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Experimental vaccine put to the test
In the race to stop the outbreak of coronavirus, about 30,000 volunteers in the U.S. have begun receiving shots

The biggest test yet of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine got underway Monday with the first of some 30,000 Americans rolling up their sleeves to receive shots created by the U.S. government as part of the all-out global race to stop the outbreak.

Final-stage testing of the vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., began with volunteers at various U.S. sites given either a real shot or a dummy without being told which.

It will be months before results trickle in, and there is no guarantee the vaccine will ultimately work against the scourge that has killed about 650,000 people around the world, including almost 150,000 in the U.S.

As if to underline how high the stakes are, there were more setbacks in efforts to contain the virus.

In Washington, the White House disclosed that national security adviser Robert O'Brien has the coronavirus— the highest-ranking U.S. official to test positive so far.

The move to restart the national pastime ran into trouble just five days into the long-delayed season: Two major league baseball games scheduled for Monday night were called off as the Miami Marlins coped with an outbreak — the Marlins' home opener against the Baltimore Orioles, and the New York Yankees' game in Philadelphia, where the Marlins used the clubhouse over the weekend.

On virus relief, Republicans on Capitol Hill rolled out a $1 trillion package that includes a new round of $1,200 stimulus checks but reduces the extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits that are expiring for millions of Americans this week.

In Europe, rising infections in Spain and other countries caused alarm only weeks after nations reopened their borders in hopes of reviving tourism. Over the weekend, Britain imposed a 14-day quarantine on travelers arriving from Spain, Norway ordered a 10-day quarantine for people returning from the entire Iberian peninsula and France urged its citizens not to visit Spain's Catalonia region.

In Binghamton, New York, nurseMelissa Harting received one of the first injections of the Moderna vaccine candidate, saying she was volunteering "to do my part to help out."

"I'm excited," Harting said. Especially with family members in front-line jobs that could expose them to the virus, she said, "doing our part to eradicate it is very important to me."

After two doses, scientists will closely track which participants — those getting real shots, or a dummy — experience more infections as they go about their daily routines, especially in hard-hit areas where the virus still is spreading. Testing is planned at close to 90 sites, officials said.

"Unfortunately for the United States of America, we have plenty of infections right now" to get that answer, the government's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said recently.

Several other vaccines made by China and by Britain's Oxford University began smaller final-stage tests in Brazil and other hard-hit countries earlier this month. But the U.S. requires its own tests of any vaccine that might be used in the country.

Every month through the fall, the government-funded COVID-19 Prevention Network will roll out a new study of a leading candidate, each with 30,000 volunteers, to test not only whether the shots work but whether they are safe.

The final U.S. study of the Oxford shot is set to begin in August, followed by a candidate from Johnson & Johnson in September and one from Novavax in October. Pfizer Inc. plans its own 30,000-person study this summer.

It normally takes years to create a vaccine from scratch, but scientists are setting speed records this time, spurred by knowledge that vaccination is the world's best hope against the pandemic.

Governments around the world are already trying to stockpile millions of doses of the leading candidates so that immunizations can begin immediately if the vaccines win approval. But the first available doses will most likely be reserved for people at highest risk.

"We're optimistic, cautiously optimistic" that the vaccine will work and that "toward the end of the year" there will be data to prove it, Dr. Stephen Hoge, president of Massachusetts-based Moderna, told a House subcommittee last week.

Omaha mask mandate could take effect Aug. 3; health board backs requirement

A proposed order that could require Omahans to wear masks in indoor public places as early as Aug. 3 got the backing Monday of the Douglas County Board of Health.

The five members of the nine-member board who were present all voted in favor of the resolution. It signaled to County Health Director Adi Pour that the board supports her exercising her power to implement a mask mandate to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Pour said her office will work with Omaha city attorneys to draft language of an order for Omaha. County officials will be doing the same for the rest of the county. An order in Omaha could be ready by the end of the week and go into effect early next week.

Chris Rodgers, president of the county health board, stressed that the board’s resolution comes in support of Pour issuing a mask order. Pour has the authority under city code to take the step on her own within Omaha’s city limits.

“The health director is not going rogue,” he said.

A Monday morning public hearing on the resolution attracted several opponents. Some said they’re happy to wear masks in certain settings but that a mandate by the government to do so would be a step too far.

