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Nebraska wide receiver Jamie Nance catches a pass Saturday during a football practice at Memorial Stadium. 

The cost of COVID: Remembering lives lost

They were teachers and farmers and factory workers and homemakers. They played the piano, fixed old cars, danced to the Beach Boys, cuddled their grandchildren.

They loved to ice fish, gab with friends, read, run marathons, bowl, wander antique stores.

They were our co-workers and neighbors and friends. Our parents. Our spouses.

They all have one thing in common. They died from COVID-19, a virus that arrived in Nebraska in March 2020, claiming its first life in Lancaster County a month later.

In all, 563,216 Americans have died from the virus during the pandemic, 2,213 Nebraskans, 231 in Lancaster County alone.

Today’s stories — starting on Page B1 — represent a fraction of the lives lost in our small corner of the state, but they are our way of paying respect to each and every one.

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'Humbling and heart-wrenching:' Columnist on telling the stories of Lincoln's COVID victims
  • Updated

Cindy Lange-Kubick

I’ve written dozens of obituaries in my years as a reporter, but I’ve never written one a day, day after day.

The way I did for three weeks this spring, finding and then talking to the families of 15 Nebraskans — from in and around Lancaster County — who lost their lives to COVID-19.

Those stories, along with stories shared by my fellow reporters, are in today’s paper — a total of 22 men and women, ranging in age from 22 to 95.

A drop in the ocean of pandemic sorrow. A fraction of the 231 lives lost locally, in a state that has counted 2,213 deaths, in a country that has lost more than 563,000 souls — and more each day — to the deadly virus.

On the pandemic’s worst days, nearly 5,000 Americans died from the virus every day. Last week, a University of Nebraska Medical Center physician estimated that 1 in 870 Nebraskans has died of COVID-19.

Some of those death notices appeared in this paper, shared by the health department and the mayor. The news was anonymous. Generic. Man in his 80s. Woman in her 70s. Man in his 50s.

When I wrote about the death of Tam Mai early last May, the 80-year-old was just the second Lancaster County resident to be lost to COVID.

Three months later, Kevin Hopper, 60, had a number, too: 20.

And when Roger Ryman became the county’s 42nd COVID death in October, his daughter shared a post on social media.

“These numbers are not just anonymous strangers,” Cindy Ryman Yost wrote. “This article, ‘this man in his 70s,’ was my dad, and he had not even turned 71.”

A few weeks later, reporter JoAnne Young shared the story of the human behind that number, a horse-riding father of three, a man with wanderlust who settled into retirement in Lincoln and dubbed his grandchildren the Magnificent 7.

For the past year, Journal Star reporters have scoured obituaries, compiled lists and, as the anniversary of the first local death approached, after a winter with packed ICUs and multiple daily deaths, we picked up our phones.

As we talked to the families, their loved ones came alive in a way those mind-numbing numbers never could convey.

Our reporting goal was simple: To honor COVID victims. To let readers know they were more than just statistics in a grim and ever-rising count.

Nearly every relative I reached for this project said yes, eager to share.

It was humbling. And it was heart-wrenching.

The story of Anna and Chuck, who loved to bowl and take road trips in their Honda Odyssey, and who died four days apart in November.

The story of Gloria, the retired piano teacher and her two devoted daughters. Alan, the artist, and beloved bachelor uncle. Bryan, the ice fisherman who married his high school sweetheart. Butch from Palmyra, who taught his sons to fix cars, loved strawberry-rhubarb pie and doted on his grandkids. Randy, the drywall finisher, who still wrote love poems to his wife of 25 years. Phyl, the art teacher, who viewed the world with wonder. Beth and her Poppy Parties.

There was an undercurrent to the interviews. Some families felt cheated. Some felt anger at those who dismissed the seriousness of the pandemic.

“I hear people talk,” Diane Brinkman said. “And there’s still people who don’t think it’s real or serious.”

Nearly everyone talked about the isolation and their gratitude for the health care workers who stood in the gap.

Bryan Wintz’s wife talked about walking the perimeter of Bryan West Campus on South Street, praying the rosary and asking God to heal her 46-year-old husband.

“Our experience was very surreal,” Jill Wintz said. “It was like I was living someone else’s life.”

Butch Butts’ daughter talked about the nurse who brought her dad a red beer and the staff who arrived with coffee and snacks for his family on his final day.

“They did their best to make him the most comfortable as possible,” Jody Parrott said. “I can’t imagine having their job, to care for people knowing they were not going to leave.”

Lillian Gibson’s son shared the eulogy he read at his 61-year-old marathon-running mother’s funeral and a photo of his gloved hand holding hers during the one visit he and his father shared in her hospital room.

“While I was grateful for that compassionate visit, she wasn’t responsive,” Justin Gibson wrote in an email. “And I didn’t expect the ventilator to shake her body so violently.”

In his eulogy, the son spoke of his mother teaching him tidiness and tenderness, how to be both frugal and generous, of accepting him as a gay man and loving him even more.

