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Nebraska colleges urging students to quarantine, get COVID tests before semester ends
  • Updated

The end of in-person classes for the semester will arrive for several Lincoln area colleges and universities next week.

When it does, thousands of college students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Nebraska Wesleyan University and Union College will leave the Capital City bound for towns and cities across Nebraska, the Midwest, and beyond until late January, or possibly later.

With the semester break coming as coronavirus-related cases, hospitalizations and deaths are soaring across the country, public health officials say they are keeping close watch to see whether or not the virus catches a ride home with college students.

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department has been in regular contact with other public health districts throughout the state in the 3-4 weeks leading up to the winter break, said Scott Holmes, manager of the local Health Department’s Environmental Public Health Division.

“There’s been significant thought put into this issue,” he said. “We’re not going to track all these students and say ‘this student is coming in from here,’ but they are all aware they will be receiving students into these communities.”

In an email to students last week, UNL advised students to get a COVID-19 test 72 hours before they leave for home at testing stations inside the 17th and R streets parking garage or at the East Stadium loop.

According to spokeswoman Leslie Reed, the flagship university campus pushed pause on its random mitigation testing to focus on providing tests for students who will be traveling. The response by students has been positive so far, Reed said.

But they are also being reminded that a negative test doesn’t necessarily mean a person has not contracted the virus.

“In many ways, a negative test can give you a false sense of security and tempt you to drop your guard,” Dr. Heather Eberspacher, medical director of the University Health Center, said in an email to students.

“Now is the time to buckle down and stick to the prevention habits you’ve been practicing since the pandemic began,” she added.

UNL recommended students limit their interactions on campus and elsewhere for 2 weeks before they return home and to consider who they may be putting at risk.

The university also suggested students be cautious while traveling, including wearing masks in the vehicle if they are riding with other students, and to research local public health guidelines for their final destinations.

NWU has also seen a good response to its offer for students to get tested for the coronavirus, spokeswoman Sara Olson said, and has pushed similar messaging to its campus community.

The exodus of thousands of college students from Lancaster County will likely result in a drop in the daily coronavirus cases locally, Holmes said.

After an initial spike following students moving into the residence halls and classes starting in August, UNL has accounted for roughly 10% of the daily caseload, Holmes said. Most of the spread in recent weeks has been attributed to small gatherings where masks are not being used.

Since August, there have been 16,277 tests done at UNL-specific testing sites, with 1,571 positive cases for a positivity rate of 9.7%.

As of Nov. 18, the seven-day average for positive cases at UNL is just more than 24, with the seven-day average for tests resting at 247. Over that same time period, Lancaster County averaged 243 cases per day on 885 tests.

Nebraska Wesleyan reported a total of 23 new positive cases between Nov. 9-15, according to its latest report. Since Aug. 3, there have been a total of 306 cases at the liberal arts college in northeast Lincoln.

Holmes said the drop in total population in the county will likely result in fewer daily cases, but to what extent remains to be seen.

“We might see a little bit of a drop, but I’m not sure if we’ll notice it based upon how many cases we’ve been getting per week lately,” he said.

The unusual schedule adopted by institutions of higher learning in Nebraska and elsewhere this year means there will also be more students than normal continuing to live on campuses over the Christmas holiday.

At UNL, about 650 students — roughly 12% of the 5,500 living in campus residence halls this fall — will continue to stay in the rooms through the winter break.

About 155 students, a combination of those without adequate internet at home, winter sports athletes and some international students, will continue to stay in dorms at Nebraska Wesleyan.

Reed said students living on campus at UNL will be more spread out than in past years —  they get to continue living in the rooms they were assigned at the start of the school year, rather than have to move to a single dorm — and campus rules such as wearing masks will still be in effect.

Photos: Historic UNL buildings

Photos: Historic UNL buildings

editor's pick
Further restrictions may come to Lincoln next week as COVID-19 surge squeezes hospital capacity
  • Updated

Local health officials may impose further health restrictions, including a shutdown of bars and limiting wedding receptions to 10 people, next week as they hone in on gatherings and try to prevent COVID-19 cases from overwhelming Lincoln hospitals, Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department Director Pat Lopez said.

