companies will be authorized but not compelled to participate in the release.

Despite all the optimistic statements, the actions by the U.S. and others risk counter moves by Gulf nations, especially Saudi Arabia, and by Russia. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have made clear they intend to control supply to keep prices high for the time being.

As word spread in recent days of a coming joint release from U.S. and other countries’ reserves, there were warnings from OPEC interests that those countries may respond in turn, reneging on promises to increase supplies in coming months.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso was among Republicans who criticized Biden's announcement. The No. 3 Senate Republican said the underlying issue is restrictions on domestic production by the administration.

“Begging OPEC and Russia to increase production and now using the Strategic Petroleum Reserve are desperate attempts to address a Biden-caused disaster,” Barrasso said. "They’re not substitutes for American energy production.”

Biden has scrambled to reshape much of his economic agenda around the issue of inflation, saying that his recently passed $1 trillion infrastructure package will reduce price pressures by making it more efficient and cheaper to transport goods.

Republican lawmakers have hammered the administration for inflation hitting a 31-year high in October. The consumer price index has soared 6.2% from a year ago — the biggest 12-month jump since 1990.

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is an emergency stockpile to preserve access to oil in case of natural disasters, national security issues and other events. Maintained by the Energy Department, the reserves are stored in caverns created in salt domes along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coasts. There are roughly 605 million barrels of petroleum in the reserve.

The Biden administration argues that it is the right tool to help ease the supply problem. Americans used an average of 20.7 million barrels a day during September, according to the Energy Information Administration. That means that the release equals about two-and-a-half days of additional supply.

"Right now, I will do what needs to be done to reduce the price you pay at the pump," Biden said at the White House.

He said the administration also is looking into potential price gouging by gas companies squeezing customers while making money off the lowered oil costs. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, too, said U.S. companies are part of the problem, keeping production below prepandemic levels in order to increase profits.

The coronavirus pandemic roiled energy markets everywhere. As it bore down and economic activity sank in April of last year, energy demand collapsed and oil futures prices turned negative. Energy traders did not want to get stuck with crude that they could not store. But as the economy recovered, production lagged and prices jumped to a seven-year high in October.

U.S. production has not recovered. Energy Information Administration figures indicate that domestic production is averaging roughly 11 million barrels daily, down from 12.8 million before the pandemic.

Americans are feeling the squeeze. For Matt Hebard of Agoura Hills, Calif., it’s taking $80 to gas up his SUV. “Gas prices are definitely on everyone’s minds right now,” he said as he filled up at a station in his suburb northwest of Los Angeles.

He hoped the president’s move has a good long-term effect.

Sy Amber, meanwhile, was en route to Las Vegas from his California home. Unhappily spending more money filling up his car, he said he didn't expect Biden's action to work and didn't agree with them.

“I'm not happy with our president,” he said.

Republicans in Congress are pointing to Biden’s efforts to minimize drilling and support renewable energy as a reason for the decreased production, though there are multiple market dynamics at play as fossil fuel prices are higher around the world.

Biden and administration officials insist that tapping more oil from the reserve does not conflict with his climate goals, because this short-term fix meets a specific problem, while climate policies are a long-term answer over decades.

They argue that the administration's push to boost renewable energy will eventually mean less dependence in the U.S. on fossil fuels. But that’s a politically convenient argument — in simple terms, higher prices reduce usage, and significantly higher gasoline prices could force Americans into less reliance on fossil fuels.

The White House decision came after weeks of diplomatic negotiations. Biden and President Xi Jinping of China talked over steps to counter tight petroleum supplies in their virtual meeting earlier this month and “discussed the importance of taking measures to address global energy supplies,” according to the White House.

The Department of Energy will make the oil available from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in two ways; 32 million barrels will be released in the next few months and will return to the reserve in the years ahead, the White House said. An additional 18 million barrels will be part of a sale of oil that Congress authorized.

AP writers Cathy Bussewitz and Charles Sheehan contributed from New York, Jill Lawless from London and Matthew Daly and Ellen Knickmeyer from Washington.