Coronavirus Is So Bad in This Nebraska City a Survivor Was Afraid to Go Home
COVID-19 almost killed Danny Lemos, so he doesn’t understand why Nebraska is opening up while it’s still spreading.
After two weeks on a ventilator, after being flown by helicopter to a bigger hospital, after being given a 20 percent chance of survival, Danny Lemos yanked the tubes out of his mouth last week and, remarkably, began breathing on his own.
A few days later he walked away from Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha under his own steam, his kids cheering from a distance, and prepared for the trip back to Grand Island, the small blue-collar city where he’s lived all his life.
He was scared to death.
When Lemos went into the hospital on April 8, about 80 people in Grand Island, population 50,000, had tested positive for the new coronavirus.
The number is over 900 now, and at least 35 deaths have been reported in Hall County, which encompasses Grand Island, 10 of them in just the last day. This week, the local health director missed a public briefing because a staff member was infected and worked with symptoms.
“It’s so scary,” said Lemos, who believes he contracted COVID-19 from his father, a meat-cutter at the JBS plant, which is now tied to hundreds of cases. “It spread so quickly.”
Lemos, 39, said doctors told him that they don’t know whether someone who has recovered from COVID-19 can get it again. So as he headed to his hometown—now Nebraska’s worst hot spot—he was worried he could be re-infected.
“They need to shut everything down,” Lemos said. ”It’s the only way.”
Not only has Gov. Pete Ricketts refused to completely lock down Nebraska, he’s already loosening what restrictions did exist—even though coronavirus is still spreading across the state. Lemos calls it “crazy.”
Nebraska reported its highest-ever number of new cases just this week. Two weeks ago, it was in the bottom 10 states in terms of cases; it’s moved up seven notches since then. An outbreak in South Sioux City—where 669 workers at a Tyson meat-packing plant tested positive, according to the Sioux City Journal—has put Dakota County’s per capita infection rate above New York’s and New Jersey’s within two weeks of its first case.
Nevertheless, starting Monday, new rules that apply to two-thirds of the state will allow restaurants to open their dining rooms and will put tattoo parlors and hair salons back in business. Churches will be allowed to hold services, weddings, and funerals—even in Grand Island and other areas where the virus is rampant.
After an outlet mall in Gretna, Nebraska Crossing, announced a “soft reopening” last week, Ricketts said he would not ask the owner, one of his big donors, to scrap the idea. “We’ve got to continue to stay focused on this, but we don’t need to say that person or this person needs to close their business,” the conservative Republican said at a briefing.
State Sen. Adam Morfeld, a Democrat, thinks Ricketts did a decent job in his initial response to the crisis, while Nebraska’s numbers were still low, but he’s aghast at the rush to reopen.
“I think this has gone from being medically informed to a political calculation and that’s dangerous when we haven’t reached our peak,” Morfeld said.
“I think there are people that believe that this is overblown, that are very vocal, who think that we need to go back to business as usual. He is listening to that crowd now.”
At a press conference on Tuesday, a reporter read Ricketts a tweet from Morfeld that criticized the reopening. The governor’s response? “I would just refer the senator to our hospital data. We are nowhere near overwhelming our hospital capabilities.”
Morfeld said he can’t believe Ricketts’ key benchmark is whether or not Nebraska has enough hospital beds to accommodate everyone who is sick. “It’s like, ‘Well, I’ll have a comfortable place to be when I die—great!’” the senator said sarcastically.
The Nebraska cities where COVID-19 cases are now spiking are home to big meat-processing plants.
In the tiny town of Crete, population about 7,000, the Smithfield Foods factory employs some 2,000 people. As dozens of workers fell ill with the coronavirus, the company planned to shut down operations—but that was reportedly scrapped after President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday night forcing meat plants to stay open. And Nebraska has already said anyone who is offered work and doesn’t accept it cannot get unemployment benefits.
In Grand Island, JBS has 3,600 workers, and more than 230 have tested positive. Joe Henry, a vice president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, visited JBS and spoke with the workers, most of whom are Latino and many of whom are immigrants.
