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Just over a third of Nebraska 12- to 17-year-olds have gotten COVID vaccine
  • Updated

With the start of classes roughly a month away for most Nebraska school districts, barely more than a third of the state’s 12- to 17-year-olds have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

In all, 54,642 of the approximately 161,000 Nebraskans in that age bracket have received at least one shot. That 34% one-shot rate trails the 38.2% national rate and places Nebraska 27th among the states, according to a World-Herald analysis of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Iowa’s 31.6% vaccination rate for that age group is even lower, ranking that state 32nd. Leading the nation, as it does in adult vaccination, is Vermont, with nearly 68% of 12- to 17-year-olds who have had one shot.

The rankings are similar when it comes to the percentage of Nebraska and Iowa 12- to 17-year-olds who are fully vaccinated. Some 27.7% of Nebraskans in that age group have received two doses, ranking the state 26th. Iowa is at No. 29 on that list, with 26.3% of youths fully vaccinated.

Locally, Douglas County appears to be ahead of that mark among 16- to 19-year-olds, with 49.6% fully vaccinated as of Wednesday.

Those breakdowns come as school officials weigh conditions for the start of the school year. So far, school officials have received conflicting information about at least one piece of that equation: namely, whether students should quarantine after contact with someone who has tested positive.

Under new guidance from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, a student who had contact would not have to quarantine.

The CDC, however, is recommending quarantining for unvaccinated students who have had close contact. Vaccinated people who are showing no symptoms are not required to quarantine. The agency also said vaccinated teachers and students don’t need to wear masks inside school buildings, a relaxation of previous guidelines.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, meanwhile, issued its own guidance Monday, including a recommendation that all students older than 2 years old and all school staff wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. The masking recommendation comes as part of a layered approach that also encourages vaccination and includes building ventilation, testing, quarantining and cleaning.

Lindsay Huse, the new director of the Douglas County Health Department, said Wednesday that health officials are speaking with local school district superintendents once or twice a week as they work to determine the best approach for the coming school year.

The guidance will include a mix of state and CDC recommendations, she said, as well as what meets local needs and has worked locally in the past. Douglas County officials also are coordinating with the Sarpy/Cass and Three Rivers Health Departments, since some school districts cross county lines. Final guidance should be available this week.

In addition, she said, local health directors are speaking with health directors across the state about how to integrate the different recommendations.

However, the lead-up to school openings comes as cases in the state, while still far below last fall’s peak, are on the rise and as the more-contagious delta variant of the coronavirus has gained ground.

Huse said delta now is the dominant strain seen in the county. Federal officials said earlier this week that the variant now accounts for 83% of known COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

For now, one priority for health and school officials will be to continue to encourage vaccination for eligible students. The two-dose Pfizer vaccine is approved for people ages 12 and older.

Huse said the vaccine will be offered at the Omaha Public Schools’ fall registration events at middle and high schools, as well as at those hosted by Metropolitan Community College and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The health department, working with various partners, previously has held vaccination events at schools, Boys & Girls Clubs and the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.

Shots also are available through local health systems, several private pediatric practices, Charles Drew Health Center and OneWorld Community Health Centers as well as health department events, which are updated on its website.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to reach a large percentage of the unvaccinated population through those events, as well,” Huse said of the school-based efforts.

Dr. Sharon Stoolman, a pediatric hospital physician with Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, said in an interview that the health system will try to post health professionals at those events to answer questions from parents.

“We recognize parents still have questions they need answers to,” said Stoolman, who participated in a Facebook question-and-answer session on the pediatrics academy’s masking recommendation that the hospital held Tuesday.

Stoolman said parents tend to worry whenever considering medical interventions for their kids because the children have long lives ahead of them. One long-term concern parents have raised is how the vaccines might affect kids’ fertility. The answer, she said, is that they won’t.

The messenger RNA used to train the body to respond to the coronavirus does not integrate into a vaccinated person’s genetic material.

In addition, the risk posed to kids by COVID-19 outweighs the possibility of very rare side effects from the vaccine, Stoolman said. Rare cases of heart inflammation in youths have been short-lived and treatable.