He spoke of the future: “I think honoring her legacy includes caring for myself, caring for family and friends and caring for the greater world.”

I know that writing about our neighbors who died of COVID-19 — often scared, often alone — doesn’t take away from the sorrow of all the lives lost during the pandemic, the separation from hospitalized loved ones, the pain of being denied a final goodbye, a proper funeral, the arms of a friend holding you up in your grief.

I can’t get my arms around all that we have lost.

Neither can you.

But we can listen to the stories of the grieving families who remain.

A condo unit in the Option Rowhouses at 725 R St. recently sold for more than $1 million.

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Weekly COVID-19 positivity rate at UNL hovers around 1% following planned precautions
  • Updated

The weekly positivity rate of COVID-19 cases at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has dropped from 10% when classes were winding up last fall to 0.72% as students wrap up the spring semester.

Though it’s difficult to pinpoint specific reasons behind the vastly improved numbers, vice chancellor for research and economic development and COVID-19 Task Force member Bob Wilhelm believes the three rounds of required testing at the beginning of the semester led to reduced transmission. Since then, about 20% of the student population has been selected for random testing on a weekly basis, and about 1,500 students voluntarily participate in the saliva-testing program each week.

Students also must use the Safer Community app to access buildings to ensure COVID-positive individuals do not spread the virus in the classroom. Those efforts, along with mask-wearing and vaccinations, have helped UNL to hold the daily average of new cases to near 10 and the weekly positivity rate below 1% since early February.

Across the entire county, the positivity rate has hovered near 4% over recent weeks.

“Our biggest effort has been to make sure that we can offer as much of a student experience, an academic experience,” Wilhelm said. “I think we did quite well at that — and in a safe way.”

In January, UNL’s new saliva-testing program found about 215 cases, according to the Lancaster County COVID dashboard, and officials isolated those individuals in dorms at the start of the spring semester.

During the fall semester, the university reported 1,899 positive cases of COVID and performed 20,436 tests. In comparison, UNL's COVID dashboard shows the university conducted more than 20,000 tests in mandatory testing between Jan. 16 and Jan. 25, and as of April 16, had conducted more than 100,000 tests in the spring semester.

Despite the increased testing, UNL has only reported 567 positive cases through saliva tests during the spring semester, according to the Lancaster County dashboard. 

Wilhelm believes the mandatory tests and isolation efforts prevented the spread of COVID among students and faculty who may have unknowingly contracted the virus over winter break. Since then, UNL’s saliva-based testing protocol has helped to track any emergence of COVID.

Students and faculty can schedule an appointment for a saliva test via the Safer Community app and then be notified the next day whether they had a positive test.

In addition to random selection, Wilhelm said hundreds of students voluntarily submit to testing. Some need to be tested for campus-based programs, such as working at the child care center. But other students are tested in case they contracted the virus.

“It's a really convenient service,” university spokeswoman Leslie Reed said.

Though thousands of tests are conducted each week, Wilhelm said the on-campus lab has kept up with testing each saliva sample. The lab also has the ability to track virus variants.

The testing and mask-wearing efforts have also helped UNL students feel comfortable on campus.

“I feel more comfortable knowing that it's not an option to get tested,” freshman Molly Haug said. “You have to if you get selected, which makes it nice knowing that people who have it aren't going to be out and about.”

Wilhelm and Reed were unaware of students having to be hospitalized due to the coronavirus but said at least one faculty member had been hospitalized.

UNL did see a slight uptick in cases at the beginning of April, which Wilhelm believes is possibly related to students who decided to travel even though UNL did not incorporate its customary spring break in its March schedule.

Cases did decrease following the slight uptick, and Wilhelm said officials track the numbers carefully.

“We're paying a lot of attention to that,” he said.

UNL offers over 6,100 scholarships to Nebraska seniors

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has set a record in offering more than 6,100 universitywide scholarships to the 2021 graduating class from Nebraska high schools. About four out of five admitted resident students have been offered an academic scholarship. The university is also on pace to receive a record number of first-year applications.

UNL is not requiring vaccinations, though student workers and faculty have had the opportunity to receive a vaccine. Additionally, the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department allowed UNL students to register for a vaccine between April 8 and April 11 and has scheduled the first on-campus vaccination clinic for Tuesday.

In addition, Wilhelm suspects that several students will receive a vaccination in their hometown or as part of the Federal Pharmacy Program.

Looking ahead, officials expect the fall semester to have fewer remote classes. In a letter to faculty and staff March 5, Chancellor Ronnie Green wrote that he expects classrooms will operate at full capacity, but specific guidelines, such as mask-wearing, will be determined based on public health guidelines at that time.

It's also unclear what testing plan, if any, will be in place next fall.

“Mostly what we're trying to do is make sure that we get people well and keep people safe,” Wilhelm said.

Top Journal Star photos for April

Britain's Prince Philip laid to rest
  • Updated

WINDSOR, England — Sitting by herself at the funeral of Prince Philip on Saturday, Queen Elizabeth cut a regal but solitary figure: still the monarch, but now alone.

