"It Feels Like Every Day We Have a Lesser Chance of Controlling It": COVID-19 Hits Hall County Hard

April 16, 2020, 3:37 p.m. ·

Hall County has more COVID-19 cases than any other Nebraska county (Central District Health Department web site image)

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Hall County has more confirmed COVID-19 cases than any other Nebraska county; 339 as of today, mostly from the city of Grand Island. NET producer Mike Tobias talks with Teresa Anderson, health director of the Central District Health Department that serves Hall, Hamilton and Merrick counties; her agency reports a total of 360 cases and six deaths from COVID-19 for all three counties.

Mike Tobias, NET News: First, give us a sense of what’s it like right now for Grand Island’s health care providers, clinics and hospitals?

Teresa Anderson, Central District Health Department Health Director: I think it's rather stressful, and hectic and challenging.

Tobias: Is the number of reported cases an accurate representation of the scope of COVID-19 in Grand Island?

Anderson: What I can tell you is, and these are last week's numbers that I'm going to talk about, so at the time that we had a thousand tests done, that was maybe the middle of last week, we have 78,000 people that we serve. So a thousand tests seems like a small number for that large population. With that small number of tests we were seeing a pretty high rate of positives as compared to our peers across the state.

Tobias: You’ve said you’re hoping that “the number of much needed COVID-19 tests will increase."

Anderson: First I'll tell you where we are right now, because we have very limited testing. The hospital, of course, has testing available. Our major clinics, our larger clinics have limited to no tests available. So if we can't test to see where it is, and can't test to identify folks who are contagious, regardless of whether they have symptoms or not, there's not much we can do to have them quarantined. If you have a test that says "I'm positive," then you're more likely to say "I will stay home." But if you have a few sniffles, or a little bit of a cough, you're more likely to just keep going because that's our nature, at least in Nebraska. If we have more tests we can better identify the depth of the problem. This week we have the National Guard here again, thanks to the DHHS and the governor, so we're able to continue to test today, tomorrow and Saturday here in Grand Island. But we can't test just everybody because we only have 50 tests per day. So what we're hoping to do with those tests is to prioritize individuals who have symptoms, or who have been with a close contact who is identified as a positive COVID person. So we're trying to catch people at whatever stage we can, and again with the whole goal, and this is kind of Public Health 101, is to identify people who are contagious and have them quarantine.

Tobias: Any indication you'll get more tests?

Anderson: There is some indication of that. Just yesterday we requisitioned a number of tests for our clinics, so that the tests would come here and we will be able to redistribute them to the clinic based on need. Through the Governor's Office and through DHHS at the state level, they're able to procure some of those tests for us. Otherwise we would be without much of any tests.

Tobias: Why are you seeing so many cases in Hall County?

Anderson: When we started down this path and knew that the pandemic was coming, we were looking at how vulnerable we were in this three county area, but specifically in Hall County. We know that, when we're looking at the county road map rankings that tell us how healthy we are here, that we have some issues. We know that we have a lower median household income than the rest of the state, in a large part, and we also know that, generally, vulnerable populations will include our elderly, and we have a number of elderly citizens in our area. Also, when you're a culturally diverse community like we are, that that's an increased risk for illness based on that alone.

Tobias: Has the Hispanic-Latino population been hit disproportionally hard?

Anderson: The hard thing about that is that we have not kept data on race or ethnicity. While we were preparing for this, we didn't prepare well for everything. So, at least, at the local level, and I'm not sure what data we're submitting at the state level, I don't think that we're monitoring ethnicity and race, but I'm not certain on that. I can tell you that we have a number of interpreters that we're using in our contacts, so we are aware that we have some English as second language folks here and we're working to connect with them. When we do that, it takes a little bit longer because we need to use an interpreter to get the message there, but so far we've been able to provide those interpreters in-house.

Tobias: What’s it going to take to slow your outbreak?

Anderson: So this is where we are right now. It feels like every day we have a lesser chance of controlling it. We've worked with our community and I've been really vocal about the need for every person to take this seriously. At this point, when we're getting 50 or 60 new cases every day, we're concerned that there may not be anything that we can do to slow the spread, if we cannot get the folks that live in this area to stay home and have social distancing and protect others and protect ourselves from catching the virus.

Tobias: Is a stay-at-home order needed?

Anderson: I don't know how much further that goes than what our current directed health measure is. But there has to be a way for us to get the message out. You have to stay home, and whether that's voluntarily or whether it's mandated at the state level, we need to get people to stay home

Tobias: Do you have all the resources and help you need?

Anderson: We have a lot of support. I will to tell you that, within our community itself, we have a really strong network of individuals, with the volunteers, the law enforcement, the first responders, excellent working relationships with our providers and with the hospital. What I will tell you too is, this is Public Health 101 as well, is that we say all public health is local. So we know that when we're hit with a disaster or a public health emergency that we have to take care of ourselves and that's what we've been doing. In addition to all of the folks within our community who reach out and support us, we have had some assistance through DHHS and also through the College of Public Health.

Tobias: Do you need more?

Anderson: Yeah, we do. We do. We're getting weary right now, and we're very committed and we're very passionate. Anybody in this building is just willing to work however many hours it takes to meet the needs of the community. But we need to be looking at how can we bring in some, I'm going to say, fresh horses to help carry the load for a while, because I do believe that we're going to see these numbers continue to increase over, at least the next 10 days and maybe for 14 days before we hit that plateau.