And, while young people are less likely than older people to suffer serious illness from COVID, she said, some children do become very ill and some suffer long-term effects, even from mild cases.

A young person who is going to school and participating in sports, Stoolman said, is more likely to get COVID-19 than to suffer a vaccine side effect.

Another reassuring sign should be the time researchers are taking to study vaccines in 6- to 11-year-olds, a process that’s still underway. If researchers were rushing the science, she said, shots for that group already might be available.

The Nebraska State Education Association, in a statement Wednesday, said vaccinations for those 12 and older are key to keeping schools open and students and staff safe.

“As a teacher and a grandmother, I ... want to note that young children not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations rely on older vaccinated people for protection from the virus,” said Jenni Benson, association president.

Most local school districts, however, have not weighed in on how they will handle masking. An exception is the Papillion-La Vista Community Schools, which has said masks will be optional at all grade levels.

Dr. Drea Jones, a member of the Douglas County Board of Health, said Wednesday that the CDC considers people of all ages in making its recommendations. Because children under 12 can’t yet be vaccinated, she urged strong consideration of universal masking for kids in schools.

Stoolman said she will be sending her elementary and high school-age students to school in masks, as the pediatrics academy recommends. She said she hopes parents will be allowed to make their own choices.

“We as parents have to take that on for our families and say, ‘How do we keep our families safe?’” she said.

World-Herald staff writer Joe Dejka contributed to this report.

Tainted meat killed Nebraska WWII vet who lived through wild commando adventures

Sgt. Glenn Nelson of Oakland, Nebraska, survived all the hell World War II threw at him.

Months of winter training in snowy Montana. Rubber-boat landings in the Aleutians and France. Months of artillery barrages at the Anzio beachhead. Fighting the Germans in besieged Bastogne.

After living through all that, Nelson, 40, died in 1948 — three years after the war ended — of trichinosis, a rare disease caused by eating undercooked meat containing worm larvae that can hatch inside your body and wreak havoc.

Stories handed down in his family suggest he contracted the disease after parachuting with a small group of soldiers behind German lines on a sabotage mission, and slaughtering a pig to survive. He was a paratrooper with a secretive and elite commando unit that was a model for modern-day special operations forces like the Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs.

The story was convincing enough to persuade leaders of Oakland’s Veterans of Foreign Wars post to add his name earlier this month to a local monument to the town’s war dead at the request of Linda Murray, 78, of Oakland, Nelson’s niece. About 50 people attended the ceremony.

“It seems ironic to me to have survived all he did, and then died the way he did,” said Ben Murray of Oakland, who is Linda’s husband.

Medical experts think it’s unlikely Nelson actually contracted trichinosis during the war, because the now-rare disease has a short incubation period. It strikes within days with severe flu-like symptoms and can be fatal within weeks or months.

“Dying from trichinosis years after being infected is very atypical,” said Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s infectious diseases division. “It doesn’t detract from (Nelson’s) heroism.”

Nelson was born in 1908, the oldest of five children of Emil and Ellen Nelson of Oakland.

He graduated from high school in Oakland in 1926 and worked as a farmhand in Burt County.

One of Nelson’s nieces, Jody Jones, 88, of Carroll, Iowa, remembers him as a favorite uncle who played the guitar and sang. He used to buy Jones cherry floats, her favorite treat.

“Everybody loved him,” Jones said. “He’d be a person you wouldn’t think would do all these things.”

Like much about his military life, it’s a mystery to Nelson’s family how he ended up enlisting in the Army in 1941 at the relatively advanced age of 33, before the United States entered World War II.

However it happened, Nelson was recruited the following year for the First Special Service Force, made up of about 2,300 U.S. and Canadian soldiers who were trained in small-unit commando operations behind enemy lines. The troops called themselves “The Force.”

British journalist and inventor Geoffrey Pyke hatched the idea of creating a unit whose members could parachute into the mountains of Norway, establish a secret base on a glacier and carry out sabotage missions against the Nazi occupiers.

