FILE PHOTO: Gloves

Emily Struebing, a physician assistant, puts on gloves before meeting with patients at an appointment-only COVID-19 drive-thru testing site in Omaha.

Help is coming to hard-hit Grand Island, a Nebraska hot spot for coronavirus, following urgent pleas from local doctors for the state to do something about an outbreak there.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, in a conference call Sunday with the city’s mayor, local health department director and other officials, pledged state support including more testing, something desperately needed.

The state will lead more testing in Grand Island, Ricketts’ spokesman Taylor Gage said. He did not specify what agency would do the testing, but the Nebraska National Guard was involved in ramped-up testing at a state facility in Kearney.

On Sunday, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services announced that the Guard, in coordination with the Two Rivers Health Department, had tested 162 residents and staffers at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center. That followed two confirmed coronavirus cases among staffers there.

“We are taking decisive action,” Health and Human Services CEO Dannette Smith said in a press release, “to ensure the safety and well-being of our residents and staff.”

Coronavirus testing has been so limited that the number of known positive cases combined with the pace at which they’re recorded are the only clues for community leaders scrambling to contain the highly contagious illness.

“It’s very difficult to get a handle on how big this is,” said Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele, “when you don’t have the testing.”

Hall County, where Grand Island sits, ranks second in known positive cases only to the far more populous Douglas County, home to Omaha. A letter signed by 45 doctors and published in The World-Herald over the weekend begged for more testing and action.

As of Sunday at 6 p.m., when the state’s most recent numbers were posted online, Nebraska’s number of known positive cases had climbed to 367, from 323 the day before. Of known positives, 145 were in Douglas County and 45 were in Hall. Douglas, with about 560,000 people, has 30% of the state’s population and 40% of known coronavirus cases. Hall, at 61,000 people, has just a 3.2% share of Nebraska’s 1.9 million people but 12% of its known coronavirus cases.

“We believe we have more cases than are showing up, and we believe we’re on a different trajectory,” said Teresa Anderson, director of the Central District Health Department, which oversees Hall, Merrick and Hamilton Counties. Anderson said the Sunday total of known positive cases for all three counties was 67.

“The fact that our numbers go up by 25 to 50% every day — and we have minimum testing — makes us quite concerned.”

Because of the paucity of testing, Anderson said health care providers are diagnosing coronavirus based on symptoms.

Anderson said more state help with testing will be a welcome window into the problem “so we can get a better grip on what our community looks like.”

Steele, the Grand Island mayor, said residents have largely followed health directives to hunker down, but in this manufacturing town, working from home is not an option for many.

And because the federal government has declared some of the city’s production plants essential, those designated businesses can’t just close shop and wait out the pandemic.

“People have to eat,” Steele said.

The JBS USA plant, where some 3,000 people work cutting and packaging beef, now has 13 positive cases among its workforce, up from 10 previously reported.

Steele said he already had asked local businesses for their plans for keeping workers safe. He said he was told that JBS installed clear plastic shields at break tables, was taking worker temperatures as they started their shifts and are concerned about employee safety.

“It’s not like they have any incentive to be cavalier about employees’ health,” Steele said.

Ricketts, through Gage, his spokesman, outlined the following measures the state would take to help Grand Island:

  • Provide more staff to help the laborious work of “contact investigations,” or mapping out infected people’s physical contacts with family, co-workers and others in an effort to contain community spread.
  • Communicate with Grand Island employers on ensuring compliance with quarantine directives and social distancing guidelines.
  • Communicate with the public on the need to do the same.

Anderson said she’s particularly worried about vulnerable populations: The three nursing homes in the area, including Westfield Quality Care in Aurora, where five caregivers and one resident have tested positive; Spanish-speakers who might not be getting the messages about health directives; people struggling with basic needs. She anticipates that applications will go up for the federal WIC program, which provides nutrition assistance to mothers and children. Her department processes those applications.

“We really have to get that message out that people have to stay home. They just have to stay home,” she said. “Even though we don’t have an order, we’re asking people for the next two weeks to have as minimal interaction as we can in the community so we can get a handle on this.”

The state figures reported Sunday show that nearly 6,000 Nebraskans have been tested so far.

Also on Sunday, state health officials said five Nebraska counties recorded their first confirmed cases: Custer, Johnson, Logan, Phelps and Seward.

In Iowa, Pottawattamie County reported another presumptive positive case, bringing the known total there to eight. The latest case is a woman between ages 18 and 40, and she is presumed to have been infected through community spread. The woman is a Council Bluffs resident who is self-isolating at home.


PHOTOS: Coronavirus in Nebraska

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