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special report
5 things to watch as Nebraska Legislature returns

LINCOLN — When the Nebraska Legislature last met, fewer than 75 people in the state had tested positive for coronavirus and no one had died of the disease.

The state’s economy kept humming, although social distancing mandates had started causing hiccups in the Omaha area. In Washington, D.C., Congress was at work on a $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill and, in Minnesota, George Floyd was still alive.

Life looks very different four months later, as lawmakers return to finish out the 2020 session.

Lawmakers are slated to reconvene Monday and to wrap up the remaining 17 legislative days of what was to be a 60-day session on Aug. 16. The session was suspended March 16 as the coronavirus started to spread across the state. Lawmakers met for three brief days in late March to pass an emergency coronavirus appropriation bill.

Some key lawmakers say they expect that the events of the intervening months will affect the outcome of the session, especially the pandemic, the economic chaos it created and the focus on racial justice that followed Floyd’s slaying.

“This will be intense,” predicted State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, the Appropriations Committee chairman. “It’ll be great political theater.”

Here are five things to watch during the rest of the session:

Budget issues

In February, Nebraska tax revenues were rolling in at more than a 7% growth clip. When the fiscal year ended June 30, after economic chaos caused by the coronavirus, the state had collected $266 million less than had been projected four months earlier.

The state’s official revenue forecasting board will hold a special meeting Thursday to update that projection for the current fiscal year, which began July 1. The result could send the Appropriations Committee back to the drawing board to make changes in their budget plan.

The budget bills they advanced earlier are awaiting second-round debate by the full Legislature.

Stinner expects the new forecast to be lower than the February one, but it remains to be seen how much lower. He said federal coronavirus aid, such as the $1,200 stimulus checks, the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits and the small-business loan program, have helped the state.

“I’m certainly more optimistic than I was at the outset of COVID,” he said, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.

But he also put the chances of having money left after taking care of state operations at only 50-50. The previously proposed budget anticipated having $134 million available for purposes including property tax relief and business tax incentives.

Taxing battles

The last four months have not diminished demands for passing a major property tax relief measure, renewing Nebraska’s business tax incentives program and devoting $300 million of future tax revenue to support a proposed all-hazard response facility at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

But the intervening weeks have not made it any easier for advocates of those three initiatives to work out their differences and put together 33 solid votes to overcome opposition.

In fact, Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn said the path has gotten harder and divisions deeper.

Tax changes in the federal coronavirus relief legislation, passed in March, could cut state income tax collections by $125 million in the current fiscal year and a total of $250 million over three years. That’s in addition to the revenue losses caused by the economic effects of the coronavirus.

Lawmakers prioritizing property tax relief want to decouple the state’s tax code from the new federal changes, rather than have the changes take effect automatically. Others say that would run counter to the economy-boosting intent of the federal changes.

Racial justice

George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25 sparked a wave of protests nationally and across Nebraska, with people of all races calling for racial justice and changes in law enforcement. His killing also focused public concern on long-standing racial inequities.

Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha said legislative rules make it almost impossible to introduce new measures at this stage of the session. But he predicted that there will be greater momentum for bills that seek to address poverty and help African Americans and other minority groups in Nebraska.

Those could include his bill to establish a Nebraska Commission on African American Affairs and another entity to promote the use of historically underutilized businesses for major state contracts.

They also could include measures requiring law enforcement officers to take two hours of anti-bias and implicit bias training every year; banning discrimination against African Americans and others who leave their hair natural or adopt hairstyles that protect their hair such as braids, locks and twists; and adding Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a new state holiday to be shared with Columbus Day.

On the other hand, the increased attention to racial equity could bolster opposition to a bill that would allow teachers to intervene physically against violent and disruptive students and to have students removed from their classrooms. Federal data shows that about eight in 10 of Nebraska children subject to physical restraint are in special education programs, while African American and Native American students were also more likely than their white counterparts to be restrained.