The unit was formed and trained at Fort William Henry Harrison near Helena, Montana, for winter combat training in nearby mountains that reached 9,000 feet. They learned hand-to-hand combat, demolition techniques, airborne assault and attack maneuvers.

“My uncle had to learn to ski, which he had never done before,” Jones said. “The most terrifying thing for him was to jump out of an airplane.”

The Norway scheme, called Operation Plough, was scrubbed before the Force’s training ended. Instead the unit’s first mission, in August 1943, involved an amphibious landing on rocky Kiska, an island in the Aleutians that had been occupied by Japan 14 months earlier. The commandos landed only to find out the Japanese were already gone.

The Force was reassigned to Italy in November 1943, and thrown into the Allied effort to dislodge German forces from a string of entrenched mountain defenses straddling the Italian peninsula.

Within two weeks, the Force got its orders: Take the hilltop fortress at Monte la Difensa, whose guns blocked any Allied attempt to move north. Other units already had tried and failed, at frightful cost.

An artillery unit pounded the Axis fortress with a 75,000-round barrage. Then Nelson’s unit started scaling the rocky east face of the mountain, which the Germans hadn’t bothered to defend because it was impenetrably steep. The last 500 feet, the soldiers used ropes, in darkness, in temperatures near zero.

The Force reached the top, and then chased off the shocked German defenders. The accomplishment stunned even the U.S. soldiers themselves, considering it was their first real combat. Years later, in 1968, a Hollywood movie called “The Devil’s Brigade” would celebrate the feat.

But it came at a cost: 73 dead, and more than 300 wounded. Another 116 soldiers were evacuated because of cold-weather injuries like frostbite and hypothermia.

Glenn Nelson was wounded in the battle, according to an account published about six months later in his hometown newspaper, the Oakland Independent, that quoted a letter he wrote home to his parents.

A shell fragment had penetrated his uniform and jacket on his upper shoulder.

“It made just a very small hole,” Nelson wrote to his parents, “but going through so much cloth, it bruised terribly hard, so my shoulders were sore for a week or two.”

The letter also contained a Purple Heart medal he had been awarded. He reassured his parents he hadn’t been hospitalized.

Within weeks, the Force was moved to Anzio, a beach south of Rome where the Allies had launched an amphibious assault behind German lines.

The campaign eventually led to the capture of Rome, but it is best remembered for months of stalemate, during which German artillery pummeled Allied troops on the exposed beach.

The Force nevertheless burnished its reputation at Anzio. Despite being badly under strength, its members held on to a 7-mile stretch of the front, executing gutsy nighttime commando raids that earned their nickname from a (possibly apocryphal) story about an entry in the diary of a dead German officer that was said to refer to the “Black Devils.”

The raiders also were known to put stickers on the foreheads of German soldiers they had killed bearing the unit’s insignia and the words “Das dicke Ende kommt noch,” translated as “The worst is yet to come.”

After seizing seven bridges and battling into Rome, the Force joined the August 1944 invasion of southern France.

But the Force was living on borrowed time. Its military successes obscured difficulties administering the binational unit, and military leaders couldn’t easily find missions suited to its special skills. On Dec. 5, 1944, it was disbanded, and its U.S. members were reassigned mostly to airborne units.

Glenn Nelson was sent to the 101st Airborne Division, which within weeks was besieged at Bastogne, Belgium, during Germany’s massive last-ditch offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Germany surrendered five months later, and Nelson was discharged Aug. 1, 1945.

He worked for a time at an aircraft manufacturer in Southern California, then returned to his hometown and worked for a year as a carpenter. He never married.

Like many members of the Force, Nelson moved to Helena, where the unit had trained during the war. He got a job there in a lead-smelting plant.

Nelson had been hospitalized for about two months before his death from trichinosis on July 28, 1948, according to his obituary. LaVerne Nelson, his only brother among four siblings, was visiting him in Montana at the time and arranged for the return of his body to Oakland for burial.

