As the coronavirus spread through Grand Island meatpacking plants and assisted care facilities, infecting nearly 1,400 people in Hall County by midweek, Jessica Kirk took care to observe the proper safety and hygiene guidelines.
She wore a mask — and gloves, too, while they lasted — when venturing out of her apartment to work at a local pet food manufacturing plant, or to Walmart to purchase groceries.
Even with the added precautions, Kirk, 26, woke up feeling sick, exhausted and weak last Saturday, her temperature reading 100.8 degrees and rising.
"My body was cold but my face was on fire," she said.
On Monday, when her fever had climbed to 102 degrees, Kirk said she registered with Test Nebraska, a $27 million program launched by Gov. Pete Ricketts last month in partnership with three Utah-based companies.
The website told her she qualified for testing, Kirk said in a phone interview, but when she tried to schedule a test, she was told there were no times available.
"We apologize, all the appointments at that time slot have already been taken," the website said, according to a screenshot shared with the Journal Star by another person who described a similar experience. "Please select a new location and time."
A phone number included on the Test Nebraska website was also not working, Kirk said. She called multiple times, from her phone and her boyfriend's phone, but received an automated message the call could not go through.
"I was kind of bummed, and I gave up at that point," Kirk said.
Later that day, the Central District Health Department said the notification that no testing slots were available through the Test Nebraska initiative was an error. In fact, there were plenty of openings available, the department announced on its Facebook page.
Kirk was told if she drove to the testing site at Fonner Park she would be given "an override of sorts" to get tested by the Nebraska National Guard.
She completed the assessment a second time before driving through the testing location Tuesday, receiving a nasal swab from a uniformed member of the Guard, she said.
Although she had symptoms and qualified for testing through Test Nebraska, state officials chastised the Central District Health Department for inviting Kirk and others to come in for tests without scheduling an appointment through the website first.
"We have run initiatives with meat processing facilities through Test Nebraska where their teams can be assessed and tested without scheduling ahead of time," Taylor Gage, a spokesman for the governor, wrote in an email responding to questions from the Journal Star. "In Grand Island, CDHD attempted to open the assessment and test onsite process to the general public. This should not have occurred."
There are no plans to assess and test the general public through Test Nebraska, Gage added, and the goal for the program remains to test those with symptoms, health care workers, first responders and older Nebraskans.
The Central District Health Department did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Kirk, whose symptoms included a fever and a cough, said the confusion over who qualifies for the program and how to access testing has been frustrating.
The Test Nebraska website says the state "would like to offer testing to anyone who is interested, including individuals who have already been tested and have their results."
If that's not the case, Kirk says Test Nebraska's system still told her she qualified.
"This whole thing has been a mess," she said.
Results lacking key data
Public health officials have also raised concerns in recent days over how results from Test Nebraska mobile testing locations are being reported.
Teresa Anderson, health director of the Central District Health Department, said results furnished through the Test Nebraska program did not include addresses — a key data point in understanding where the virus is spreading in the community — and did not have a mechanism to provide results to health care providers in the area, according to an editorial in the Grand Island Independent on Wednesday.
The newspaper said the testing initiative deserved a "failing grade" for its work so far.
Ricketts responded to the criticism, saying while Test Nebraska was set up quickly to expand testing as directed health measures were set to expire, there would likely be some glitches.
"We rushed this to get it out as quickly as possible," he said at his afternoon news conference. "We certainly could have spent a month or two testing this, but we thought the better deal here was to make sure we had more testing."
The governor said it took time to integrate the data system maintained by Test Nebraska with the state's existing coronavirus dashboard maintained by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The data collected through the program began being provided to local health districts Tuesday evening, he said, calling the newspaper's editorial "premature" in its criticism.
Test Nebraska has also set up a new hotline staffed by employees from the Utah companies contracted to provide the testing service, who he said have experience with the platform, after the initial phone number answered by staff at the Nebraska Regional Poison Center became inundated.
Ricketts said he expects the early bumps experienced in the program to smooth out over time. The contract for Test Nebraska runs for a full year.
"It's been a week and a half," he told reporters on Wednesday. "It's a brand-new program."
Lab managers voice frustrations
The rush to quickly set up a new testing regimen using private companies new to the state has led to a group of state senators calling on Ricketts to cancel the contract before Tuesday, the last day to do so.
Ricketts called the suggestion "ludicrous."
The senators said Ricketts should redirect the emergency funds appropriated by the Legislature for the coronavirus response to the existing health care system in Nebraska, and rely upon the expertise of the University of Nebraska Medical Center in combating the pandemic.
Lab managers from across the state also indicated they were blindsided by the new program and further impeded in their quest to secure more supplies, according to an email sent to the governor's office shortly after the Test Nebraska initiative was announced.
"Have you heard anything about this? I did see the Test Nebraska advertisement, but I don't have any details," wrote Jerel Katen, the lab director at Syracuse Area Health, to the hospital's administration. "It looks like the state has the cart before the horse."
"They do not realize that they are (unintentionally) working against us," he wrote in the April 22 email.
Another manager wrote that some health labs that had COVID-19 processing equipment available would be unable to get test kits for months since those items were being tied up with new government contracts.
Nomi Health, the company contracted to provide the tests, said earlier this week it has provided 200,000 kits to Nebraska. It is hired to provide up to 540,000 this year.
Test Nebraska has conducted 4,313 coronavirus tests at mobile testing locations in Lincoln, Omaha, Grand Island and Schuyler since May 4, the first day of the program, and will deploy next to Lexington and Norfolk.
