COVID-19 in Nebraska: One Year Later

March 8, 2021, 5:30 a.m. ·

March marks the anniversary of the first COVID patient diagnosed in Nebraska

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March 6 marks one year since the first person in Nebraska tested positive for COVID-19. To remember how this pandemic started in the state, Bill Kelly and Will Bauer report Monday's NET News Signature Story.

BILL KELLY (NET News): We've both been talking with people who played major roles in the first days when the Coronavirus arrived in Nebraska. That was one year ago this week. The state had already hosted those who had come into contact with the virus when the US government evacuated Americans from China and Japan. They were put under the control of the infectious disease experts at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. But a year ago, the state had its first known case of a local resident contracting the virus.

WILL BAUER (NET News): Yeah, Bill. Dr. Robert Penn with Methodist Hospital in Omaha was actually one of the first people to see COVID-19 in Nebraska."

PENN: "This is like a story -- a detective story."

Dr. Robert Penn is an infectious disease specialist at Methodist Hospital in Omaha. (Courtesy Photo)

Terra Uhing of Three Rivers Public Health addresses an emergency meeting of community leaders in Fremont in March, 2020. (Photo: Bill Kelly/NET News)

Over 1500 people attended a Special Olympics event at the Fremont YMCA at the same time as Nebraska's first COVID-19 patient. (Courtesy Fremont YMCA)

Within a matter of days businesses, schools closed and events canceled to prevent the spread of the new virus. (Photo: Bill Kelly/NET News)

DR. ROBERT PENN: "And he said, 'Well, we had called the health department, and she was not on the list of individuals that would be at risk for COVID-19 -- did not fulfill a what we would call the screening requirements.' But, as I talked to my infection preventionist about, no this looked like a duck, flying like a duck -- even quacking like a duck. I mean, I was very concerned."

KELLY: So, Will, was it obvious to Dr. Penn and the others at Methodist what was going on here?

BAUER: Not from the start, but eventually, yeah, it did become obvious. Emma Hutchison had COVID.

PENN: "I said, at that point, we've got to handle this as COVID-19, and, indeed, they had been taking all the precautions at that point in time. We transferred her to the main campus."

KELLY: So that became Nebraska's first COVID case. How serious a case was it?

BAUER: Well, her condition quickly worsened and the decision was made to transfer her to UNMC, where they had better facilities to treat her. In the meanwhile, it became important to find out who Ms. Hutchison had come in contact with and that fell to local public health districts. Bill, you spoke with the people who had to respond.

KELLY: Yeah, that fell to Three Rivers Public Health District based in Fremont, and because Ms. Hutchinson had attended a Special Olympics event at the local YMCA. The public health director Terra Uhing had already had some limited dealings with COVID the Nebraska National Guard's Camp Ashland was in her district, and that's where UNMC hosted those first COVID isolations a month earlier. That still didn't prepare her, she told me, for the phone call that let her know the first Nebraska case had been in contact with people in her district.

TERRA UHING: "It was of course we'd have 1000 to 1500 people at an event on a Saturday that happens to be in Fremont. I mean, I'm like, of course, it would be and you know, and then I thought how fitting though, right? We'd started with some of this planning, you know, because of the repatriated Americans. So I almost felt like we were maybe just a little bit of a step ahead. Because we've been part of this planning. We've seen some of what this looks like."

BAUER: So, Bill, what did Terra Uhing do next?

KELLY: Well, she made the call to Jerry Rinne. He's the director of the YMCA that hosted the event there in Fremont. And it turns out YMCAs nationally had already recently gotten a briefing that what they might expect if the Coronavirus showed up in their communities. Getting the word from the Public Health District was still a sock in the gut for Jerry Rinne.

JERRY RINNE: "My thinking was, 'Oh my goodness, there's 1500 people in the building. And they've been gone for a week went back home. How many people were that ended up acquiring the virus, you know.' I'm thinking 5000 people come in just from the Fremont YMCA. So kind of a panic mode, kind of looking at what's happening."

BAUER: So, Bill, it sounds like they had to scramble to kind of figure out who had all come in contact with this virus that we didn't know much about.

KELLY: Yeah, that included a large group of Midland university students and others who volunteered to help with the Special Olympics. The Midland students were among the first people to be quarantined in the state of Nebraska, while they waited to see if they'd been exposed and infected. Here's Terra Uhing of the Three Rivers public health.

UHING: "So it really was a multi-health jurisdiction collaboration. The first time you go through this and something that's, you know, that size or that big of scope, it was a little bit hectic, but we did get through it. Little did we know. We would still be almost a year later. We knew it would take time, just not that long."

KELLY: So, Will, in the meantime, what's happening with that first Nebraska COVID patient?

BAUER: Yeah, it's getting a little scary, Bill. Emma Hutchinson had been intubated for a few weeks, and she was fed through a tube it wasn't looking good. Doctors frankly struggled to keep her life. But after a month at the Nebraska Medical Center, Emma eventually won the battle, which was a huge sigh of relief for Dr. Penn at Methodist.

PENN: We all gave a good hurrah, hooray when we heard that news. So it was in the story kind of was continuing at that point in time. And since then we've had multiple chapters we've written to this story and a lot of lessons learned.

KELLY: That really had to be a huge relief. And one other quick note, Will. Terra Uhing of Three Rivers Public Health told me that one of the things that made this such a challenge early on is that really no one in the state -- or even in the country -- had a plan on how to prevent the spread of the virus. Even the basics early on -- like wearing masks and social distancing -- that became common and might have helped in those early weeks of 2020. Those weren't in place yet.