Others expressed concerns that masks prevent their children from developing healthy immune systems. And some said fears about the virus are overblown.

“Why are we making a mountain out of a mole hill?” Seth Paulson of Valley said.

Pour pushed back against those who questioned public health data.

She said she felt comfortable about local case trends around the Fourth of July. But week by week since the holiday, cases have risen, and Pour said the time is right for a mandate.

Douglas County last week saw its highest three-day run of new cases — 476 — since the end of May. Pour noted that the county recorded a total of 940 new cases of COVID-19 during the week that ended Saturday, a 50% increase from the week before and the highest weekly total since May 30.

In addition, the positivity rate for tests increased to 9.6% last week from 7% the week prior.

“This is not an easy decision,” she said. “If the data had been different the last two weeks, I probably would have said it’s not necessary. But the data tells a different story.”

Pour said she received about 100 emails over the weekend about a possible mandate. About 60 of those were for such a measure, 30 were against and 10 were neutral.

Among those who sent letters of support were four members of the Omaha City Council; the Metro Omaha Medical Society; senior officials of Nebraska Furniture Mart; and someone who works in an intensive care unit.

“All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families and their community,” Pour said.

She also clarified that each individual who tests positive is recorded as one case. One person in the community has tested positive 17 times but has been recorded as one case, Pour offered as an example.

She also cited several instances in which masks protected others around them from infection. In Missouri, two hairstylists who wore masks served 109 clients while having the virus. None of them contracted the virus.

Some opponents, however, argued that there’s not a lot of data indicating that masks work.

Many opponents cited government overreach and freedom of choice as reason for their opposition.

Alec Davis, 29, wore a mask as he explained that he has no problem wearing one in certain settings, or when a neighbor or colleague requests that he do so.

But Davis said the decision to wear a mask should be just that — a personal choice driven by data, personal conviction or religious belief.

“I believe in personal agency,” he said.

Reggan Simons, who questioned the effectiveness and safety of masks, said a mandate would be “an insane demonstration of government overreach by someone who’s not even an elected official” — an apparent reference to Pour.

Andrea White said Douglas County’s death toll — 122 as of Monday afternoon — and the percentage of people who recover from COVID-19 demonstrate that “bottom line, this is not an emergency.”

Health board member Keyonna King acknowledged that advice on masks has changed as national and international health experts have learned more about the virus.

“We know it’s not going to stop it,” she said of the cloth masks. “But we want to slow it.”

Pour said the order likely would resemble one issued recently by the Lancaster Public Health Department. That mandate requires people to wear masks in public spaces when they can’t maintain 6 feet of distance between themselves and others. It comes with a number of exceptions, including when people are exercising at a gym and when they’re eating and drinking at bars and restaurants.

Implementing a countywide mandate will take more time, Rodgers has said.

In counties with a population of more than 400,000, state law requires a three-week public notice, followed by a 30-day waiting period, before a new regulation can take effect. The county attorney also would have to sign off on it.

Those requirements could mean a countywide mandate wouldn’t be in place until mid-September, depending on if and when the board proceeds.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has said he is looking into the legality of mandates in both counties. He has voiced opposition to the mandates, calling them government overreach and urging Nebraskans instead to “do the right thing” and wear the face coverings voluntarily.

Rural senator says property tax relief more important than tax cuts for businesses

LINCOLN — A state senator says he’s “reasonably confident” he has the votes to pass a bill allowing Nebraska to not implement some federal tax cuts aimed at helping distressed businesses impacted by COVID-19.

To do so, State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion will have to overcome a full-court press by the state’s business lobby, which argued Monday that the tax cuts are sorely needed to avoid the closure of restaurants, hotels and other businesses hardest hit by income losses.

State Sen. Tom Briese, District 41, from Albion

But Briese, a farmer, said that “decoupling,” or declining the federal tax changes, would free up nearly $250 million in revenue over three years that could be used for a higher tax priority for Nebraskans — property tax relief.

“We have to keep our eyes on the prize, and property tax relief is the prize,” the rural senator said. “It’s the marquee issue in the state.”

