More testing. More data about who’s sick and where they live and work. More people staying home.
That’s what Lexington Mayor John Fagot said his central Nebraska city needs to stamp out a coronavirus flare-up in the Dawson County area.
Just since April 8, Dawson County cases have grown from one to 197 as of Wednesday night. Lexington, population 10,000, is the largest city in the county, and home to a Tyson Foods beef plant that employs nearly 3,000 people.
Fagot said he doesn’t know how many people in Lexington have tested positive, or how many workers at the Tyson plant have COVID-19 — only countywide figures have been shared with him.
“I do expect more cases,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve peaked at this time.”
Dawson County also includes the smaller cities of Cozad and Gothenburg.
“We don’t expect to know names or addresses or everything, we just want to know the towns or areas where they are at,” said Dawson County Board member PJ Jacobson. “I hear rumors, but that’s all we hear.”
The Nebraska National Guard was back in Lexington on Monday and Tuesday swabbing people for testing, after collecting specimens over the weekend, too. That means the number of cases will almost certainly rise as more test results come back.
Fagot said he was working the phones trying to secure more testing from state and local health officials, as well as workers who could follow up with those who test positive to see how they’re recovering and with whom they’ve been in contact.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts announced a new initiative Tuesday, TestNebraska, that aims to dramatically increase coronavirus testing in the state within the next month or so.
Jeremy Eschliman, director of the Two Rivers Public Health Department, said more data should be available soon, including how many workers to date have tested positive at the Tyson plant. In smaller communities, it is harder to protect the confidentiality of those testing positive, he said.
“It’s easy to identify people, much easier than in Omaha, for example, where you can blend in a little bit,” he said. “We really think that’s a key tenet of public health, to protect the anonymity of individuals.”
Rise in coronavirus cases in three Nebraska meatpacking communities
|County||April 10||April 20|
The capacity of the seven-county health agency is being stretched.
It has 10 to 12 employees who have halted all non-coronavirus programs and work. Eschliman has asked the University of Nebraska Medical Center to send public health graduate students who can work on contact tracing, the detective work that involves figuring out who has interacted with a contagious person and if they need to quarantine.
He’s also requested help from the Medical Reserve Corps, a national volunteer network of doctors, nurses and health care workers who can deploy to areas of need, and brought on 10 volunteers this week.
Ricketts said at his daily coronavirus briefing Tuesday that more resources are headed to Dawson County and that state and local officials are working on better outreach to diverse, multilingual communities like Lexington. The workforce at the Tyson plant includes Latinos, Somalis and Sudanese.
Several workers and their children, speaking to The World-Herald on the condition that they not be named out of fear of losing their jobs, said they wish the plant was more transparent about how many workers had tested positive, while still respecting medical privacy laws. Tyson representatives have said they will not confirm cases at individual plants.
One older worker who has high blood pressure, a high-risk condition when coupled with the coronavirus, is considering using up all her vacation days and not returning to the plant, her daughter said, translating for her Spanish-speaking mother.
“She does not want to work under those conditions right now,” she said. “She doesn’t feel safe going to work.”
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Another woman said her dad wants to keep working, despite the risks.
“I am definitely more worried than my dad is,” she said. “He wants to keep working. I think he sees himself as a hero in a way. Like he’s keeping the country fed, but at what cost?”
Tyson spokeswoman Morgan Watchous said that if there are confirmed cases at a plant, supervisors or public health officials notify anyone who was in close contact with the infected person, and inform other co-workers.
“We’re working hard to protect our team members during this ever-changing situation, while also ensuring we continue fulfilling our critical role of helping feed people across the country,” she said in a statement.
Fagot said he doesn’t think the plant is the only place in Lexington where the coronavirus is spreading. A number of locals travel between Grand Island, another coronavirus hot spot 86 miles to the east, and Lexington for work or to visit family, he said.
And just 9 miles or so south of Lexington is Johnson Lake, where there are cabins and vacation homes that Fagot said people in Colorado, Omaha and Grand Island have fled to as coronavirus cases grew in their home communities. Those people are most likely coming to Lexington to shop for groceries and other essentials.
Some resort towns in Colorado and elsewhere have banned nonresidents or people who own second homes to prevent small community hospitals from being swamped. Nebraska has not done that, but state officials have urged out-of-state travelers or Nebraskans who have recently traveled to self-quarantine for 14 days.
“We would like them not to come to their second home and stay in their first home,” Fagot said.
Lexington Regional Health Center, the 25-bed hospital in town, has three ventilators and a busy emergency room, spokeswoman Brenna Bartruff said. But hospital staff are handling the patient load so far, which includes several COVID-19 patients, and could add an additional 18 beds if a surge of COVID-19 patients arrives.
“We’ve been planning this for months, knowing it would come here eventually,” she said.
The mayor said too many people are still hanging out in groups with friends or family and not adhering to social distancing guidelines. He wonders if residents were too complacent, thinking the coronavirus was primarily a big-city problem before cases started spiking locally.
“Am I happy with what they’re doing? No,” he said. “We have a lot of people not complying.”
In town, local grocer AFM Market Place is leading the way by requiring solo shoppers only — no family shopping trips, Fagot said. Customers must wear masks inside the store, and employees won’t hesitate to break up crowds at the meat case.
“It sends a wonderful message out to the community that this is serious,” he said.