Coronavirus fallout

Living through the coronavirus pandemic, including working from home, holding meetings via videoconferencing technology, teaching and learning online, and finding new ways to provide familiar services, could affect other pending legislation.

Lawmakers may take more interest in a pair of measures aimed at bolstering broadband Internet services across Nebraska. The state has struggled for years to expand coverage, especially in rural areas.

One low-profile measure would require health insurers to cover certain types of telehealth services provided by dermatologists. Telehealth services allow people to get health care online without having to leave home.

Another would allow farm wineries, craft breweries, bottle clubs or retail liquor stores to temporarily expand their premises to an adjacent street, parking lot or alley. That flexibility could be valuable if those businesses had to restrict indoor service again.

Staying safe

The Legislature itself will look and operate differently than it did four months ago, in a bid to keep members and others from spreading the coronavirus. Several lawmakers are in high-risk groups and one, Sen. Mike Moser of Columbus, already spent a month in the hospital after getting COVID-19.

Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer issued a memo in late June that outlined new procedures designed to reduce risks. Senators and others will be encouraged, but not required, to wear masks.

Among other changes, lobbyists and the public will no longer be allowed to gather outside the legislative chamber doors and to send in notes asking senators to come out and meet with them. Only select staff members and limited numbers of legislative pages will be allowed inside the chamber. One balcony will be reserved for lawmakers with symptoms of the coronavirus who want to participate in debate and voting.

Clear plastic dividers have been installed between the rows of desks in the legislative chamber and microphones have signs advising lawmakers not to touch them. Some senators will be asked to sit at tables under the balconies to maintain distance from others.

But only time will tell whether the precautions will prevent an outbreak when 49 state senators, along with staff members, lobbyists, reporters and interested members of the public gather in one building every day for almost four weeks.

“I still have to cross my fingers and say a prayer every night that everyone stays safe,” Scheer said.

Meet the Nebraska state senators

There's cautious optimism for a virus vaccine by spring

More than four months into the coronavirus pandemic, how close are the U.S. and the world to a safe and effective vaccine? Scientists say they see steady progress and are expressing cautious optimism that a vaccine could be ready by spring.

As of early July, roughly 160 vaccine projects were underway worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Generally, a vaccine trial has several phases. In an initial phase, the vaccine is given to 20 to 100 healthy volunteers. The focus in this phase is to make sure the vaccine is safe, and to note any side effects.

In the second phase, there are hundreds of volunteers. In addition to monitoring safety, researchers try to determine whether shots produce an immune-system response.

The third phase involves thousands of patients. This phase continues the goals of the first two but adds a focus on how effective the vaccine is in protecting people exposed to the pathogen, in this case the novel coronavirus. This phase also collects data on more unusual negative side effects.

In ordinary circumstances, these phases take years to complete. But for the coronavirus, the timeline is being shortened. This has spurred more public-private partnerships and significantly increased funding.

Here's a rundown of where vaccine candidates stand:


Three vaccine candidates are in clinical phase 3.

One is being developed by researchers at Oxford University in the U.K. It uses a weakened version of a virus that causes common colds in chimpanzees. Researchers then added proteins, known as antigens, from the novel coronavirus, in the hope that these could prime the human immune system to fight the virus once it encounters it.

Another candidate in a phase 3 trial is being developed in China. It uses a killed, and thus safe, version of the novel coronavirus to spur an immune reaction.

And on Wednesday, the biotech company Moderna, which is partnering with the National Institutes of Health, announced that it would be moving to phase 3 within two weeks.

Two others have made it as far as phase 2, while eight others are finishing their phase 1 trials while also beginning phase 2 trials.

These candidates are being developed by a mix of corporations and institutions in several countries. These efforts seek to leverage a range of technologies.

One uses RNAmaterial that provides the instructions for a body to produce the needed antigens itself. This is a relatively untested approach to vaccination, but if it works, it has aspects that could make it easier to manufacture. Another approach is similar, but uses DNA instead of RNA.