To date, 144 positive tests have been returned, or about 3.3% of the tests administered.
Kirk said Thursday her fever has broken and she is feeling better, but remains self-isolated with a cough.
She expects to receive her test results on Friday.
Latest updates on coronavirus in Lincoln and nearby
See the latest news as more coronavirus cases are identified in Nebraska.
We're putting together a list of businesses that are reopening in the Lincoln area. Let us know your plans by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
There might be more hand sanitizer and disinfectants in the ballpark than spectators, but there will be baseball in the Capital City.
Almost two-thirds of Nebraska's 49 senators are in a high-risk category for COVID-19 complications because of age or underlying health conditions.
Three more inmates at the Community Corrections Center-Omaha have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total to seven inmates who have t…
Nebraska is delaying volleyball season ticket renewals due to pandemic-related uncertainty, the school confirmed to the Journal Star on Wednesday.
At middle and high schools across the city, teachers made signs and hung decorations and put on costumes and played music to help students note the end of a school year where dining room tables and bedroom desks became the classroom.
Monday's flyover was part of a pre-planned training flight and included more than 30 Nebraska hospitals, ending with those in Lincoln.
Prosecutors charged Nyadak Tut, of Lincoln, with assault on a health care professional, a felony.
As other establishments slowly begin to open their doors, John Losito and Jason Korn think it could be time to do the same.
Laboratory testing showed the new mask caught more than 90% of airborne particles expelled into the mask.
Sen. Ben Sasse spoke during Fremont High School's virtual graduation Saturday and spent a majority of his speech ripping China for causing the pandemic and making jokes about psychologists and people named Jeremy.
The first wedding party to celebrate at the Lincoln Commercial Club Ballroom had plenty of room to keep their distance -- and to set up a game of cornhole.
A Lincoln woman exhibited many of the symptoms associated with COVID-19 but tested negative -- doctors say she's not the only one.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody and South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson are taking the lead on the coalition. The letter is also signed by attorneys general in Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Romeo Guerra sensed this national trend would prove out in the Lincoln area before the data arrived, he said.
Journal Star photographers have captured life in the city for the past month with some activities going on as usual but many sights out of the norm.
From Christmas lights in Minden to a COVID-19 test relay by the State Patrol, many people have stepped up to spread cheer and kindness in Linc…
Lincoln police didn't write any tickets for a violation of Lancaster County's directed health measure, according to city officials.
Lincoln needs to outlaw price-gouging during emergencies such as this pandemic, City Councilman James Michael Bowers said Monday.
For Marci Davison of Carmela's, and other Lincoln business owners, reopening after a trying six weeks marked a milestone of sorts.
Lincoln city officials reported 40 more COVID-19 cases Monday, bringing the county total to 647.
Gov. Pete Ricketts called the suggestion "ludicrous."
This columnist isn't ready to dine out yet, and some local venues aren't ready to have customers in the door yet, either. Find out who's in and who is waiting for COVID-19 cases to dwindle.
While facing technological, social and financial challenges, the percentage of students who did at least some coursework ranged from 44% at North Star to 90% at Southwest, and most schools had less than 60% of students engaging, according to rough estimates.
The city begins its new directed health measure on Monday. It runs through June 30.
The county's report comes on the heels of a round of testing for all workers at Tyson’s Dakota City plant. The county's total is now the highest in the state.
On Thursday, during both National Nurses Week and National Hospitals Week, the selfie walls were installed at both Bryan East and Bryan West Campus hospitals.
Lincoln and Lancaster County will implement eased restrictions beginning Monday, after Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird and her health director relu…
At least one Nebraska health department says it will no longer report COVID-19 case numbers linked to specific meatpacking plants after Gov. Pete Ricketts raised health privacy concerns.
A Lincoln family recreates a "Wishtree" in their front yard as a way to share hopes during the pandemic.
Officers broke up recent beach parties with more than 100 people.
Gov. Ricketts said he has tried to balance restrictions with a regional loosening of mandates that preserves citizen willingness and responsibility, an approach sometimes described as "the hammer and the dance."
The rate of new COVID-19 cases in Lincoln and Lancaster County has led a national coronavirus case tracking system to label the area as a pote…
Months of planning and entire careers in public health have prepared the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department for what one employee called "the most defining moment of most of our lives."
As the coronavirus pandemic stretches on, questions continue to trickle into the Journal Star newsroom asking if the Lincoln-Lancaster County …
B&R is seeing higher costs for many pork and beef products and supply is limited, the stores' marketing director said.
Cain revealed on a video posted to Huskers.com that some of her immediate family members have recovered after bouts with coronavirus.
Viengxay Khuninh, a worker at a Tyson plant in Dakota City, developed a cough, then a fever, last month. Less than a week later, he was dead.
Air National Guard member spends several weeks working in New York City hospital, goes home with COVID-19.
“The stories that came from those families, you could hear the common themes — I’m frightened, my hours were reduced, I’ve never been in this situation before,” said Foundation for LPS President Wendy Van DeLaCastro.
So why did one customer come to Gateway Friday? "Sick of sitting at home. Wanted to get a new pair of kicks. My wife’s at work. I’ve got nothing to do.”
At least 48 of those who have died in Nebraska thus far because of the coronavirus were residents of long-term care facilities.
The 669 workers with the virus represent over 15% of the Dakota City plant's workforce.
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.