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State officials looking for 'community spread' before stepping in to close schools, cancel gatherings
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State officials looking for 'community spread' before stepping in to close schools, cancel gatherings

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State officials will step in to close schools for six to eight weeks once the spread of the coronavirus in a community cannot be traced to a specific source – which has not yet happened with the 13 confirmed cases, the governor said Friday.

But individual districts can make their own decisions based on what’s best, he said – and that’s already happened.

Lincoln Public Schools announced Friday it will close next week. Omaha Public Schools announced Thursday it was closing, along with other Omaha-area schools, joining seven other districts across the state. 

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Gov. Pete Ricketts said Friday at a news conference that the tipping point for state officials – when they close schools and cancel large public gatherings -- will be when 1% of the state’s population has the novel coronavirus.

But until testing is available to determine that, they’ll follow this guideline for closing schools in specific communities: when one or two people are diagnosed with the virus and officials can’t trace where they contracted it.

That’s called community spread, Ricketts said, but, in the 13 cases confirmed, they’ve been able to figure out how the individuals contracted it, which has typically been travel-related. Other factors will be considered, such as a spike in flu symptoms but a decrease in positive flu tests.

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The public health lab and the University of Nebraska Medical Center each have the capacity to test 100 cases a day, and private labs are gearing up to offer additional testing, Ricketts said. So far, he said, those two labs had conducted 90 tests.

Turnaround time is quicker for the public health lab and UNMC, but the state is prioritizing testing for those patients considered at high risk, he said. The private lab turnaround time is about four days.

People who think they may have been exposed should contact their health care providers, who will screen patients and determine if they are a good candidate to get a test, Ricketts said.

“We have a great team here," he said. "We are going to continue to work to keep Nebraskans healthy and safe."

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Latest updates on coronavirus in Lincoln and nearby

See the latest news as more coronavirus cases are identified in Nebraska.

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More than 3,000 high school seniors in Lincoln are graduating into a world nobody’s navigated before, staring into a pandemic that has closed schools, slashed families’ economic security and, for many graduates, changed their college plans.

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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.

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This year would have marked the 153rd annual community Fourth of July celebration in Seward, which first put on an event in the local town square in 1868.

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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.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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