Nebraskans in Virus Hot Zone ‘Terrified’ After Governor Rejects Stay-at-Home Order
Pete Ricketts has bucked calls for a statewide stay-at-home order from officials in Grand Island—where coronavirus is on the rise.
At home in Grand Island, Nebraska, retired cook Henry Anderson hears the sounds of growing panic from the radio scanner that hangs from a nail on his living room wall.
On Friday morning, there was chatter about a young woman and her daughter who were sick but also confused because they had not been around anyone infected with the new coronavirus. Earlier in the week, he remembered, the scanner brought word of a man who tested negative when he first fell ill but was now wondering if he should get retested because “it got all up in his lungs," and he was pretty sure he had the virus.
“I get more news on the scanner than you do in the local newspaper,” Anderson, 64, told The Daily Beast. “There’s all kinds of things you don’t hear about.”
A hundred miles away in Lincoln, there’s an almost eerie calm—at least publicly.
Pete Ricketts has closed schools (even before New York City did), banned gatherings of 10 people or more, and closed dine-in areas in restaurants—but he is one of only eight governors in the country to resist a statewide stay-at-home order. The state’s May 12 primary is still on the books, and last week, Ricketts was already talking about easing what restrictions are in place, and a mall in Gretna was planning on reopening on April 24.
“Reopening sit-down restaurants and bars may be a part of that,” Ricketts, a conservative Republican, said on Wednesday. “As we get into this toward the end of the month, we'll be re-evaluating where we are with regard to where the virus is and making those decisions."
By the numbers, Nebraska is in better shape than most other places. With 901 COVID-19 infections and 20 recorded coronavirus deaths, it’s in the bottom 10 states.
But Nebraska also ranks 43rd in the rate of testing, which means there could be many undetected cases. Over the weekend, cases were reported for the first time in three more counties. And the number of cases statewide shot up by 100—the biggest one-day total so far—between Saturday and Sunday.
In Grand Island, the numbers are worse, and some residents are bristling at the governor’s approach to a pandemic that has killed over 23,000 Americans.
Hall County, which encompasses the city, has reported 214 COVID-19 cases—a per capita rate six times the statewide average. There have been four deaths, according to the state health department, and verified exposure in three nursing homes. Testing over the course of the last several days showed a positive rate of 20 to 25 percent, according to health officials.
“Our numbers have been increasing rapidly,” Teresa Anderson, director of the Central District Health Department, which oversees Hall and two other counties, said Monday. “Now we have to assume... the COVID virus is everywhere.”
The local hospital, CHI Health St. Francis, had 11 inpatients with coronavirus last week. That was up to 21 on Monday, with 13 of them in the ICU—which has only 13 ventilators. Anderson said it was likely as the crisis progressed, some patients would have to be transferred elsewhere.
“We’ll continue to report on the numbers,” she said. “But they are not going to be good.”
Grand Island, population 50,000, is not a center of political power like Lincoln or home to Fortune 500 headquarters like Omaha. It’s a blue-collar town that is one of the most diverse cities in the state.
It’s not entirely clear how the outbreak started there. The first three cases were not related to each other, had not traveled, and did not have close contact with any known carriers.
Anderson of the Health Department said there were unfounded rumors it began at a quinceanera, or a girl’s 15th birthday party; Grand Island is 31 percent Hispanic, according to census estimates. “Everyone wants to look for something they can hang their hat on or something to blame but scientifically it doesn’t bear out,” she said.
At least 28 of the infected work at the JBS meat-packing plant, which remains open—even as another major local business, CNH Industrial, announced it was ceasing operations last week to protect its workforce.
Anderson said health officials don’t know if COVID-19 was being spread from worker to worker at JBS, which has 3,000 employees in Grand Island. “That’s the mystery. We don’t know exactly where it’s getting picked up. It could be here, there, anywhere,” she said.
One thing that is clear: Many local officials and medical professionals wish Ricketts had issued a stay-at-home order to send a message that social distancing is not simply a recommendation, but a mandate.
Among other appeals, 45 Grand Island doctors signed a letter to the governor earlier this month, asking him to relent. But even a face-to-face meeting with Ricketts didn’t budge him.
