Since March 2, Panhandle health officials have tested more than 50 people. As of Wednesday, no confirmed cases of the coronavirus had been reported.

Scotts Bluff County Public Health Director Paulette Schnell outlined Wednesday, March 25 that 54 people have been tested in the 11 counties of the Panhandle served by the Panhandle Public Health District. There are currently six tests pending, with results expected on Thursday.

As of Wednesday night, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and public health departments throughout the state were reporting 68 confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

PPHD officials said that its not known how many tests are available in the state of Nebraska, but testing has been following a strict set of guidelines, with those who are high-risk, elderly and public safety or health officials being tested.

With the Nebraska Legislature approving $83.6 million in emergency funding Wednesday, officials said that its anticipated that more testing supplies will be purchased and made available. With the Panhandle not yet having a case, officials here have been “a little more loosely” applying the standards for testing as health officials are still trying to determine if COVID-19 is in the community. Many eastern Nebraska communities have already had positive tests.

Also with the legislature’s passage of the emergency funding bill, Kim Engel, director of PPHD, said, “the big news is that there is money that the state will be using to purchase PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). We know that there is a shortage worldwide, but with the procurement (of PPE) by the state, we hope there is more leverage to compete.”

PPHD has a process in place to work with regional emergency management coordinators and facilities to provide PPE. Some agencies and health care facilities have also asked for donations of new and unused PPE equipment. Anyone with questions about acquiring PPE through the agency can contact PPHD officials.

Region 21 Emergency Management Coordinator Tim Newman said that communities around western Nebraska and in close proximity have reported confirmed cases of coronavirus, in South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming and Lincoln County in Nebraska.

“The Panhandle is surrounded by positive cases,” he said. “We are to assume that it (COVID-19) is here and that we just have not gotten that positive test yet.”

This week, the PPHD Unified Command Team met with law enforcement, EMS and dispatchers to discuss common languages and questions to be used by dispatchers throughout the Panhandle, Nan Gould, Region 23 Emergency manager, said. Gould said that the agencies want to ensure that during mutual aid situations, that the same language and questions are being used procedurally. Newman further explained that dispatchers are asking the same questions and same language when receiving and dispatching calls to ensure that responders are adequately protected. For example, he said, an ambulance provider responding to a community from another town can know that they have the same information.

Some business owners listened in on Wednesday’s daily briefing and asked quite a few questions, including about the social distancing guidelines. Businesses have been asked to abide by social distancing guidelines and limit to 10 people per gathering, ensure that 6-foot distancing and other preventative efforts are implemented. So far, there have been no directive health measures, which are enforceable in western Nebraska, but some eastern Nebraska communities have enacted directive measures and ordered specific businesses to close or to move to providing options such as carry out or delivery options.

Jessica Davies, executive director of PPHD, reminded people that the guidelines “are the best public health measure for being as proactive as we can (to prevent the spread of the coronavirus).”

Any businesses with direct questions can contact PPHD, or the agency is also hosting a call, specifically for business owners Thursday morning. Information on that call and how to sign up is available at PPHD.org. There are also other resources available, including resources on unemployment benefits and other information that the Nebraska Department of Economic Development has put together.

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