The obituary doesn’t say how he contracted the disease. Linda Murray isn’t sure of the origins of the family story linking it to a pig snatched on a commando raid — though it seemed plausible given his unit’s wartime mission. Jody Jones recalls that her uncle was ill after the war, and Murray says he spent time at a veterans hospital in Denver.

Trichinosis can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.

Rupp said the larvae of the trichina worm are encased in cysts, the shells of which dissolve when exposed to stomach acid. Those that survive may penetrate the wall of the small intestine. New larvae can enter the bloodstream, penetrate muscles and, in serious cases, lead to fatal inflammations of the heart, brain or lungs.

“You know he suffered intensely,” Jones said.

The disease is almost unheard of in domestically produced pork now, Rupp said. Drugs given to hogs prevent it. Cooking meat thoroughly or freezing it can also kill the larvae. The few trichinosis cases that still occur are from wild game particularly bear, a favorite meat of hunters in Montana and nearby states where bears roam.

“This used to be relatively common in the United States, and now it’s quite rare,” he said.

Regardless of how he died, Nelson’s living relatives are happy to see his sacrifice remembered.

“Most people around here don’t know who he was,” Linda Murray said.

Now, maybe they will.

Westside Community Schools
Hateful language could mean suspension for Westside competitors
  • Updated

Hateful language on the football field or in a speech competition could result in suspension from the activity under a new Westside Community Schools policy.

This week, the Westside school board unanimously approved an anti-hate activities policy that will go into effect in the upcoming school year. The policy applies to students, coaches, advisers and volunteers in the district participating in extracurricular activities and programs.

The policy states that anyone who uses hateful language or engages in any act against or directed toward a person based on that person’s sex, race, ethnicity, background, religion, gender or sexual orientation will be subject to immediate suspension from the activity.

In addition to serving a suspension, the policy also states that the offender’s participation in an activity can resume only after he or she completes an anti-hate and anti-bias education program approved by the district.

Prior to the start of the new season of sports and activities, Westside officials also will talk to students about the importance of treating competitors and teammates with respect. They also will note that racial slurs and disparagement never should be part of any competition or school activity, said Adam Yale, a member of the Westside school board.

Westside’s new policy comes after several reports of racial slurs being yelled from the stands at Black high school basketball players.

Officials from Omaha Northwest High School reported that boys in the Norfolk High School crowd yelled the N-word at the Northwest girls varsity team as they left the court after a February game against Norfolk High.

As a result, Norfolk Public Schools was placed on probation by the Nebraska School Activities Association for the remainder of the school year. The district issued an apology and started developing an equity and diversity plan.

The incident at Norfolk came less than two weeks after a similar report at Creighton Prep, where someone alleged that a person in Prep’s student section called a Bellevue West High School player the N-word.

“Any and all racist and discriminatory language is contrary to our values and the spirit of the Creighton Prep community and will not be tolerated,” Prep said in a statement after the incident.

Yale said Westside’s policy was in response to those incidents and others.

“It is frightening to me that we sit here in 2021 and we still have to deal with this junk,” Yale said. “And we’re going to try to do something about it. Obviously, as a society, as a state, as a community, we have a long way to go, but we’re going to see if we can make any difference here.”

The policy is part of the work of the WE-Side Community Council. Launched in summer 2020, the acronym stands for Welcoming Equity Support Inclusion and Dignity for Everyone.

In 2021, the district plans to have students, staff, parents and community members “join us as we analyze our curriculum, gain a better understanding of one another, address sometimes uncomfortable but critical topics, and more, with the goal of being a school district where everyone belongs,” according to district’s website.

Yale said the district is not aware of any other district in the state with a similar policy, but he hopes Westside won’t be the first and last district to make this a priority.

He acknowledged that he already can see ways around the policy, and a lot of what happens during a competition isn’t heard by everyone, which can turn it into a “he said/she said” situation. Yale said the board will modify the policy as needed.

“At the very least, we’ve got people thinking about it,” Yale said. “We’re actively teaching it. And our hope would be that we aren’t going to be the only ones.”