Ricketts Seeks $58.6 Million to Fight Virus; Officials Say Tests Being Prioritized

March 20, 2020, 5:33 p.m. ·

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

Listen To This Story

Gov. Pete Ricketts said Friday he’ll ask the Legislature for nearly $60 million to fight the coronavirus. And state officials said while there aren’t enough tests for everyone, they’re prioritizing the right people, and others who have symptoms of flu or COVID-19 should just stay home.

In a Friday afternoon news conference, Gov. Pete Ricketts said he’ll ask the Legislature to make an emergency appropriation.

“I've spoken with Speaker Sheer and Sen. Stinner, who's the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, about requesting $58.6 million from the state's cash reserve fund to be transferred into the governor's emergency fund for us to be able to use to fight the spread the virus here in our state,” Ricketts said.

About $38 million would be for personal protective equipment and support to local health departments. Another $17 million would be for extra staffing for veterans homes and care facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as additional staff for the department in areas including epidemiology and interpreters.

The Legislature is currently on indefinite recess, but Speaker Jim Sheer has talked about possibly meeting next week.

Ricketts later held a conference call with state senators that was closed to the media. However, Sen. Megan Hunt, who participated, said during the call Ricketts acknowledged there have been challenges getting personal protective equipment, and that Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said some of his orders were cancelled because the federal government stepped in and bought the equipment. However, Ricketts said Nebraska is finding suppliers.

Hunt also said the governor discussed using vacated University of Nebraska dorm space for health care workers who need to be quarantined.

At his news conference, Ricketts also said small businesses would be able apply for loans from the Small Business Administration for up to $2 million and up to 30 years at 3.75%, or 2.75 percent for nonprofits.

And the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Gary Anthone, said there’s still a shortage of “reagent,” part of the kit that’s needed to test for COVID-19. But Anthone said there’s good news from the people that have been tested so far.

“We now have 33 confirmed cases in the state of Nebraska. This is out of a total number of close to 800 tests that have been performed now in the state, including through the Nebraska public health lab, the University of Nebraska Medical Center lab and the commercial labs. If you do a percent basis, that's less than 5% of the cases that we have tested have confirmed positive. And these are the types of patients that we're testing that are very, very high risk for testing positive,” Anthone said.

Those high risk patients include people hospitalized for pneumonia without a diagnosis as well as travelers from areas with high community spread of the disease. Going forward, Anthone said, testing will still have to be prioritized.

“We want to make sure that the people that are critical to get tested will get tested, and those include health care workers. We have to make sure we keep our health care workers able to work. And so they'll be priority items to get tested if they develop symptoms. Same for first responders. And then our long term care or nursing care facility patients will also be on that list,” he said.

Ricketts was asked if the lack of tests means more Nebraskans are infected than was being reported as of Friday afternoon.

“Do we think we have more than 33 people in our state with coronavirus? The answer to that is yes,” he said.

Anthone said in an ideal world, perhaps between 25,000 and 100,000 Nebraskans could be tested. He acknowledged not everyone who wanted to be tested could be. But he pointed out being tested wouldn’t protect that person from the virus.

“So at a certain point, you have to ask yourself, why do we even test anymore? If you have the symptoms, then maybe you should just stay at home and then get better, and then stay 72 hours more after your 14-day quarantine and then you know, you'll be fine.”

“Over 80% of the people will get through it that way. The real reason for testing is to keep people in the workforce, especially the people that need to be in the workforce, which are the people who are going to take care of the people that are going to get ill,” he said.