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Nebraska starts sending out ballots
Douglas County mails 110,000, a one-day record; ballot requests due by Oct. 23; election official says, 'Don't wait'

Nebraska's 2020 election officially started on Monday, 36 days before Election Day, with the mailing of the first wave of early ballots.

The Douglas County Election Commission mailed out 110,000 early ballots, a single-day record for the number of ballots mailed.

Monday was the first day that election officials in Nebraska's 93 counties could mail absentee ballots to voters.

Douglas County voters have requested more than 155,000 ballots thus far. The rest of the requested ballots will be mailed in the coming days, said Brian Kruse, Douglas County election commissioner.

Voters have until Oct. 23 to request a ballot. However, local and state election officials urged voters to get their requests in sooner than that.

"Don't wait," Kruse said. "Get your request in so you'll have time to return it."

Sarpy County election officials, as of Friday, said they had received nearly 47,000 early ballot requests and planned to send out more than 35,000 ballots on Monday.

"We hired extra election workers and worked all weekend to get it done," said Sarpy County Election Commissioner Michelle Andahl.

Statewide, early ballot requests for the 2020 general election continued to set records, as they did for the May primary, amid continuing coronavirus concerns.

As of Friday, more than 326,000 Nebraskans had requested early ballots for the general election, Secretary of State Bob Evnen said.

That's "about the same rate as in the primary," Evnen said. In May, a primary-record 383,000 people voted early.

More people have already requested ballots for this fall's general election than voted early in any presidential election in Nebraska history. The next closest presidential election for early voting was 2016, when 221,000 people voted early.

State and local election officials said the U.S. Postal Service has told them that Nebraska voters should mail back their ballots no later than Oct. 27.

Nebraska election law requires that all ballots be received by the end of voting on Election Day, Nov. 3. The postmark is irrelevant.

It has to get there, Evnen said. That's why state and local election officials say they recommend that people concerned about getting their ballots back in time turn them in at a county election drop box.

Every county has at least one, and some have numerous boxes. Douglas County has 13, including four new ones. Sarpy County has six drop boxes.

The election officials said they have not seen any signs of increased voter fraud this year as more people vote by mail, a common allegation by President Donald Trump.

Kruse said what he generally sees are honest mistakes, including ballots rejected because someone forgot to sign the back of the early voting envelope, a signature that officials check against voter registration files.

He and other election officials said they try to work to overcome such problems with voters, who can check the secretary of state's website to see if their ballot has been accepted.

Submitting a falsified ballot is a felony, and anyone who attempts it will be prosecuted and could face prison time, election officials warned.

Evnen said voters should be wary of groups offering to turn in their absentee ballots. Once a ballot is out of a voter's hands, there's no guarantee of where it will be sent, he said.

Nebraska voters have three options this fall: voting early by requesting a ballot by mail, voting early in person at their county election office starting Oct. 5, or voting in person on Nov. 3. Social distancing and masks will be suggested at polling places, where sanitizer will be available.

Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb said she and other party leaders have confidence in all three ways to vote. She said voters should choose the one that's "easy and convenient" for them.

Democrats are requesting ballots at a higher rate than Republicans. That's true statewide but is especially the case in Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

Nebraska Republican Party Executive Director Ryan Hamilton suggested that Republicans who are wary of voting by mail can vote in person on Election Day or early using county drop boxes, instead of mailing in ballots.

"This election will see record turnout," Hamilton said. "And it is critical that every vote is counted."

Nebraska has 11 rural counties that vote entirely by mail. Evnen said he's seen no more significant signs of fraud in those counties than in the state's other counties that also offer voting in person.

aaron.sanderford@owh.com, 402-444-1135

twitter.com/asanderford


Articles
A fake Tinder account led investigators to Boswell
Soon after Sydney Loofe vanished, her best friend created a profile to attract 'Audrey,' Loofe's last date

Sydney Loofe

Bailey Boswell

LINCOLN — Shortly after Sydney Loofe went missing, her best friend quickly became an amateur detective, creating a fake dating app account that led to identifying the woman who had last seen her friend.

