The Nebraska National Guard will be deployed to Grand Island this week to set up a temporary coronavirus specimen collection tent.
The Grand Island medical community, Mayor Roger Steele and Central District Health Department Director Teresa Anderson have said a two-week stay-at-home order could help the area get a handle on its current outbreak.
At a press conference Monday, Anderson said Gov. Pete Ricketts doesn’t favor that approach.
“He doesn’t think it’s the right time to do that, so that’s his responsibility,” she said. “Regardless, we all can still take that same type of action without being told to.”
Additional state resources are flowing to the central Nebraska area with a growing number of coronavirus cases. The state will provide more staff to track down those who came into contact with infected people, work with Grand Island employers on quarantining sick workers and communicate to the public the need to stay home and practice social distancing.
The state support comes as the local hospital gears up to treat more COVID-19 patients. It has set up a special respiratory care unit in a tent outside the emergency room.
Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Ricketts, said local officials didn’t specifically ask for a stay-at-home order during a Sunday conference call with the governor, “but we will take more restrictive steps if necessary.”
At a White House press briefing Monday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is advising President Donald Trump on the pandemic, said Nebraska and Iowa are doing the functional equivalent of other states’ stay-at-home orders.
One key difference is that stay-at-home, or shelter-in-place, orders mandate that people remain home, with exceptions for certain essential activities or jobs.
Ricketts, in consultation with health advisers, has resisted calls to impose a sweeping, statewide stay-at-home measure like those issued in a majority of other states. He has argued that Nebraska took early measures to contain the virus and has so far not seen anywhere near the spread of larger states like New York and California.
Testing in Nebraska, as in other states, has lagged, which may mask the true number of people infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Directed health measures ordered by Ricketts and Anderson have closed salons and dine-in areas at restaurants in Hall, Hamilton and Merrick Counties and the rest of the state. The Grand Island mayor closed the parks. Groups must be limited to 10 people, although Steele said Monday that he recommended avoiding gatherings altogether.
But only Ricketts has the authority to order stricter measures, Steele said.
The mayor said he also can’t shut down large employers with workers who have tested positive, like the JBS USA beef plant, because food production facilities are considered essential by the federal government.
Ricketts said Monday that he has talked to JBS executives but called meatpacking a critical industry needed to feed America right now.
Darcy Tromanhauser and Gloria Sarmiento of Nebraska Appleseed said meat and food processing facilities need to do more than check workers’ temperatures and encourage employees to spread out at lunch.
Workers should be spaced out on the production line, even if shift times need to be staggered; given masks; and have access to paid sick leave, they said.
“Some people, they don’t want to go to work, but they say, ‘We need to feed our kids and family,’ ” said Sarmiento, a senior community educator and organizer who has talked to meat and poultry workers or affiliated groups in eight Nebraska communities, including Grand Island.
Some companies, like Cargill, say they’re already taking those steps to protect workers and keep production facilities open.
Hall County, where Grand Island is, has emerged as one of the coronavirus epicenters in Nebraska.
The county ranks second in known positive cases, behind the far more populous Douglas County. A letter signed by 45 doctors and published in The World-Herald over the weekend begged for more testing and other action.
The Central District Health Department counted 68 coronavirus cases Monday, with 62 in Hall County. That includes 13 workers at the beef plant.
In nearby Adams County, a child who has been in contact with one of those workers tested positive over the weekend.
“There is a dangerous, in fact deadly, virus loose in our community,” Steele said. “I need you all to do the right thing and practice social distancing.”
Anderson said more information will be released this week on the new testing site, including hours and who can get tested there.
“This is an opportunity for us to actually determine the number of cases we have,” she said.
National Guard members helped test 162 residents and staffers at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center-Kearney last weekend. Two staffers at the state facility have tested positive so far.
St. Francis hospital in Grand Island, part of the CHI Health system, has treated COVID-19 patients, including in its intensive care unit. Some have been put on ventilators, including one patient who recovered enough to be removed from breathing support, said the hospital’s president, Edward Hannon.
“The majority of patients are recovering at home and staying at home,” he said. “This isn’t necessarily a fatal disease. People can recover very well.”
The hospital recently procured three more ventilators from the CHI Health network and now has 14 ventilators between the ICU and the neonatal intensive care unit, plus several anesthesia and CPAP machines.
The hospital could add 28 beds, expanding to a capacity of 157 beds, to care for additional patients. Every person entering the hospital — doctors, nurses, plumbers — is first screened for symptoms.
Health care workers at the Grand Island Clinic and three local long-term care facilities have tested positive for the coronavirus, but Hannon declined to say whether anyone at St. Francis has.
CHI Health is also translating COVID-19 materials into different languages, such as Spanish and Arabic, and is expecting to put up billboards around town with tips to combat the spread.
Anderson has warned residents that local case numbers could keep climbing for the next two months, especially as more people get tested.
“How bad this actually gets depends on you and the steps you take today and every day for the next at least eight weeks,” she said. “So we ask your cooperation, and we thank you in advance for staying home.”