Nebraska Prepares for Potential Coronavirus Spread

March 9, 2020, 5 p.m. ·


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COVID-19 Contact Investigations

Last week Nebraska’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed, and since then at least two family members have also tested positive for the virus. Those with the virus are quarantined or self-quarantined. In response to confirmation of the virus in Nebraska, public health officials are performing contact investigations, figuring out who came into contact with people who have the virus. This includes figuring out where a person went, which in the case of the first infected person in Nebraska, includes a basketball game in Fremont. In that case many people may have been exposed.

Justin Frederick is supervisor of communicable disease epidemiology with Douglas County Health Department. He said contact investigations can also be like detective work.

“Sometimes it takes a lot to jog a person’s memory, especially when they just found out that they tested positive for COVID-19,” Frederick said. “So lots of conversations. We want to make sure we get the facts right before we got public with them, and to make sure that we’re providing the public with the best recommendations on how to continue to try to limit transmission within our community.”

Frederick added there are nearly 200 contact investigations ongoing. To aid that process, the health department has set up a monitoring system for people who may have come in contact with COVID carriers. Officials check in at least once a day to see if there are any symptoms.

Governor Pete Ricketts Comments on the Coronavirus

Governor Pete Ricketts held a press conference about flood recovery Monday morning, but also included remarks on the novel coronavirus in Nebraska. He said the state is working on plans in case people have to work from home. He also said it’s too early to cancel large public gatherings like the state boys basketball tournament, which starts Thursday. Ricketts also said individuals can help keep themselves safe.

“You’ve seen that we’ve had, for example, the Fremont schools close down, the Plattsmouth schools close down,” Ricketts said. “These are examples of how we can prevent the spread of the virus, but we all can take a role in that. We can do that by, again, stop shaking hands and do an elbow bump, or just wave at somebody. But again, that person to person contact, if you’re sick, it’s really important: stay home.”

Some Schools Cancel Class to Prevent Spread of COVID-19

At least three Nebraska public school districts have cancelled classes this week. These districts all had at least one scheduled day off this week already. Public schools in Fremont and Plattsmouth cancelled because students may have been exposed to COVID-19 at a basketball game in Fremont. Logan View Public Schools closed to hold meetings about the virus, and to allow for deep cleaning of the school. Several parochial schools are also closed.

Fremont Public Schools already planned on days off this Friday and part of Thursday, and has spring break coming up next week. Hope Pierce is coordinator of communications and public relations for Fremont Public Schools. She said the schools are closing this week out of an abundance of caution, and that a mild winter means the school schedule won’t have to be heavily altered.

“We had plenty of days built in such as snow days, and so we’re taking these three days kind of from that bank,” Pierce said. “And so there will be no issues as far as that goes, and our students will just complete their quarter finals after they come back from spring break. “

Midland University has also called off in-person classes, but those classes are all being held online instead.

Nebraska Hospitals Prepare for COVID-19

The University of Nebraska Medical Center has been involved with the coronavirus response for several weeks, including working with the Centers for Disease Control to help quarantine individuals who traveled back to the U.S. from China.

Smaller hospitals across the state are also preparing for the virus. Many will rely on plans made in case of a pandemic flu, though they are aware of differences between the two viruses. Those hospitals are also working with state and local health departments for guidance, and to test those who may have COVID-19. Some hospitals are screening and restricting visitors and advise those who are sick not to visit their friends or relatives in the hospital.

Hospitals are also planning to screen some patients over the phone, so that those with mild symptoms don’t infect other patients or staff in a hospital or clinic setting. Marty Fattig is on the board of the Nebraska Hospital Association, and is CEO of the Nemaha County Hospital. He said rural hospitals are concerned about staffing in case of greater spread of the coronavirus.

“What happens if our staff becomes exposed, or worse yet if they become sick?” Fattig said. “We have a limited number of staff members and if we have an influx of patients there are going to be serious concerns about who is going to take care of those patients in rural communities.”

In addition to visitor restrictions at hospitals, several Lincoln and Fremont area nursing facilities are not allowing visitors. At least one facility is under quarantine after a staff member attended a basketball game in Fremont where someone with coronavirus was also in attendance. Older people and those with underlying medical conditions are at a higher risk if they contract coronavirus.

Lincoln Mayor Speaks on Coronavirus

Lincoln is set to host the boys basketball state tournament later this week. Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird held a press conference Monday and mentioned concern about the tournament.

“We certainly are concerned about at what point we would need to take a next level step of preparedness like cancelling large public gatherings,” Gaylor Baird said, “Because we don’t have any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Lincoln and Lancaster County, we aren’t at this point doing that.”

At that same press conference, Patricia Lopez, interim director of the Lincoln Lancaster County Department of Health, said a private company is starting to do testing as well as the public health departments, so the market for testing will greatly increase.

What can Nebraskans do to prepare?

First and foremost people can take the same precautions they would take during flu season: washing hands, wiping down surfaces, and avoiding shaking hands. It’s not necessary to panic buy food or supplies, but officials encourage preparing as if a snowstorm is coming, including having extra food in the house. The CDC does not advise the use of surgical masks for people who are not sick.

This is a fluid situation, but at this time the likelihood of being infected with coronavirus in Nebraska remains low.

Kelsey Eihausen also contributed reporting to this story.

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