Friday's COVID-19 hospitalization numbers marked a new local high for the pandemic, with 169 coronavirus patients in care of Lincoln hospitals, she said. 

Lincoln's local hospital capacity is 436 beds without going into the surge capacity, and with hospitalizations expected to rise following a spike in cases earlier in the week, Lopez said the surge will eat up beds also needed for people suffering heart attacks, strokes and injured in car crashes.

"Even if our hospitals go into surge and they convert flexibly like (pediatrics) rooms or psych areas, we still have to have the staff to take care of those individuals," Lopez said Friday at the weekly news conference on the local pandemic response.

Her department staff will closely monitor hospital beds and strain in the coming days and may adopt stricter restrictions identified in a metric by Gov. Pete Ricketts for when COVID-19 hospitalizations reach 25% statewide. 

Two more Lancaster County residents have died of the coronavirus, and 184 more residents have contracted it. The deceased were identified as a woman in her 90s and a man in his 70s, and both had been hospitalized. 

Overall, the local death toll increased to 66, total cases climbed to 14,006 and documented recoveries rose to 4,878. 

Beginning last Monday, new directed health measures implemented by Lopez mandated that bars and restaurants close earlier, postponed events and prohibited all indoor youth sports, both club and school-affiliated, until Dec. 7. 

Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird said the high rate of community spread has left public health officials with only blunt tools that cut down on gatherings as options to slow transmission.

Since the youth sports prohibition was announced, parents and coaches have emailed city officials pushing them to reverse the decision, and an online petition pressing Gaylor Baird to restore sports had more than 453 signatures. 

The mayor Friday implored families and teams to wait five more school days and not try to skirt around the youth sports directive to help protect hospitals and the ability to keep schools open.

Pete Ferguson, a coach with the Ubuntu Nebraska girls basketball program, echoed the mayor's sentiment at her weekly news conference on the local coronavirus response. 

Ferguson, who coaches athletes ranging from third to eighth grades, said teams at all levels in all sports need to adhere to a common game plan and that they cannot continue to carry on practices, games and tournaments.

"This is all going to be bigger than any final score," he said. 

Throughout the pandemic, contact tracers have detected cases among baseball, football, basketball, volleyball and hockey teams, but Lopez at the briefing Friday did not provide specific numbers of cases among youth sports teams.

Health Department officials made their decision in part because of the ability of youth and younger people to contract and carry the virus without showing symptoms, thereby increasing the risk of transmitting it to more vulnerable people, Lopez said. 

"Rather than focusing on numbers, what we're trying to do is focusing on the gathering events," the health director said.

On Friday, the city announced it had exercised its contractual authority to control the Railyard commons area and call off Saturday's planned Husker football watch party in order to prevent problematic gathering amid the surging pandemic.

The Cube will not broadcast the Nebraska-Illinois game, but businesses in the Railyard will still be open to the public, according to the news release.

The city has not issued a closure order for the Railyard. 

Other businesses that have canceled their outdoor events will be open to the public for dining inside and in their sidewalk cafes as well as for takeout, the release said.

During the Nov. 14 Husker game, Lincoln police were called to several large gatherings and investigated loud parties, ticketed minors for drinking and others for disturbing the peace, the news release said. 

Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister said the department is working with the Health Department to educate people about directed health measure violations, but documented violations may be subject to criminal charges from the City Attorney's Office. 

Indoor and outdoor gatherings and Thanksgiving events are discouraged, but Gaylor Baird encouraged anyone choosing to hold one to do so outside.

Getting together with other people is an essential part of human nature, and these requests are difficult, she said. 

Potential vaccines provide hope that the restrictions and mandates will be short-term sacrifices, but Lincoln needs to take action and remain vigilant, the mayor said.

"In the meantime, we need to remain strong and do the right thing right now to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our neighbors," Gaylor Baird said.

Photos: Lincoln during the pandemic

Photos: The scene in Lincoln with much of city shut down

Nebraska head coach Scott Frost leads the Huskers out onto a nearly empty stadium before taking on Penn State on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, at Memorial Stadium. FRANCIS GARDLER, Journal Star

editor's pick
Pair sentenced for Auburn pharmacy firebomb plot
  • Updated

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The plan to firebomb Cody’s U-Save Pharmacy in Auburn was fantastical and convoluted, but very much real.

