LINCOLN — About 90% of the nation’s population will be under stay-at-home orders by the end of the weekend to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
But Gov. Pete Ricketts repeated Thursday that he’s not joining the crowd, despite urging from some fellow governors.
“Our plan is the right thing for us in Nebraska,” he said. “We need to do what’s right for Nebraska.”
That, so far, has been to order, county by county, directed health measures when the number of community spread cases of coronavirus reaches a certain threshold within a given public health district.
Such measures began in the Omaha area on March 18 but by Thursday had extended to 56 of the state’s 93 counties, or about 83% of the state’s population.
Governors of 38 states have issued statewide shelter-in-place orders, telling residents to stay put except for essential errands. On Wednesday, one of those state executives, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, urged governors of Nebraska, Iowa and the 10 other states that have not followed suit to join them.
“What are you waiting for? …What more evidence do you need?” Newsom asked. “You’ll never regret overcompensating.”
But Dr. James Lawler, a key adviser to the governor and an infectious disease authority at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place mandate is not needed “at this point in time.” Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical officer, also said he firmly backs the governor’s approach.
“What I think we should really focus on is improving compliance and adherence. This depends on people taking this seriously and doing the right thing,” said Lawler, co-director of UNMC’s Global Center for Health Security.
“If we do what we’ve already implemented and we do it well, I think we’ll get much more bang for our buck than we would from going to a much more draconian posture,” he said.
“We know that those social and economic consequences can have just as many public health consequences in the longer term (as) current disease transmission can,” he said.
Still, the doctor added, it would be “dishonest” to pretend that anyone has answers that are 100% certain. There is still much to learn about this new bug and what will knock it down, Lawler said.
The comments come as the call for a nationwide stay-at-home order is growing and as more and more Nebraskans question why the state hasn’t followed the lead of the majority of states that have issued such orders. At least two state senators — Megan Hunt of Omaha and Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, both Democrats — have urged the Republican governor to follow suit.
Ricketts said Nebraska’s “regional” approach is tailored to impose restrictions, via the directed health measures, in a timely fashion when the virus affects a specific area.
“The virus won’t be everywhere in our state all at once,” he said. “It will spread in different places at different rates.”
The governor said the state’s plan, which was devised last month in consultation with Lawler and others at UNMC, does not include a shelter-in-place order as an option.
Ricketts, during his daily coronavirus briefing, and Lawler said Nebraska is much different from New York, Seattle and other areas of the coasts that were hit with the virus sooner. In New York City, the virus was probably already circulating in January, unbeknownst to officials there; Nebraska was dealing with its first known case only a month ago.
Cities that have gone to lockdown mode had no choice, Lawler said.
“We’re smaller and more nimble and acted much earlier in our epidemic curve,” the doctor said.
Ricketts said that because the virus arrived here later, Nebraska was able to impose the recommendations of President Donald Trump in a more timely fashion. The president, on March 16, asked that public gatherings be limited to 10 people to limit the spread of the virus.
“He also said that every state is different and every state should tailor their plans to their specific needs,” Ricketts said. “It gets back to how we manage disasters in our country — locally executed, state managed and federally supported.”
The governor disagreed with the idea that a stay-at-home mandate would produce greater compliance with the state’s guidance on social distancing.
Voluntary compliance, he has said, has been pretty good. If orders are issued too soon, in areas without community virus spread, residents might grow weary of the 10-person rule and stop complying, Ricketts said.
The governor said Nebraska’s directed health measures, which ban gatherings of more than 10 people, are actually tougher than some states’ stay-at-home orders. He cited Florida, where church services are still allowed.
On Thursday, Ricketts reported that Nebraska is making progress in increasing testing for the coronavirus, which he and Lawler have said will be crucial in getting an accurate handle on the spread of the virus in the state. On Thursday, the state received 696 test results, compared with 404 on Wednesday and just over 100 a week ago.
Nebraska may be doing more tests, but the state ranks 43rd in virus testing per capita, according to Kaiser Family Foundation. Ricketts says that reflects the state’s relatively low incidence rate and that testing has been prioritized in states that have been more highly affected.
Data indicates that what Nebraska is doing is working, the governor said, because the number of new cases has been hovering around 37 or 38 a day in the past three days.
“Something’s working. That’s all I can say,” Anthone said after the briefing.
But Ricketts said that as the state does more testing, Nebraskans should expect more cases and an expansion of the directed health measures.
“Nobody has any illusions — April is going to be a tough month,” he said. By the end of the month, he added, the state should be able to look at relaxing some restrictions in selected areas.
Ricketts rejected a suggestion that he’s resisted a stay-at-home mandate because it would shutter businesses. Closing companies, he said, does nothing to adhere to the most important recommendation he’s making to all Nebraskans, which is to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.
Businesses, he said, can comply by spreading out their employees and customers, keeping them at least 6 feet apart. The more Nebraskans that comply with the social distancing guidelines, the faster this crisis will end, Ricketts said.
“That’s the priority,” he said. “If you want to see football this fall, don’t gather in a group of more than 10 people.”