The queen sat apart from family members at the simple but somber ceremony at Windsor Castle, in accordance with strict social distancing rules during the coronavirus pandemic. But if the ceremony had been for anyone else, at her side would have been her husband of 73 years, who gave a lifetime of service to the crown.

Wearing a face mask, the queen was dressed all in black, except for the diamond brooch that flashed on her left shoulder — a piece she had often worn on engagements with her husband.

The monarch's four children — Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward — sat nearby, as did the queen and Philip's eight grandchildren. The stripped-back service made their loss somehow more personal for people who often live their lives in public.

Just 30 mourners were allowed to attend the service for the prince, who died April 9 at the age of 99. The entire royal procession and funeral took place out of public view within the grounds of the castle, a 950-year-old royal residence 20 miles west of London, but was shown live on television worldwide.

Hundreds of people lined the streets outside the castle to pay their respects to the prince. Some held Union flags and clutched flowers, while others wore custom face masks featuring the royal's photo.

"We have been inspired by his unwavering loyalty to our queen, by his service to the nation and the Commonwealth, by his courage, fortitude and faith," the dean of Windsor, David Conner, said in his call to prayer.

The nation honored Philip with a minute of silence observed across the United Kingdom at 3 p.m., its beginning and end marked by a gun fired by the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery. The final shot signaled the start of a funeral service steeped in military and royal tradition, but infused with the duke's personality.

Philip's body was carried to St. George's Chapel at the castle on a Land Rover that the prince himself had specially designed. It was followed by members of the Royal Family, including Princes William and Harry, who made their first public appearance together since Harry and his wife, Meghan, gave a controversial interview to U.S. television host Oprah Winfrey in which they discussed the difficulties of royal life and how the two brothers had grown apart.

The procession traversed the grounds of Windsor Castle, passing military detachments arrayed under bright-blue skies.

Inside the medieval Gothic chapel, the setting for centuries of royal weddings and funerals, this service was quiet and without excessive pageantry. Philip was deeply involved in planning the ceremony. At his request, there was no sermon. There were also no eulogies or readings, in keeping with royal tradition.

Former Bishop of London Richard Chartres, who knew Philip well, said the 50-minute service reflected the preferences of the prince, who was a man of faith but liked things to be succinct.

"He was at home with broad church, high church and low church, but what he really liked was short church," Chartres told the BBC.

Philip's coffin was draped with Philip's personal standard, topped with his Admiral of the Fleet Naval Cap and sword. The sword was given to him by his father-in-law, King George VI, on the occasion of his marriage to the queen in 1947.

The monarch offered her own touches to the day. Ahead of the funeral, Buckingham Palace released a photo of the queen and Philip, smiling and relaxing on blankets in the grass in the Scottish Highlands in 2003. The palace said the casual, unposed photo was a favorite of the queen.

Composing a wreath atop the coffin were flowers chosen by the queen, including white lilies, small white roses, white freesia, white wax flower, white sweet peas and jasmine. A note from the monarch was attached, but its contents were not disclosed.

The funeral reflected Philip's military ties, both as the ceremonial commander of many units and as a veteran of the Royal Navy who served with distinction during World War II. More than 700 military personnel took part in the commemorative events, including army bands, Royal Marine buglers and an honor guard drawn from across the armed forces.

Lt. Gen. Roland Walker, regimental lieutenant colonel of the Grenadier Guards, said his unit was honored to take part because of its close relationship with the prince. Philip served as regimental colonel of the guards, its honorary leader, for 42 years.

"This is a privilege," he told the BBC. "Because my understanding is he planned this, so we're here because he wanted us to be here, and that, I think, down to the junior guardsmen, is a known fact.''

William and Harry were part of the nine-member royal contingent, although their cousin, Peter Phillips, walked between them. There was no obvious tension between the brothers, whose relationship has been strained since Harry's decision to quit royal duties and move to California. After the service, they walked back to the castle together, seeming to chat amiably.

Their appearance at the service stirred memories of the 1997 funeral of Princess Diana, when William and Harry, then 15 and 12, walked behind their mother's coffin accompanied by Philip.

As Philip's coffin was lowered into the Royal Vault, Royal Marine buglers sounded "Action Stations," an alarm that alerts sailors to prepare for battle — included in the service at Philip's request. He will rest there, at least until the queen's death, alongside the remains of 24 other royals, including King George III, whose reign included the years of the American Revolution. The queen and Philip are expected to be buried together in the Royal Burial Ground on the Frogmore Estate close to Windsor Castle.

For decades, Philip was a fixture of British life, renowned for his founding of the Duke of Edinburgh's Awards program that encouraged youths to challenge themselves and for a blunt-spoken manner that at times included downright offensive remarks. He lived in his wife's shadow, but his death has sparked a reflection about his role, and new appreciation from many in Britain.

"To be perfectly honest I didn't realize the extent (of) what his life had been, what he had done for us all," said Viv Davies, who came to pay her respects in Windsor. "He was a marvelous husband, wasn't he, to the queen and the children? Just remarkable — and I don't think we will see the like again."