With Cody’s reduced to firewood, more business would flow to its competitor in town, Hyrum’s Family Value Pharmacy. That would allow pharmacist Hyrum Wilson, 41, to divert more drugs to his online gaming buddy, William Burgamy, 33, of Hanover, Maryland, without drawing suspicion of federal regulators. Then Burgamy could sell even more drugs on his internet black market website, NeverPressedRx.

On Friday, Burgamy was sentenced to 14 years and Wilson to 9 years for their respective roles in the plot.

Defense lawyers suggested the plan, which they dubbed “Operation Firewood,” was so hare-brained that it would never have come to fruition, and was a product of the men's clouded judgment from their own drug and mental-health issues.

FILE - This file photo, date not known, provided by the Alexandria Sheriff's Office in Virginia shows William Burgamy. Burgamy and Hyrum Wilson could each face a decade or more in prison when they are sentenced for a convoluted plot to firebomb a competing pharmacy so they could divert more prescription narcotics to the black market. Burgamy, of Hanover, Md., and Hyrum Wilson of Auburn, Neb., each pleaded guilty to their respective roles in the conspiracy earlier this year in federal court in Virginia.

Prosecutors, though, highlighted the very real steps the men took over several months to carry out the plan. Burgamy amassed a stockpile of weapons, including multiple AR-15 rifles, and told a would-be accomplice to get measured for body armor. Wilson provided Burgamy with a color-coded getaway map.

“This wasn't something he concocted while watching ‘Ozark’ or ‘Breaking Bad,’” prosecutor Raj Parekh said at Burgamy's hearing Friday. “This is something he was planning for months.”

Judge T.S. Ellis III, who sentenced the pair, agreed.

“It was not simply some scheme in their minds," he said. “They took significant, concrete steps to carry out this plan.”

At Friday's hearings, both men apologized for their actions. Wilson offered an apology to Cody Kuszak, the owner of Cody's U-Save.

“I wasn't thinking of anybody but myself,” Wilson said.

Wilson's lawyer, Joe Howard, argued that Burgamy was the driving force behind the plot. He manipulated the online friendship the two had formed playing video games, borrowing nearly $100,000 from Wilson when they had not met face-to-face and later cajoling Wilson into sending him drugs. Wilson, suffering from social disorders, was unwilling to say no to a man he considered his only friend, Howard argued.

“He knows what he did was wrong ... but it's mitigation as to why he couldn't say no, why he couldn't get out of it,” Howard said.

While prosecutors agreed Burgamy bore greater responsibility for the plot, Parekh called Wilson a “greedy and crooked pharmacist who wanted to wipe out his competition.”

Prior to the drug and firebombing scheme, Wilson and Burgamy were partners in a skin-care product called Scargenix. In a 10-minute infomercial hosted by model Kathy Ireland, Wilson hawks a lotion for reducing scarring, featuring testimonials from Burgamy and Burgamy’s mother.

Burgamy was arrested in April and charged with drug crimes for operating a site on a part of the internet known as the Darknet, selling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of illicit prescription drugs.

This photo provided by Alexandria Sheriff's Office shows Hyrum Wilson. A Nebraska pharmacist has been sentenced to nine years in prison and a Maryland drug dealer to 14 years for a convoluted plot to firebomb a competing pharmacy so they could divert more prescription narcotics to the black market. Wilson and William Burgamy each were sentenced Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, for their respective roles in the conspiracy in federal court in Virginia. 

It was after the arrest that authorities discovered the firebomb plot. Both pleaded guilty a few months later.

Prosecutors had sought a 15-year term for Burgamy and 11 years for Wilson.

It is not completely clear how much money the two made during the eight or nine months their website was operating in 2019 and 2020. Burgamy agreed to forfeit at least $300,000 in proceeds, but prosecutor Parekh said at an earlier hearing that a profit-and-loss statement drawn up by Burgamy showed him grossing nearly $1 million.

Top Journal Star photos for November