One U.S. biotech firm, Novavax, is receiving federal funding to produce a vaccine that uses a labmade protein to inspire an immune response.

Beyond these, 10 other vaccine candidates are in phase 1 clinical trials, while 140 haven't reached the clinical phase yet.

Having so many potential vaccines this far along is impressive, experts say, given the short time scientists have known about the novel coronavirus.

"Overall, the pace of development and advancement to phase 3 trials is impressive," said Matthew B. Laurens, associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health. "The public-private partnerships have been highly successful and are achieving goals for rapid vaccine development."

In addition, the fact that several types of vaccine approaches are being tested means the world isn't putting all of its eggs in one basket.

"We will need several candidates should any one of these experience difficulties in manufacturing or show a safety signal when implemented in larger numbers of people," Laurens said.

Meanwhile, at a time of rising public skepticism of government and vaccines, the Food and Drug Administration recently released additional guidelines on vaccine effectiveness. The new guidance requires vaccines to prevent or decrease the severity of the disease at least 50% of the time if they are to win the agency's approval.

The FDA guidelines "reaffirmed the very rigorous FDA process for approving any vaccine. That gives a great deal of reassurance that this was going to be handled by the book," said William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "The more we talk about doing things fast, the more the public thinks, 'They're probably cutting corners.' "


In early April, Kathleen M. Neuzil, director of the University of Maryland's vaccine center, told PolitiFact that if all went well, there might be five or six vaccines in trials within six months. Now, three months later, there are two to three times that number.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and other officials have remained consistent in their estimation of the timeline: 12 to 18 months from the start of the pandemic, or roughly late spring 2021.

Schaffner told PolitiFact that he continues to see the first quarter of 2021 as a reasonable target. "I think that's where the needle is pointing," he said.

It remains to be seen how fast vaccines can be manufactured and distributed once approved for general use. Officials are also grappling with which Americans will get access first. So it's unclear how long a person would have to wait to get vaccinated.

Laurens said he is not overly concerned about the distribution, because that is something that officials have long experience with.

Another hopeful sign, Schaffner said, is that the coronavirus itself seems to be relatively stable. There had been concern that the coronavirus, like many other viruses, is mutating over time. If the virus changes enough, that could become a problem that bedevils vaccine researchers.

But so far, that hasn't happened. Even if evidence emerges that mutations are making the virus more transmissible, or that a new variant is making people sicker, that shouldn't affect the vaccine process. "The central core of the virus would remain the same," Schaffner said.

This report was produced by PolitiFact in partnership with Kaiser Health News, a national health policy news service that is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

special report
Omaha's Millwork Commons trying innovative approach to landscaping with native plants

Landscaping at Millwork Commons will be as innovative as the people and enterprises the new development in north downtown Omaha hopes to attract.

Reflecting a mix of two design movements, called the new perennial and the biophilic, the intention is to create a more natural environment with assorted native plants rather than the more conventional highly manicured landscape.

Although that’s not new to Omaha — similar emphasis can be seen at Lauritzen Gardens and in the riverfront revitalization project — a tree-planting system being used at the Millwork Commons site is a first for the city.

People are looking for engaging outdoor spaces, architect Megan Lutz said. She’s a partner at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, which is working with Olsson Inc. on the 44-acre project led by Black Dog Management.

“We specifically aimed to keep it a bit more wild and unruly to keep with the existing conditions,’’ Lutz said.

The new perennial movement uses native plants in a more natural configuration rather than highly designed and formal settings. Biophilic design is about incorporating the natural world into built spaces, allowing individuals and communities to enjoy the benefits of being surrounded by plants and other natural elements.

Lutz said the project will help them meet their goals of sustainability, walkability, cohesiveness and safety, and also serve as a natural stormwater mitigator.

“I think landscaping is always a critical part of any development project,’’ Lutz said. “It kind of sets the tone. We like the organic quality the district has had over the past decades.’’

