Ricketts Defends TestNebraska; Discusses Law Enforcement, Meatpacking Plants

April 30, 2020, 5:48 p.m. ·

Gov. Pete Ricketts speaks Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Gov. Pete Ricketts defended a new COVID-19 testing program the state is setting up, and dealt with questions on law enforcement and meatpacking plants, in a news conference Thursday.

Starting next week, Nebraska will be launching a testing program for COVID-19 called TestNebraska. Materials are being provided by the same Utah-based companies that are running a testing program in that state.

Thursday, the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper ran a lengthy article that said test results from the program run by those companies in that state were producing less than half the percentage of positive results as other tests in the state. The article quoted health professionals expressing concerns about the accuracy of the program.

Asked about those criticisms, Ricketts said while the companies were providing equipment to Nebraska, Nebraskans would be running the testing here.

“We will be setting it up and we will be verifying to make sure that it’s calibrated appropriately and then testing our samples to make sure we’re getting it right. But I want to emphasize this is not some brand new technology. This is companies who had access to be able to deliver the test kits and really kind of make it a turnkey delivery for us with regard to machines, the test kits and all that sort of thing. Though we will be here in the state of Nebraska managing that lab. It’ll be Nebraskans that are running it. It’ll be Nebraskans who are running the test sites and so forth. So that will be ours that we’re going to be running in the state of Nebraska,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts said TestNebraska testing will begin in Omaha and Grand Island on Monday.

On another subject, Ricketts was asked about a dispute between law enforcement agencies in Buffalo County, where Kearney is located, and the Two Rivers Health Public Health Department there.

Law enforcement agencies want to know if someone at a particular address has tested positive for COVID-19 before responding to a call, in order to protect first responders. Two Rivers has denied the request, citing concerns over confidentiality and stigmatizing residents. Ricketts was asked if he could order the department to turn over the information.

“The answer is no, I can’t. I can only waive statutes. We can waive certain statutes that allow us to be able to share data but we can’t compel it,” he said.

The governor was also asked about the effectiveness of President Donald Trump’s order for meatpacking plants to stay open. The announcement was followed within hours by Tyson Foods announcing it would close its Dakota City plant, where an undisclosed number of workers have been infected, for three days.

“I think what it does is really highlights the importance of why we need to work so hard to keep these plants open. Now, obviously, Tyson needs to make decisions about their businesses, and it’s appropriate for them to make those decisions. But we need to work very hard to keep these plants open, because this is how we are feeding our state and our nation,” he said.

He was also asked about comments by Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele that in light of Trump’s order, the federal government should provide testing and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue should visit that city, where hundreds of workers at the JBS meatpacking plant have gotten sick.

“I would certainly accept help from the federal government to be able to do more with regard testing. In fact, we are getting some resources from the federal government to be able to help do more of our contact tracing. So we are getting some of those resources. But again, we would certainly accept more help, and with regard to Sonny Perdue here, we would certainly welcome Sonny Perdue to come here,” he said.