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Ricketts spokesman criticizes Nebraska doctors calling for stronger coronavirus measures

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Ricketts presser teaser

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts holds a press conference at the Nebraska State Capitol about the state’s coronavirus response in March.

Gov. Ricketts announced that several restrictions on crowd sizes are back in place after coronavirus cases surge in Nebraska.

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts’ chief spokesman led a Twitter attack Saturday against doctors calling for stronger measures to control the coronavirus pandemic.

Taylor Gage, the Republican governor’s director of strategic communications, posted tweets questioning the doctors’ political views and including screenshots of three doctors’ Twitter feeds.

The three — Drs. Kelly Cawcutt, Alice Sato and Renuga Vivekanandan, all of Omaha — had retweeted posts celebrating the victory of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

“Many of the folks leading the social media campaign targeting @GovRicketts also seem to share similar political views,” Gage tweeted.

On Saturday and Sunday, Twitter users, including several medical colleagues, denounced Gage’s comments and defended the doctors. Several said the three had been trying to protect Nebraskans, not make political points.

“Take note @gagetaylor — we are not ‘targeting’ @GovRicketts. We are doctors who are targeting #Covid_19 and fighting to save lives in our home state. These are not political posts. They are a plea for our leaders to listen to the medical experts and help our community,” said Dr. Angela Hewlett of Omaha.

Some noted that Gage had focused only on female doctors. Others pointed out that all three have specialties in infectious diseases and epidemiology.

“The people of Nebraska would be better served if you focused more on their credentials and less on their political opinions,” said Dr. Curtis Hartman of Omaha.

State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln also criticized what he called “the Nebraska Governor’s COVID twilight zone where he decides to conduct opposition research and then launch political attacks against doctors (only the female ones!) advocating for resources and action.”

In a statement Sunday, Gage did not directly respond to the critics. But he said that Nebraskans are entitled to express their views and that people who post on Twitter do so “with the expectation that their views will be examined and challenged when expressed.”

Cawcutt, Sato and Vivekanandan were among a number of Nebraska health care providers in recent days who have been tweeting calls for the governor to increase public health restrictions in the face of a steep rise in COVID-19 cases and a dwindling number of hospital beds.

“With surging #COVID-19 cases, record-breaking daily cases, critical access concerns for hospitals & risks of increasing staff shortages, we need help to slow this down @Gov.Ricketts,” Cawcutt said.

Added Sato: “We need this for the kids too. We have had increasing admissions @ChildrensOmaha in the past couple weeks.”

Ricketts tightened the state’s public health measures on Oct. 21 in response to rising cases. The new measures prohibited standing-room crowds in bars and restaurants and cut the size of indoor gatherings from 75% of capacity to 50% of capacity, among other things.

Since then, he has resisted calls to further tighten restrictions, saying it would take two or three weeks to see the results of the last change. But he has repeatedly urged Nebraskans to avoid the “Three C’s” — crowded places, close contact and confined spaces.

A Sunday World-Herald story about the health providers’ tweets quoted Gage saying the governor’s decisions regarding pandemic restrictions are based on science and data, not social media campaigns and tweets.

Later on Sunday, Gage said the opinions of infectious disease experts are “a consideration” in the governor’s decisions about health restrictions.

“The governor’s decisions regarding such pandemic restrictions are made based on data and sound science, including behavioral health and social well-being among other considerations,” he said.

“Nebraska puts a high value on freedom, human dignity, and doing the right thing, and that’s why the state, like other states in the region, has used a lighter touch when managing pandemic restrictions.”

Gage hinted that some announcements about public health measures would be coming this week. He urged people to watch the governor’s press conferences, set for 10 a.m. Monday, 2 p.m. Tuesday and 2 p.m. Thursday. The press conferences are streamed on the governor’s Facebook page and on NET.Our best staff images from November 2020

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-670-2402

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