Brooklyn McCrystal of Lincoln told jurors on Monday that she had created a fake account on Tinder in hopes of enticing a response from a woman named "Audrey" who had arranged a date with Loofe via the app on Nov. 15, 2017, the night Loofe disappeared.

Besides her name, and her desire to meet another woman, little else was then known about Audrey, except that she was "32miles away" from Lincoln.

"I specifically made an account to match with her," McCrystal said. "I wanted to match with her so I could find Sydney because I thought they had her."

The ruse worked. Audrey began communicatingwithMcCrystal, a connection that ultimately led investigators to identify "Audrey" as Bailey Boswell, who was then living in Wilber, Nebraska, about 32 miles from Lincoln. Boswell immediately became a person of interest in Loofe's disappearance.

McCrystal was among those testifying on the first day of testimony in the murder trial of Boswell, now 26, who is accused in the slaying and dismemberment of Loofe, 24.

Loofe, a native of Neligh, Nebraska, disappeared after going on a date on the night of Nov. 15, 2017. Her body was found three weeks later, wrapped in black plastic bags and strewn along country roads about an hour's drive west of Wilber.

Boswell's 53-year-old boyfriend, Aubrey Trail, was convicted last year of first-degree murder in Loofe's death. He is scheduled to be sentenced in December to either life in prison or death.

Boswell also faces the possibility of the death penalty. She is being tried on the same charges as Trail: first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and improper disposal of human remains.

Prosecutors allege that the pair, who lived in a basement apartment in Wilber, used social media to lure young women into their lifestyle, which included drugs, group sex and selling — and stealing — antiques. In Loofe's case, a second Tinder date arranged with Boswell ended in her death, authorities maintain. Trail has testified that Loofe was accidentally strangled during a sex game involving the trio.

Monday's testimony focused on the events leading up to the disappearance of the young store clerk, and the frantic attempts by family and friends to unravel what happened and with whom she had gone on a date.

Loofe's mother, Susan, of Neligh, told jurors that she suspected that something bad had happened after her daughter didn't show up for work on the morning of Nov. 16, 2017. It wasn't like Sydney, her mother said, to not keep in contact with her family or not show up for work without notifying her employer.

The next day, Lincoln police conducted a welfare check at the apartment Sydney Loofe rented in the Havelock neighborhood. There were no signs of a struggle, but also no sign of Loofe.

Soon, police had a clue — the last "ping" from Loofe's cellphone was off a tower near Wilber, southeast of Lincoln, on the night of Nov. 15.

Then another clue — a high school friend, Brittany Flinn, forwarded a SnapChat photograph that Loofe had taken on Nov. 14 of Audrey, with whom she had gone on a date in Lincoln that night. Audrey's Tinder profile said she lived "32 miles away" from Lincoln but didn't say exactly where.

Tinder, Flinn testified, is an app commonly used by young people to meet other young people. One of Boswell's attorneys, Jeff Pickens, asked if the site is a hookup site for people looking for sex.

"I'd say probably more 'yes' than 'no,' " Flinn answered, though she added that Loofe used it for "relationships" and to meet new friends.

But the photo of Audrey, via social media, soon made its way to McCrystal, who used to work with Loofe at the Menards on North 27th Street in Lincoln.

McCrystal said she set up a profile on Tinder that, she hoped, would be attractive to Audrey. On the morning of Nov. 17, only a day after Loofe had been reported missing, Audrey responded. McCrystal said she tried to find out more about Audrey's identity: where she worked, where she lived, whether she was a student.

Audrey indicated that she was at a casino right then, that she worked at a "financial institution" and that she was originally from Missouri but was now living outside of Lincoln, according to McCrystal.