Briese spoke after a noon-time public hearing before the Legislature’s Revenue Committee on his proposal for Nebraska to decouple tax cuts adopted as part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. Nebraska is among the states that automatically adopt federal tax changes unless state officials decide to decouple from those changes. The CARES Act tax changes give businesses more flexibility in deducting financial losses.

Decoupling is seen as a key negotiating chip in discussions underway about a “grand compromise” this legislative session to permit passage of a property tax relief/school aid reform bill — highly sought by farmers and ranchers — as well as a new state business incentive program — the top priority of the State Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.

Supporters of decoupling, which included the Nebraska State Education Association and the American Association of Retired Persons, said that Nebraska’s tax priorities should be decided here, not in Washington, D.C., which has already sent about $8 billion in COVID-19 aid to Nebraska and its businesses.

“This allows Nebraska to take control of their own tax base,” said Adam Thimmesch, a law professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who studies state tax law.

Thimmesch said the CARES Act tax breaks benefit mainly high-income individuals, and would probably not be the economic recovery plan that Nebraska lawmakers would adopt.

Decoupling, however, was opposed Monday by every major business group in the state, including the groups that represent the state’s banking, accounting, auto dealers and small-business industries. They argued that the CARES Act tax cuts were aimed at the businesses that have struggled most in recent years, and are at the highest risk of closing unless they get an infusion of cash via the tax breaks.

“To increase taxes in the middle of this crisis makes no sense in terms of what we’re trying to do in maintaining jobs,” said Bryan Slone, the president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, who chairs the Revenue Committee, said she did not know when her committee might vote on whether to advance Briese’s amendment. She said that she’d like to see a compromise on tax issues that “does it all,” but added that clearly, property tax relief is the top priority in the state.

Meet the Nebraska state senators

Omaha protesters paint harsh picture of jail; officials say they did their best in a bad situation

Amanda Humes and Ben Schacht have carefully considered which local protests to attend among several over the past two months.

In early June, they attended a vigil for Zachary Bear Heels, who died in 2017 after he was punched and shocked with a Taser by Omaha police officers. Two days later, they marched down Dodge Street to Memorial Park — a week after James Scurlock was killed.

Saturday’s gathering, which started at Midtown Crossing and was held to stand in solidarity with Portland and demand justice for Scurlock, was near the married couple’s residence. They trusted the organizers and took part in the peaceful protest.

But they didn’t return home until early Monday morning, after little sleep and an overnight stay at the Douglas County Jail.

What they learned while there is that the arresting and booking process is not a smooth one.

“There was this feeling of hopelessness. It didn’t feel like there was a person in there who was interested in listening or helping,” said Humes, 33. “This feeling that you’re up against this system of processing … you don’t know where you are in that process or how long it will take.”

The 120 protesters who were arrested by Omaha police officers Saturday night near 28th and Farnam Streets bogged down the jail’s booking process, despite the fact that Douglas County correctional officers stayed past their shifts and additional officers were called in to handle the influx. Scheduled routine maintenance to the jail’s computer system only added to the delays in getting protesters processed and released.

Many protesters took to social media or told their family and friends about conditions inside the jail. Some of the allegations included that air conditioning in the cells was turned off, that they weren’t given food and that the cells were overcrowded. Some protesters contended that the system glitches were deliberate.

Douglas County Corrections Director Michael Myers said the allegations aren’t accurate.

“It was just a perfect storm of events,” he said Monday while showing a World-Herald reporter the areas where the protesters were kept. “I don’t want to discount people’s experiences. It’s frustrating to know that we were doing the best that we could with the resources that we had and the space that we had, and to be demonized like that feels unfair.”

Myers said the jail isn’t equipped to handle so many people at one time. Officials had set up a third booking window after the large protests of late May and early June. The change allowed jail workers to book as many as 40 people in one hour, but the Saturday night system reboot jammed up the process.

After people are booked, they are patted down and screened for metal or cellphones. They also must turn in any property, other than clothing, visit the medical office and get a booking photo taken, among other steps. Myers said with 100-plus people, all of that takes time.

The protesters filled the jail’s 66-chair holding area, two large cells, eight small cells and a courtroom waiting room and small gym that officers turned into sleeping quarters with plastic cots.