As part of that focus, the development has turned to a tree-planting system developed by GreenBlue Urban and already used in several major U.S. cities.

A special underground soil cage supports stronger root growth, which is the key to keeping trees healthier and thus alive longer.

Five Exclamation London Plane-trees have just been planted by Mulhall’s along the north side of the historic Ashton Building at 12th and Nicholas Streets using the underground cell system.

“They’ll grow to a much larger size and offer greater value over time because they’ll be better able to thrive in that spot,’’ said Sarah Vanek, education and outreach manager at Mulhall’s.

mducey / MULHALL'S 

Sarah Vanek

The planting hole is 4 feet deep, 10 feet wide and 20 feet long. A perforated drain tile is installed to improve drainage, and after the cagelike structure is built, impermeable vertical plates are added to prevent roots from venturing under the street.

After the surrounding concrete is poured and the trees are planted, a grid at the base of the tree allows air to circulate and interact with the roots.

“We backfill with fertile noncompacted soil to allow air movement and better root growth,’’ said Mike Mladenoff, senior production manager at Mulhall’s. “No tree likes to grow in compacted soil.’’


Mike Mladenoff

While more expensive than conventional planting methods, Mladenoff said the goal is to have trees that live 50 years instead of the typical 10 to 15 in an urban setting, saving money in the long run.

The City of Omaha has been moving away from the 4-by-4 restrictive boxes for trees for about 10 years. Most new developments are using planting beds 8 feet wide, if space permits.

Larger trees with bigger canopies make streets more comfortable for pedestrians and reduce the heat island effect, said Tim Fries, city planner in the urban design division.

“If you are going to have trees, making sure there is adequate root space and area for them to grow is an important piece of that,” Fries said. “You are going to have trees that will live longer and be happier and actually form a canopy over the sidewalk and street. Studies show that enhances people’s desire to be in an area.’’

Lutz said several more trees will be added with the new method as the $300 million-plus project is developed. There is the potential to add 15 to 20 buildings, a mix of historic rehab and new construction, on the 44 acres spanning Izard Street on the south to Seward Street on the north.

The first new construction will start this fall, eventually bringing an influx of new workers to the area. But that’s not all, Luz said.

“I hope there are butterflies and wildlife and whatnot, and that it’s a really great neighborhood.’’

Photos: Our best staff images from July 2020

Photos: Our best staff images from July 2020

Medical oxygen in short supply in poor nations
Pure oxygen buys COVID-19 patients time; it is among necessities, like electricity, that many doctors do without

CONAKRY, Guinea (AP) — Soaring demand for oxygen prompted by the coronavirus is bringing out a stark global truth: Even the right to breathe depends on money.

In wealthy Europe and North America, hospitals treat oxygen as a fundamental need, much like water or electricity. It is delivered in liquid form by tanker truck and piped directly to the beds of coronavirus patients. Running short is all but unthinkable for a resource that can literally be pulled from the air.

But in poor countries, from Peru to Bangladesh, it is in lethally short supply. Across sub-Saharan Africa, obtaining oxygen is a costly challenge for government-funded medical facilities such as Guinea's Donka public hospital in the capital, Conakry.

The hospital's planned oxygen plant has never started up. So instead of piping oxygen directly to beds, a secondhand pickup truck carries cylinders over potholed roads from Guinea's sole source of medical-grade oxygen, the SOGEDI factory, built in the1950s. Outside the capital, in hospitals and medical centers in remote villages and major towns, doctors say there is no oxygen at all.

"Oxygen is one of the most important interventions, (but) it's in very short supply," said Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the CDC and current president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives.

In Bangladesh, the lack of a centralized system for the delivery of oxygen to hospitals has led to a flourishing market in the sale of cylinders to homes. In Peru, the president has ordered industrial plants to ramp up production for medical use or buy oxygen from abroad. He allocated about $28 million for oxygen tanks and new plants.

