Drug Shipment Arrives; Ricketts Defends TestNebraska

May 13, 2020, 5:46 p.m. ·

Dr. Gary Anthone (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Listen To This Story

Nebraska has received its first doses of a drug that helps some people recover faster from COVID-19. And a new call center has been set up to answer questions about the TestNebraska program.

At his daily coronavirus news conference, Gov. Pete Ricketts announced Nebraska has received 400 vials of the drug remdesivir from the federal government. Ricketts said that is enough to help about 50 patients with COVID-19. The drug was first tested on a cruise ship passenger who was treated at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical officer, said in trials the drug reduced the length of hospital stays for people from about 15 days to 11 days, and cut the number of people who died from the disease from about 12 percent to 8 percent. Anthone said doctors still need to work out when to use the drug, but it will be useful.

“I think it does give people hope. And I think it gives doctors hope, too. And I know that’s why a lot of doctors want to use it now, is because they want to give all patients the best chance they have to try to get through. And usually it’ll be patients that are having trouble getting off the ventilators, or even needing that extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, where you need actually a machine to help oxygenate your blood, that’s where we think it’ll be somewhat useful,” Anthone said.

Anthone also updated statistics on COVID-19 in long-term care facilities in the state like nursing homes and assisted living facilities. He said so far 292 residents and 223 staff have tested positive in 55 facilities, with 73 deaths, all among residents. The state is releasing those totals, but not identifying which facilities are involved.

Ricketts also announced a new phone number for people who have questions about the TestNebraska testing program, which has recently been expanded to cover more people 65 and older. That number is 402-207-9377. Ricketts said the calls will be answered in Utah, where the companies that set up the program are based, but that people will still have to register for testing online.

The governor was also asked about an editorial critical of the program, and of his leadership, published Wednesday by the Grand Island Independent newspaper. The editorial complained the addresses of people tested were not transferred to the local health department, and health care providers were not notified. And it said “The state, under the direction of the governor, is failing Grand Island right now.”

In response, Ricketts said the program has only been testing people for a week and a half.

“We rushed this to get this out as quickly as possible. We certainly could have spent a month or two testing it. But we thought the better deal here was to make sure we got it out testing, even if it wasn’t a perfect solution, we weren’t going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good here,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts also said tests from other sources are also not given to providers, but rather, to the people being tested. And he said as of Tuesday night, addresses of the people tested are now being given to public health districts.

Ricketts also responded to criticism from Iowa health officials that Nebraska had not given them information on workers who tested positive for infection in Dakota County. Although he did not name the company, that’s where a large Tyson meatpacking plant is located. Ricketts said the company had paid for the tests and they were evaluated in an out-of-state lab, so it had taken time to get the results and share them with Iowa officials.

Ricketts was also asked whether the first positive test among Nebraska prison inmates was a sign the state should start releasing nonviolent inmates. He has previously opposed that idea, and repeated Wednesday releases are up to the parole system.

“We don’t want to release people before they’ve had the programming, because that means they will be more likely to reoffend and end up back in our system. So if they need certain anger management training, or sex offender training, all those sort of things, we’ve got to make sure we provide that before we actually release anybody,” he said.

Critics say not enough programming is available for inmates to qualify for parole. And they say a July 1 deadline is coming up for the parole board to accelerate releases because of overcrowding.

The governor also touched on a number of other subjects.

He said he had no issue with the Omaha Tribe using checkpoints to limit access to the community of Macy, so long as they are not blocking U.S. Highway 75 which goes through the reservation.

He said permission for baseball and softball teams to begin practice June 1 and games June 18 is limited to youth sports, for high schoolers on down, and does not yet extend to adults.

And he said permission for restaurants to reopen at 50 percent capacity extends to bar-and-grills that have a food license, but not to bars that simply offer snacks like popcorn.