With no positive coronavirus cases in the Panhandle, what happens when one is diagnosed?

Sixty-three people have been tested for the coronavirus since March 2, public health officials said in providing updated numbers during a call Thursday, March 26.

Officials with the Panhandle Public Health District and its unified coronavirus command response team have been providing daily briefings for the media and officials throughout the Panhandle and the state. As of early Thursday evening, Scotts Bluff County Public Health Director Paulette Schnell said that the Panhandle continues not to have any cases, though the state Department of Health and Human Services is reporting 73 cases in the state.

According to a running count by Johns Hopkins University, the number of people infected in the U.S. topped 82,000 on Thursday. That’s just ahead of the 81,000 cases in China and 80,000 in Italy. U.S. deaths from the pandemic have now topped 1,100, in another grim milestone for a global outbreak that is taking lives and wreaked havoc on economies and established routines of life. Worldwide, the death toll climbed past 23,000, according to Johns Hopkins’ running count.

Public health officials have been working with providers in the Panhandle to increase testing as they try to identify people who may have the COVID-19, Schnell said. On Thursday, 22 tests were pending, an indication that testing has increased.

“We are definitely upping our testing, trying to identify those people out there,” she said.

The minimum criteria for testing in the state has been specific: those who show up in hospital and have an abnormal chest X-ray and influenza or other respiratory illness has been ruled out; and workers in careers such as health care, law enforcement, first responders who show up and are symptomatic to protect them from spreading the coronavirus to others. With an expansion of testing, doctors will evaluate unique cases or persons with mild cases to help determine if COVID-19 is circulating in the Panhandle communities.

With stay-at-home orders in Wyoming and Colorado, health officials are certain that there are persons in the Panhandle with the virus. They just have not yet been identified.

When and if a person tests positive for the coronavirus, the public will be notified. PPHD director Kim Engel outlined the process that occurs when a person has tested positive.

“That individual and their provider will be notified and the public will be notified in a news release and during this daily briefing,” Engel said. “A public health investigator will interview the person to see who they have been in close contact with and where they have been the last 14 days,” she said.

Persons who have had close contact with a person diagnosed with the coronavirus will be asked to quarantine for 14 days. If the person had been at public locations, such as a grocery store, those locations will be made available to the public. Over a 14-day period, it can be likely that a person had been just moving around in the community and wouldn’t know who they have had contact with, Engel explained.

The CDC guidance, which Gov. Pete Ricketts circulated earlier this month and asked Nebraska residents to abide by, has been that people should not be in gatherings of 10 or more people. That recommendation has resulted in schools moving to online courses, churches canceling services during one of its key times of the year and families changing plans, such as postponing weddings.

“I am just amazed at how well this has been accepted in the community,” Engel said.

She continued to urge restaurants and bars, one of the areas that she said there have been struggles in maintaining the guidance, to abide by the recommendations. PPHD has circulated fliers online and asked law enforcement to also provide fliers for those establishments so that patrons and operators are aware. She also reminds patrons and operators of such businesses, there should be a distance of 6 feet between a person and a server or bartender. On Thursday, Ricketts issued a new executive order allowing restaurants and bars to provide mixed drinks with lids for takeout.

“We don’t want to have a large outbreak in the community,” she said.

Organizers of events are also asked to consider canceling those events. Engel said that PPHD officials would be willing to answer any questions by organizers about their concerns and the evidence that outlines the importance of the measures in flattening the curve of the coronavirus.

Asked about people who may choose not to quarantine after potentially being exposed when traveling to areas identified as hot spots or having positive cases, Engel said, “We are really hoping that people do the right thing for themselves and their community. It is hard to know how big that problem is because we know so many people are participating.”

Additional guidance will be issued this week for ranchers, who have been part of planning in a message that will be provided soon. This year, instead of large gatherings that are often a tradition for brandings, ranchers will be urged to have brandings be “business only,” Tabi Prochazka, deputy director of PPHD, said.

For continued information on PPHD and COVID-19 resources, including resources for businesses and other professions, visit pphd.org.

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