The holding area has 10 phones, which are free to use, two private toilets and drinking fountains. Sometimes on Sunday, Myers said, the large holding cell doors were opened to allow people to freely walk around. Other times, officers switched out groups to let them use the phones and get water. Protesters dispute that phone access and water were readily available.

Riley Wilson, who served as a legal observer for a Scottsbluff attorney, said that at one point, 43 men were in one of the large cells, standing-room only. Wilson and others criticized the crowding based on federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that recommend keeping people 6 feet apart to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

“Once we were transferred over to the correctional facility, the biggest, scariest thing for me,” Schacht said, “was being in a pandemic and being crammed together. Masks can only protect you so much.”

Myers said if there’s a problem with an inmate, jail workers move the people from the waiting room to the cells for safety, and that’s what happened. Most of the time, he said, the large cells held about 20 to 25 people.

“You can’t social distance here,” he said. “We did the best that we could.”

All arrestees are given orange, laundered masks, and most of the protesters wore their own masks, Humes said. Correctional officers are also required to wear masks.

Many protesters said the capacity of the large cells was 14. A small sign above those cells — numbers 1 and 6 — say “ICE CAPACITY — 14.” Myers said that if the jail is holding arrestees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, then only 14 people can be in that cell at once. But these protesters were not arrested on ICE-related charges, so those standards didn’t apply.

“ICE has a lot of standards which exceed normal operating standards,” Myers said.

At least one transgender person was arrested and placed into a small holding cell alone. Myers said officials usually allow transgender inmates to be with the gender they identify as, and a committee discusses placement so that the inmate and others are safe, but the committee doesn’t meet on weekends.

The protesters were arrested on suspicion of a combination of charges, but mostly failure to disperse and obstructing passage. One person was arrested on suspicion of negligent driving, six with obstructing officers, four with resisting arrest and 11 with unlawful assembly, said Omaha Police Lt. Sherie Thomas, a police spokeswoman.

“The protesters started walking in the street against the direction of traffic, then there were announcements made advising the crowd that they were unlawfully assembling before arrests were made,” Thomas said in an email.

Omaha Police Capt. Mark Matuza had said Saturday that the protest “leaned toward the potential of getting violent.” When a World-Herald reporter requested more information about that statement, Thomas said “some intelligence was gathered” and declined to give further details.

Wilson, the legal observer, said he did not observe any violence by protesters. He said he did see officers push someone off their bicycle and shoot pepper balls. As they arrested protesters from about 9:30 p.m. to 9:45 p.m., they ordered people to get on the ground and then put zip ties on their hands.

Protesters sat on a bridge along Farnam Street for a few hours before they were taken to the Douglas County Jail, where they waited again.

“It was incredibly slow, and it was really painful,” Humes said. “Both my wrists were swollen and bruised from having to lay there like that.”

Once inside the jail, Humes said, she was put into a holding cell with other women.

“They all yelled, ‘You’re 46!’ meaning I was the 46th person to go into this room,” she said.

Humes said some people were waiting to get their medication, and others coached a woman through an anxiety attack.

At some point, the toilet in the women’s cell clogged or overflowed. Myers said that he had not heard about that but that maintenance staff is on hand at all times to fix problems as they arise.

Around noon Sunday, Myers said, he authorized his staff to use a paper process to book people and allow them to post their bail because the computers still weren’t working. About 37 people were released during the day Sunday, and 69 people were released between 3 p.m. and midnight, he said. A few protesters had warrants from other counties and weren’t allowed to be released, he said.

Myers said he was at the jail Sunday, overseeing the holding area. He said he spoke to a gathering of friends and family outside the jail to address their concerns.

Myers said he is proud of the way his correctional officers handled the influx of people.

Humes said she was able to pay her $500 bail but couldn’t leave the jail until about 10 p.m. Sunday. She waited for her husband for a couple of hours but then went home. Her husband was released about 1 a.m. Monday.

Schacht, Humes and Wilson said they heard officers say that the jail process, charges and financial burden might stymie the arrestees’ future efforts to raise their voices in protest. But they said the situation only bolstered many protesters’ attitudes.

“When you hear that, it sure makes you think, this was a very deliberate attempt to send a message,” Wilson said. “If the desired result was to have (protesters) being dissuaded from acting, all they did was intensify their beliefs.”