It’s hard to believe how quickly the coronavirus (COVID-19) has changed our lives in just a matter of weeks. I am grateful to Nebraskans for making sacrifices and taking precautions to help slow the spread of the virus and keep people healthy. Nebraskans have been complying with limitations on social gatherings and practicing good hygiene. These actions are vitally important as we seek to protect everyone from the virus, especially the most vulnerable people in our state.
Restaurants have adjusted how they serve customers, moving to takeout, drive-thru, or curbside services. Parents and educators are finding creative ways to continue studies through distance learning and homeschooling. Churches are live-streaming their worship services and making lessons available online for families. I especially want to thank our healthcare professionals, first responders, and law enforcement who have been working to keep Nebraska moving during this public health emergency.
The last week has proven that COVID-19 can spread rapidly. Positive cases have now been confirmed in Adams, Buffalo, Cass, Dawson, Douglas, Knox, Lancaster, Lincoln, Madison, Nemaha, Sarpy, and Washington counties as of March 23rd. Social distancing and good hygiene are the best weapons against the virus, while we work to further ramp up testing and develop a vaccine.
We have two levels of social distancing restrictions. Right now, the entire state must abide by guidance to limit social gatherings to 10 people. Outside of Cass, Douglas, Sarpy, and Washington counties, restaurants and bars can have up to 10 patrons—although they are encouraged to transition to takeout, curbside, or delivery services.
In the Omaha area, cases of “community transmission” have been confirmed. Community transmission cases are cases that our public health teams have not been able to trace to their origin. After discovering these community transmission cases, the State issued a Directed Health Measure (DHM) for Cass, Douglas, Sarpy, and Washington counties on March 19th. The DHM imposes an enforceable limit on public gatherings, restricting them to 10 people or less. Among other steps, the DHM requires restaurants and bars in these areas to close their dining areas and move to takeout, drive-thru, delivery, and/or curbside service through April 30, 2020. Hospitals are also canceling elective surgeries.
As other regions of the state confirm community transmission of COVID-19, we will issue DHMs for other parts of the state to increase social distancing measures. Full information about the statewide guidance and DHM for specific counties can be found at www.Governor.Nebraska.gov.
All Nebraskans, both rural and urban, should continue to take this virus with the utmost seriousness. If you show any symptoms, stay home and immediately contact your healthcare provider for an initial screening. All Nebraskans should wash their hands regularly, greet people verbally, and clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces. And keep a distance of six feet from people when out in public.
As our response continues, I am also working with the Legislature on an emergency package to provide $83 million of funding to combat COVID-19 in Nebraska. Here’s a quick overview of the package:
Assistance for Nebraska Communities: The largest portion will go towards purchasing much-need personal protective equipment (PPE) to help our communities respond. It will also help Local Public Health Departments (LHD) to ramp up staffing and call center operations, and to make essential IT expenditures—like laptops and servers.
State Public Health Division: From epidemiologists who advise LHDs to robust public information campaigns, our Public Health team has been overseeing the statewide response. These resources will help expand staffing to augment their team to give them the resources they need during this pandemic for missions like testing.
State Agency Overtime: This part of the package will help cover costs for overtime and additional staff to maintain healthcare coverage needs at veterans’ homes and state care facilities. These funds are calculated to cover a 50% spike in staffing needs to prepare for the possibility that some teammates may be temporarily unable to provide care due to quarantine requirements.
University of Nebraska Medical Center: Additional funding for the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) would pay for equipment and systems at UNMC. Some of the funds would go toward the cost of the reagents, lab personnel, and equipment needed to expand COVID-19 testing.
Additional Flexibility: The Legislature is also considering an additional $25 million in flexibility for the Governor’s Emergency Fund to ensure the State has the resources it needs as the scope of the pandemic unfolds.
As our response continues, we will monitor the needs of our public health teams, medical centers, labs, and care facilities to make sure they have the best possible access to resources.
In the coming days, Nebraskans should continue to practice social distancing and stay informed about the coronavirus. The more action we take individually now, the more we can slow the spread of COVID-19. In addition to my website, you should also follow www.dhhs.ne.gov/Coronavirus for the latest information. If you have questions, we have also set up a COVID-19 information line: 402-552-6645. It’s open from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., every day of the week. Working together, we can make the sacrifices we need to beat COVID-19.