Eventually, McCrystal convinced Audrey to share her phone number, information that McCrystal forwarded to authorities.

Lincoln Police Investigator Cameron Cleland said he called the number twice before Audrey called back. She acknowledged that she had gone on a date with Loofe but said she dropped her off at a friend's house in Lincoln afterward and didn't know her whereabouts. Cleland said that during a second call with Audrey on Nov. 18 — three days after Loofe disappeared — the woman on the other end of the phone was evasive and declined to identify herself, saying "she had warrants," referring to arrest warrants.

But soon, investigators learned who Audrey really was. Saline County Sheriff's Deputy Dillon Semrad told jurors that he used "personal experience" and some studies in computer science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to connect the "pinger" phone number used by Audrey for social media dates with a cellphone number registered to Boswell.

But, asked Todd Lancaster, Boswell's lead attorney, there is no way to determine who was on the other end of that phone, only the name of the account holder, isn't that correct?

"It could be any number of people," Lancaster said.

"It could be," Semrad responded.

The trial was moved west to Lexington because of concerns that a fair jury could not be selected in Wilber, where Trail's trial was held. Strict coronavirus precautions are being taken. No spectators or reporters are allowed in the courtroom, except for a couple of camera operators. All participants in the trial are wearing masks, and every witness wore a clear plastic face shield while testifying. A video feed of the proceedings is being streamed to a courthouse annex.

Even so, Saline County District Judge Vicky Johnson said at the conclusion of Monday's testimony that one witness, scheduled to appear Tuesday, won't attend because the witness had tested positive for COVID-19.

paul.hammel@owh.com, 402-473-9584

twitter.com/paulhammelowh

"I specifically made an account to match with her. I wanted to match with her so I could find Sydney because I thought they had her."— Brooklyn McCrystal of Lincoln


Articles
Omaha Gives, after eight years, shifts its work to SHARE Omaha
ENDING ON A HIGH NOTE

Omaha Gives, the one-day charitable extravaganza launched in 2013, is no more.

That might sound sad, but it's not, said Kali Baker of the Omaha Community Foundation, which founded the popular day of giving that raised more than $58 million for Omaha nonprofits over eight years.

It will be supplanted by a single-destination website managed by SHARE Omaha that will allow both local residents and people across the nation to support nonprofit organizations in the metropolitan area every day. The two groups announced the change Tuesday morning.

Themovewill lead to substantially more interaction between area nonprofits and residents, said Baker, the Omaha Community Foundation's vice president of community investment, and Marjorie Maas, executive director of SHAREOmaha. It allows both groups to focus on what they do best.

"Omaha Gives is not reaching people year-round," Baker said. "And we don't have the bandwidth to create engagement that SHARE Omaha does."

In addition to the once-a-year Omaha Gives, the foundation handles grant programs, community interest funds and charitable accounts, among other activities, and recently signed on to distribute COVID-19 relief money for Douglas County.

SHARE Omaha, on the other hand, was founded specifically to connect donors and volunteers with nonprofits.

At SHAREomaha.org, supporters can engage with more than 400 nonprofits all day, every day. People can donate money, fill out volunteer applications that go directly to the agencies and provide goods through the Amazon Wish List program on the site.

"You can make a difference in five clicks or less," Maas said.

Her organization will continue to have communitywide philanthropy days like Omaha Gives. The next one will be Giving Tuesday, the local version of a national drive, on Dec. 1.

After that, Do-Good Week next April will celebrate all forms of generosity, including donations and volunteerism.

In challenging times, nonprofits in Omaha and elsewhere are continuously looking for opportunities to get rid of duplication so they can help those most in need.

Leaders from the foundation and SHARE Omaha have been talking about how to collaborate since before SHARE Omaha was launched in January 2019, Baker said.

"While Omaha Gives has been an integral part of our work for the last decade, we see the incredible opportunity to combine our efforts for greater nonprofit impact," said Donna Kush, president and CEO of the Omaha Community Foundation.