He claimed that while JBS has put plastic partitions between workers, they are still “inches apart” and the line speed has not been slowed down to account for the masks they now wear. There isn’t mandatory testing, so employees don’t know if the person standing next to them is infected but asymptomatic, and some workers are afraid to call in sick, Henry said.
“It’s the blood of Latinos and Latino immigrants that is being poured on this meat,” said Henry, whose group plans to call for a consumer boycott of meat in May. “This is so un-American to be forcing people to go to work in these incubators for this virus.”
In a statement, JBS said the line speed has been decreased and workers have been given more space. Employees over 60 and in vulnerable categories are allowed to stay home with full pay, and temperatures are screened when workers enter. “No one is forced to come to work and no one is punished for being absent for health reasons,” the company said.
Danny Lemos’ dad was one of the first to fall ill at JBS—before, his son says, there were any social distancing precautions in place.
“JBS told their employees, ‘You can take two weeks off without pay, but if you work, we’ll give you a bonus and we’ll pay you $4 more an hour,” Lemos said. “You know who works in these plants, mostly immigrants. You put that extra money in front of them, and they’re going to take it.”
Lemos’ dad went to a local hospital, CHI Health St. Francis, on April 3 and ended up on a ventilator right after. As cases started to mount in Grand Island, he was moved from St. Francis—which had just 13 ventilators in its ICU—to a hospital in Lincoln. Thankfully, by last weekend he had recovered enough to be removed from the vent. He only found out on Sunday that his son had been in the hospital, too, close to death.
In an interview from his Grand Island home, where he is quarantined for 14 days, the younger Lemos said when he first went to the hospital, he was treated with remdesivir, the Gilead Ebola drug some are hoping will be a magic bullet.
When that did not immediately work, the decision was made to move him to the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which has a biocontainment unit and doctors with experience in pandemics. The plan was to give him extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, a last-ditch procedure in which oxygen is added to the blood by a lung-bypass machine.
It never got that far. On April 20, Lemos, who was under sedation, took matters into his own hands in what he describes as a kind of out-of-body experience. “I could literally see myself pulling at these restraints and ripping my vent out of my mouth,” he recalls.
Disconnected from the machine, he didn’t decompensate—and doctors decided to keep him on high-flow oxygen instead of re-intubating him. “Then, like a freaking light switch, I was conscious, going to the bathroom, calling my family,” he said.
During this ordeal, Lemos’ ex-partner and mother of his children was providing constant updates about his health through social media. The goal, he said, was not just to keep family and friends informed. She wanted to send a message to the Grand Island community.
Just a few days before Lemos went into the hospital, they had been talking about coronavirus in blase terms. They had bought the early conventional wisdom that only the elderly or chronically ill needed to worry catching it; everyone else would be fine.
“This was an eye-opener,” he said.
The Grand Island mayor, the local health director, dozens of city doctors, and the state senator who represents the county have all pleaded with Ricketts to put in place a stay-at-home order for the city, if not the entire state.
But Ricketts said it wasn’t necessary. He insisted his “directed health measures” instituting a 10-person limit on gatherings, closing schools, and barring elective surgery, along with more restrictions in counties with outbreaks, would have the same impact as a stay-at-home order. Even the U.S.’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said the steps Ricketts took were “functionally equivalent” to a strict lockdown order.
That was April 6. Nebraska had scarcely more than 400 cases and nine deaths. As of Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 tracker, at least 3,500 Nebraskans have tested positive and there have been 56 deaths. The state is ramping up testing, announcing the first two sites in Omaha and Grand Island, but it could take weeks to reach the goal of 3,000 tests per week.
Morfeld, who represents part of Lincoln, said that while Ricketts’ health measures may have been meant to accomplish what other states did with stay-at-home orders, the messaging was wrong. And easing up on restrictions while the virus is raging in some places is a dangerous signal to send.
“Words matter,” he said.
In Grand Island, Teresa Anderson, the director of the Central Health District, is hoping Nebraskans hear her message before it’s too late. In a letter to the city read out at a briefing this week, she indicated that Nebraska’s crisis is far from over.
“We are at a critical time here in the Central District. The number of cases continues to rise at an alarming rate,” she said. “We don’t know how bad this will get before we see numbers start to fall, but we are not anywhere close to being able to relax.”