Gov. Pete Ricketts said Wednesday he remains confident that "the state is doing everything we need to do to slow the spread" of the coronavirus in Nebraska while successfully preserving the ability of the state's health care system to respond to any outbreaks.
Although the number of confirmed cases is rising in Lincoln and Lancaster County and attracting some national attention, that's partly the result of increased testing, he said.
Ricketts emphasized that hospitals have been able to handle the number of coronavirus patients and he pointed out that in Lincoln the number of patients on ventilators Wednesday was the same as a week ago and the number hospitalized was similar.
Asked if he might extend the state's directed health measures that have put the clamp on some business activity in the city, including indoor restaurant service, beyond Sunday's current expiration date, the governor said: "I don't have any plans to do that right now."
Last Wednesday, Lincoln hospitals had 39 coronavirus-positive patients, including seven on ventilators.
Interim Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department Director Pat Lopez on Wednesday reported 43 patients in Lincoln hospitals.
Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird and Lopez plan to announce their plans for the local directed health measure later this week.
Gaylor Baird agrees that hospital capacity remains a key factor in evaluating next steps, but case trends, the ability to do contact tracing locally, and other metrics together will guide their decision, she said.
“No one factor is going to be a sole determinant in our decision-making,” the mayor said.
Asked if she has the authority to maintain stricter rules on gatherings than the state, Gaylor Baird said there has been variance in the early directed health measures covering Lancaster County.
To be clear, she wants the local directed health measure for the county to be as in-sync with the state’s directed health measure as possible, she said.
“We all have the same goal in mind,” she said.
Ricketts said he's tried to balance the restrictions he's imposed with a measured and regional loosening of mandates that preserves citizen willingness and responsibility to continue to adhere to the social distancing standards that are required to blunt the spread of the virus.
It's an approach that sometimes is described as "the hammer and the dance," he said.
"We start to loosen restrictions while people continue to follow the guidelines," Ricketts said, in an attempt to avoid any wholesale abandonment of social distancing provisions that ask people to maintain 6 feet of individual separation and limit gatherings of more than 10 people.
"I am pleased with the progress the state has made," he said.
While Ricketts spoke, some demonstrators gathered outside the Capitol to protest the governor's policy, which has avoided the shelter-at-home restrictions that virtually locked down activity in most states.
"There is not a single thing I do that isn't second-guessed," Ricketts said.
Nebraska's number of coronavirus cases has been spiked by outbreaks and testing in meat-processing plants, leading to temporary closure of a number of the facilities.
Asked if he has been in touch with officials at processing plants in south Omaha, where there has been no word of possible coronavirus contamination of the workforce, Ricketts said there has not been a specific phone call.
"We continue to monitor that situation," he said.
Ricketts said 126,000 Nebraskans now have signed up for testing for the virus at TestNebraska.com, and 491 were tested in Omaha and Grand Island on Tuesday. The goal is to reach 3,000 tests a day.
Last week, more than 10,000 Nebraskans were tested, he said.
Meanwhile, the state is training an army of 1,000 contact tracers to interview people who have been in recent contact with those who have been infected by the virus.
Nearly 400 members of the Nebraska Army National Guard are engaged in assisting with testing, distributing food and helping with quarantine and isolation activities, said Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, Nebraska's adjutant general.
Mobile testing teams have been in 29 communities and collected more than 11,000 samples, he said, and National Guard personnel are assisting in staffing isolation sites and distributing food products to those in need.
"Our folks want to do this," Bohac said, just as they wanted to assist with flood recovery and rescue a year ago.
See the top stories on coronavirus in Lincoln and Nebraska since the pandemic first affected the area in March.
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