"We are eager to support SHARE Omaha as they build a dynamic and robust online resource that will support donors and nonprofits in exciting ways into the future."

When it first started, SHARE Omaha mainly recruited nonprofits, but now such organizations are asking to participate, Maas said. Except for schools, clubs and churches, all 501©(3) nonprofits are eligible to be featured on the site.

Church-affiliated social service organizations, such as Heart Ministry Center or the Abide Network, can participate, she said.

Groups that participated in Omaha Gives but don't yet have a profile with SHARE Omaha must submit an application and go through an approval process, Maas said.

She also is urging other eligible nonprofits to join. SHARE Omaha serves an eight-county region in Nebraska and Southwest Iowa, including Council Bluffs.

"We are excited for all SHARE Omaha has to offer and continue to have discussions on what our future partnership will look like," said Donna Dostal, president and CEO of the Pottawattamie County Community Foundation.

For the last several years, nonprofits and their supporters have eagerly anticipated Omaha Gives each May.

The foundation encouraged friendly competitions between nonprofits by offering prizes, and agencies would have open houses, lectures, golf tournaments or even dunk tanks to entice donors.

Some nonprofit leaders probably are wondering how SHARE Omaha will duplicate the buzz caused by Omaha Gives.

Maas said she thinks that will move over to Giving Tuesday.

"SHARE Omaha hosted the first Giving Tuesday for the community," she said. "We saw organizations get creative in similar ways and with similar energy that we all felt in Omaha Gives. That gave us confidence that ingenuity will continue."

Cities across the nation have their own SHARE websites. Maas said SHARE Omaha recently purchased the original software from the first SHARE group and is planning to roll out technology enhancements about a year from now.

"It will be more useful, more intuitive and have better connectivity," she said.

The potential in those improvements and the new path for the foundation and SHARE Omaha make both Baker and Maas confident about the future of philanthropy in the metropolitan area.

"Omaha Gives was never intended to go on in perpetuity," said Baker, who was intensely involved in its inception. "There is no better time to end it than when SHARE Omaha is getting more relevant."

The last-ever Omaha Gives raised $8.5 million and broke several records despite the coronavirus pandemic.

"I feel so good about the response in 2020 and that it has ended on an incredibly high note," Baker said.

elizabeth.freeman@owh.com, 402-444-1267


Articles
WORLD'S 1 MILLION DEATHS NOTENTIRELY IN VAIN
COVID patients benefit from treatments tried on those who died, including Papillion restaurant owner

The 1 million people around the world who have lost their lives to COVID-19 have left us a gift: Through desperate efforts to save their lives, scientists now better understand how to treat and prevent the disease — and millions of others may survive.

Ming Wang, 71, and his wife were on a cruise from Australia, taking a break after decades of running the family's Chinese restaurant in Papillion when he was infected. In the 74 days he was hospitalized before his death in June, doctors frantically tried various experimental approaches, including enrolling him in a study of an antiviral drug that ultimately showed promise.

"It was just touch and go. Everything they wanted to try we said yes, do it," said Wang's daughter, Anne Peterson. "We would give anything to have him back, but if what we and he went through would help future patients, that's what we want."

Patients are already benefiting. Though more deaths are expected this fall because of the recent surge in coronavirus infections in the U.S. and elsewhere, there also are signs that death rates are declining and that people who get the virus now are faring better than did those in the early months of the pandemic.

"Some of the reason we're doing better is because of the advances," Dr. Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, told the Associated Press. Several drugs have proved useful and doctors know more about how to care for the sickest patients in hospitals, he said.

We're in the "stormy adolescence" phase of learning what treatments work — beyond infancy but not "all grown up either," Collins said.

THE AWFUL TOLL

The 1 million deaths attributed to the coronavirus in nine months are far more than the 690,000 from AIDS or the 400,000 from malaria in all of 2019. They're trending just behind the 1.5 million from tuberculosis.