But a massive production increase or an impromptu private marketplace are both out of reach in Guinea, where GDP per capita is $850.

Alassane Ly, a telecommunications engineer and U.S. resident who split his time between the Atlanta suburbs and his homeland, boarded a flight to Guinea in February. He promised his wife and young daughters that he'd be home by April to celebrate Ramadan.

Then he fell ill. On May 4, struggling to breathe and awaiting results from a coronavirus test, he was turned away from two medical facilities that said they weren't equipped to help.

His brother-in-law drove him through curfew checkpoints to Donka hospital, where he finally got the oxygen he had sought all day.

It was apparently too little and too late. Within hours, he was dead. Six weeks later, his coronavirus test came back positive.

His death sparked a furor in Guinea, prompting denials from the health minister that Ly had received anything except the best care.

Ly's widow, Taibou, said she can accept her husband's death as God's will but said she cannot accept a medical system that failed.

"One life is not worth more than another," she said from her home in suburban Atlanta.

Dr. Aboubacar Conté, head of Guinea's health services, said four hospitals in outlying cities will eventually get their own on site plants to ease what he acknowledged is a need for oxygen outside the capital. Only two have funding so far.

Conté, who was diagnosed with the coronavirus and hospitalized briefly at Donka himself, was philosophical about the gap between wealthy nations and those like Guinea.

"Technology comes gradually," he said.

For many severe COVID-19 patients, hypoxia — radically low blood-oxygen levels — is the main danger. Only pure oxygen in large quantities buys the time they need to recover. Oxygen is also used for the treatment of respiratory diseases such as pneumonia, the single largest cause of death in children worldwide.

Yet until 2017, oxygen wasn't even on the World Health Organization's list of essential medicines. In vast parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia, that meant there was little money from international donors and little pressure on governments.

"Oxygen has been missing on the global agenda for decades," said Leith Greenslade, a global health activist with the coalition Every Breath Counts.

The issue got more attention after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson narrowly survived the coronavirus, crediting his recovery to the National Health Service and "liters and liters of oxygen." But Johnson is a prominent figure in one of the world's wealthiest countries.

Unlike for vaccines, clean water, contraception or HIV medication, there are no global studies to show how many people lack oxygen treatment — only broad estimates that suggest at least half of the world's population does not have access to it.

In the few places where indepth studies have been carried out, the situation looks dire. In Congo, only 2% of health care facilities have oxygen; in Tanzania, it's 8%, and in Bangladesh, 7%, according to some limited surveys by USAID.

Everywhere that oxygen is scarce, pulse oximeters to measure blood-oxygen levels are even scarcer. By the time lips turn blue, a frequent measure used, a patient is usually beyond saving.

Some places have made progress, largely thanks to local activists who have pushed for plants and better access outside just the largest cities. Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda all have made it a priority, according to Dr. Bernard Olayo of the Center for Public Health and Development in East Africa.

But in Guinea, not a single hospital bed has a direct oxygen supply, and the daily deliveries of cylinders are taking their toll on budgets, with each one costing $115.

Doctors outside Conakry say oxygen is just another necessity they do without, joining basic painkillers, thermometers and reliable electricity on a long list.

"All we can do is send someone elsewhere if they are in need," said Dr. Theophile Goto Monemou of Sangaredi Community Hospital.

In mid-June, at least two people tested positive for COVID-19 there. One was driven more than six hours by ambulance, according to the Sangaredi Mayor Mamadou Bah.

Guinea's official coronavirus tally is more than 4,988 coronavirus cases and 27 dead. The tally is an undercount because testing is limited.

Dr. Fode Kaba, a cardiologist at a public hospital in Ratoma, an outlying neighborhood of Conakry, said he has no oxygen on hand and no intensive care beds. When people seeking urgent care can't breathe, he calls an ambulance to send them to Donka, about 20 minutes away, and hopes for the best. But, he acknowledged, "If you don't get it right away, it's death."