“There are many folks among us who believe that a shelter-in-place would be an effective way to separate people for a two-week period, thereby reducing the spread,” Anderson said at a briefing last week, after that meeting.
“And both the medical community, the mayor, and the public health requested that of the governor. He doesn’t think this is the right time to do it—so that’s his responsibility.”
That doesn’t sit well with Henry Anderson, who was born with a lung disorder and would be at high risk for complications if he was infected.
“You can thank Ricketts for that,” he said. “He’s just like Trump, he’s followed Trump, don’t matter if it’s good for Nebraska or not.”
He added that when numbers were ticking up in Colorado last month, Gov. Jared Polis quickly shut things down. “And what’d Ricketts do? Nothing… He’s not doing enough and hasn’t done it soon enough.”
One thing Ricketts did do was dispatch the National Guard to Grand Island for drive-through testing, but the capacity is only 75 tests for each of five days. First responders and health-care professionals got priority, followed by people in homeless shelters, and residents who have been diagnosed by their doctors solely on the basis of their symptoms.
Those 375 tests did not begin to touch the demand in Grand Island. And without more testing, authorities won’t know how many people are actually infected and what the health care infrastructure could be facing in the coming weeks.
As Anderson, the health official, noted, because so few people have been tested, “a count of 60 [positive test results] turns into more like a count of 600 [actual infections].”
Miguel Estevez, a mental health therapist at the Friendship House outpatient clinic, said his mother, who was exposed to someone infected, is probably among the uncounted.
“My mom had all the symptoms, she had fever, she had all of that and they didn’t test her,” he said. “She’s had the symptoms for the past week and a half. Other people from her friend group went to the ER and they didn’t test them and it took them a couple tries to be like ‘I feel like shit,’ before they actually tested them.”
CHI Health St. Francis said it expects to expand testing this week. President Ed Hannon told The Daily Beast the hospital was at 50 percent capacity and can accommodate up to 150 patients. Although it has just 13 ventilators, there are 14 other machines that can be repurposed if needed.
Hannon said he doesn’t think it will come to that. “This is working. We are not seeing the surge that we have seen in other parts of the world or in New York City, because here in Nebraska we have been staying home, social distancing,” he said.
But not everyone in Grand Island has been following the toothless recommendation.
Jose Gaytan, 42, a self-employed construction worker, said he has been going to hardware stores to buy supplies and finishing up jobs, although the coronavirus has spread enough that he plans to stop working now.
A friend of his who works at JBS was sick with symptoms that jibe with COVID-19, though he has not been tested, Gaytan said. Another JBS employee he knows was staying home but has returned to work since more social-distancing measures were put in place. She eats in her car and heads into work early so she doesn’t have to “bunch in with the whole crowd as they’re going in,” he explained.
Because JBS is part of the food-supply chain, it would be exempt from any stay-at-home order. “It’s really important to understand that if the state went under lockdown, JBS would continue to operate,” said Schuyler Geery-Zink, staff attorney for the Immigrants and Community Program at Nebraska Appleseed, a workers’ justice nonprofit.
In a statement, a JBS spokesperson told The Daily Beast, “The health and safety of our communities and our team members providing food for us all during this unprecedented time remains our top priority.” They went on to note “numerous safety measures, health protocols and worker benefits,” including temperature testing employees, relaxed attendance and expanded paid-leave policies, the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), and more.
But fears in Grand Island aren’t tied to any single business. Gloria Sarmiento, a community organizer for Nebraska Appleseed, said clients have been calling to say they want to stay home, but their employers are staying open, leaving them no choice.
“It’s really hard for people to make those decisions,” she said. “[They say,] ‘I am afraid of work, but I have to do it.’”
In an interview with the Omaha World Herald this weekend, Ricketts said he was keeping close watch on cases and was reassured that the numbers were not getting out of control.
“They are not going up at a geometric rate right now, and that’s really one of the keys,” he said.
But Estevez said that in Grand Island, there’s a nagging feeling that the situation is already worse than the current numbers suggest—and is only going to intensify without more extreme restrictions.
“People are obviously just terrified,” he said.