Wealth and power have not shielded rich countries from the awful power of the virus. The United States "has been the worsthit country in the world" with more than 7 million coronavirus infections and more than 200,000 deaths, reflecting "the lack of success that we have had in containing this outbreak," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease specialist, told a Harvard Medical School audience this month.

More than 40%ofU.S. adults are at risk for severe disease from the virus because of high blood pressure and other conditions. It's not just old people in nursing homes who are dying, Fauci stressed.

Dr. Jesse Goodman, a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration chief scientist now at Georgetown University, agreed.

"Nobody should make a mistake about this" and think they're not at risk just because they may not personally know someone who has died or haven't witnessed what the virus can do firsthand, he said.

OPTIMISTIC SIGNS

Although cases are rising, death rates seem to be falling, said Dr. Cyrus Shahpar, a former U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist now at the nonprofit group Resolve to Save Lives.

The virus's true lethality — the infection fatality rate — isn't yet known, because scientists don't know how many people have had it without showing symptoms. What's often reported are case fatality rates — the portion of people who have tested positive and then gone on to die. Comparing these from country to country is problematic because of differences in testing and vulnerable populations. Tracking these within a country over time also carries that risk, but it can suggest some trends.

"The U.S. cumulative case fatality rate in April was around 5%. Now we're around 3%," Shahpar said.

In England, researchers reported that case fatality rates have fallen substantially since peaking in April. The rate in August was around 1.5% versus more than 6% six weeks earlier.

One reason is changing demographics: More cases these days are in younger people who are less likely to die from their infection than older people are.

Increased testing also is playing a role: As more people with mild or no symptoms are detected, it expands the number of known infections and shrinks the proportion that prove fatal, Shahpar said.

TREATMENTS

It's clear that treatments also are affecting survival, many doctors said. People who have died from COVID-19, especially ones who took part in studies, have helped reveal what drugs do or do not help.

Dexamethasone and similar steroids now are known to improve survival when used in hospitalized patients who need extra oxygen, but such drugs might be harmful for less sick patients.

An antiviral drug, remdesivir, can speed recovery for severely ill patients, shaving four days off the average hospital stay. Two anti-inflammatory drugs, one used in combination with remdesivir — the drug Wang helped test — also have been reported to help, although results of those studies have not yet been published.

The jury is still out on convalescent plasma, which involves using antibody-rich blood from survivors to treat others. No large, high-quality studies have tested this well enough to know whether it works.

The value of rigorous, scientific studies to test treatments has become clear, Goodman said. "We certainly see what happens" when treatments are widely adopted without them, as hydroxychloroquine was, he said. "That exposed a lot of people to a potentially toxic drug" and delayed the hunt for effective ones.

Aside from drugs, "the case fatality rate is actually improving over time as physicians get more adept at taking care of these very sick patients," said Dr. Gary Gibbons, director of the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

In hospitals, doctors know more now about ways to avoid using breathing machines, such as keeping patients on their bellies.

"We've learned about how to position patients, how to use oxygen, how to manage fluids," and hospitals have increased their surge capacity and supplies, Dr. Judith Currier, a University of California, Los Angeles physician said at a recent webinar organized by the American Public Health Association and the U.S. National Academy of Medicine.

THE FUTURE

The best way to avoid dying from the coronavirus remains to avoid getting it, and experience has shown that the simple measures advocated by public health officials work.

"Prevention is the most important step right now as we're waiting for a vaccine and we're improving treatment," Goodman said.

Wearing a face mask, washing hands, keeping at least 6 feet apart and disinfecting surfaces "clearly are having a positive effect" on curbing spread, Fauci said.

If more places take common-sense measures like closing bars, "we should improve our ability to manage this" and prevent more deaths, Shahpar said. "It should take longer to get to the next million if it ever happens."