The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and public health districts have reported 64 total cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday, March 24. The 11 counties in the Panhandle continue to not yet see any positive testing, but public health officials say that’s no reason to be lulled into a sense of false security.
“In the Panhandle, we continue to have no confirmed cases,” Paulette Schnell, Scotts Bluff County Health director, said. Schnell has been giving the updates on cases each day as Panhandle Public Health District hosts a call for the media and members of its unified command team. “We continue to have 9 pending cases.”
Schnell and PPHD Director Kim Engel continue to advise people to take precautions, such as practicing social distancing, proper handwashing and quarantining if you believe you have been exposed or have symptoms.
Schnell said tests continue to be submitted to the state lab as they are received from Panhandle physicians. People who present with serious symptoms or are hospitalized are tested, as well as those who are high-risk such as the elderly and officials in health or public safety careers. She said that testing is often done in those cases in which a positive test will make a difference in medical treatment options.
“We are testing those as they appear,” she said, “but mild cases are very likely in the community.”
Engel said that only 5 to 10% of people contracting COVID-19 are hospitalized. She said oftentimes, people may be sick five to 10 days before they even experience symptoms that are deemed serious enough to consider going to the hospital.
“There is a lot going on in our community that we don’t know, which is why you will often see (community’s have) a spike,” Engel said. “It sits there, and you don’t see it for 14 days or so.”
The majority of people will experience mild symptoms, which Schnell said can be treated by taking Tylenol for fever. People with symptoms should stay home and self-quarantine.
“COVID-19 can be seen in people in different ways, she said. “You can see someone end up in the hospital, and as we know, die from it, to people who do not know it is COVID-19, with light symptoms.”
Even those with mild cases can infect others, and that’s why people are being advised to abide by social distancing guidelines. Pleas for people to practice social distancing have been circulating for about two weeks now, however, Engel advised, PPHD continues to get reports of businesses, such as restaurants and bars, that aren’t limiting patrons to 10 people and implementing social distancing rules.
PPHD is increasing its efforts to reach out to those businesses by circulating fliers in the community, via Facebook and asking law enforcement to reach out to restaurants and bars and abide by the social distancing guidelines, Engel said.
“We know that social distancing is very important at this time,” she said. “If we have people who are packed into a single room or at a single place, it only increases the chance of that virus spreading around us.”
Schnell encouraged people to think about their loved ones and how they would not want them to be affected by the coronavirus and hospitalized.
“Please help us to keep it from spreading to high-risk people and the elderly. We just want to protect our community.”
Health officials have received reports and questions regarding employers requiring people who have been treated for illness or traveling to undergo testing for the coronavirus and requiring employees to provide confirmation of a negative test before allowing employees to return to work. Schnell said health officials aren’t providing those tests and that employers should not be requiring them. Testing resources, including swabs and employee resources, are limited and tests for employers won’t be provided.
General testing is not available. Testing also won’t be provided for persons experiencing mild symptoms.
“It would be great to have those tests available for everybody, but that is not the reality, and we have to conserve our resources with the pandemic that we do have.”
Deb Cottier, executive director of the Northwest Nebraska Development Corporation, also spoke during Tuesday’s call about resources for businesses in the community. She urged business owners experiencing cash flow issues due to a decrease in business to talk to their bankers. Financial institutions can help defer payments, decrease interest rates and other steps to assist businesses.
“In the long-term, they are going to be the ones who help keep you solvent,” she said.
Resources are being made available and information has been provided online via the Nebraska Department of Economic Development website, https://opportunity.nebraska.gov/nded-covid19/. Cottier said each community in the state also has an economic development officials assigned to it and she said that business owners should speak with them if they have questions on everything from applying for loans to helping employees apply for unemployment.
“There are no stupid questions and no issues that are too small,” she said.
PPHD will host a call for business owners and others to ask their COVID-19 questions on Thursday, March 26. Two hundred people have already registered for the 1,000 spots that are available.
Information on that call is available on the PPHD website, pphd.org.