On a chilly night last February, 57 Americans who had traveled roughly 35 hours from Wuhan, China, got off a Boeing 747 that had taxied to a remote part of Omaha’s Eppley Airfield.
The Americans, who arrived Feb. 7, 2020, were among hundreds of people the U.S. government brought back from the epicenter of an emerging epidemic caused by a novel coronavirus.
None of the people became ill. All went back to their homes across the country after waiting out their quarantine at the Nebraska National Guard’s Camp Ashland, southwest of Omaha.
But their arrival provided Nebraska — and experts on the front lines of emergency preparedness — an early introduction to the illness that became known as COVID-19.
“It obviously kicked off a long saga that isn’t over yet,” said Dr. James Lawler, a director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security.
That introduction, followed by the arrival on Feb. 17 of infected and exposed passengers from a cruise ship, led to lessons that those experts and others eventually put to use in battling the virus and in working to limit its spread.
In reality, the saga began even before the Americans landed.
Shelly Schwedhelm, also a director at the Global Center, said preparedness experts at UNMC began convening about four weeks before the Wuhan group arrived as they began to see worrying reports about the coronavirus and discuss what it could mean if the virus made it to the U.S.
UNMC and clinical partner Nebraska Medicine have roles in a number of federal emergency response programs, including those that involve providing training and education to help health care workers safely manage people infected with dangerous pathogens. In 2014, the medical center treated three Americans who had become ill with Ebola during an outbreak in West Africa.
At the end of January 2020, Schwedhelm said, the team received a call from the assistant secretary of preparedness and response, an official in the Department of Health and Human Services, about plans to bring Americans back from Wuhan.
The Nebraska team spent two days searching for the best place to house the group, eventually partnering with the Guard.
Soon after the group’s arrival, federal officials began work to evacuate Americans from the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan, where the virus had spread widely. Lawler was one of two American infectious disease specialists who traveled to Japan as part of the evacuation effort and accompanied the Americans back to the U.S.
On Feb. 17, 13 Americans who had tested positive for or were exposed to the virus were taken to UNMC after landing at Eppley. One passenger, who was already ill, was taken to the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit on campus; the other 12 were housed at the separate National Quarantine Unit. Two more cruise ship passengers were later transferred to the medical center from other locations.
But caring for those travelers allowed workers here to learn about the nuances of the coronavirus. Researchers had noted that the virus spread fairly widely on the ship, even with relatively aggressive quarantine measures. After the passengers arrived at the medical center, med center staff collected samples in the travelers’ rooms.
In March, the UNMC team published a report indicating the virus’s potential for airborne transmission. The researchers found high levels of the virus on commonly used surfaces and in the air of patients’ rooms. Air samples from hallways outside the rooms were also positive. The research contributed to the recognition that airborne transmission plays a significant role in the virus’s spread.
The researchers also factored their findings into how they cared for patients hospitalized with the virus. Nebraska’s first known local case of COVID-19 was confirmed March 6, just days before the World Health Organization declared the illness a pandemic. Soon, cases were cropping up across the state, with the largest numbers concentrated in meatpacking communities.
Among other precautions, the hospital’s facilities engineers created blocks of negative air pressure rooms in every ward housing COVID-19 patients.
“One of the proudest accomplishments we had as an institution,” Lawler said, “is that we had no documented health care worker infections from occupational exposure.”
The lessons they learned also gave them insights into steps that could be taken to control transmission, particularly in meatpacking plants and other settings where people work and live side by side.
Working with public health officials, teams from the Global Center, including Schwedhelm and Lawler, visited meatpacking plants to observe conditions and recommend infection control measures. Suggested steps included placing barriers between workers, adopting universal masking and staggering shifts so fewer workers were entering plants and locker rooms at the same time.
Schwedhelm said the groups made 15 visits to meatpacking plants, 72 to long-term care and assisted living facilities, and 12 to schools. Schwedhelm personally visited 10 homeless shelters.
Said Lawler, “The lessons we learned from those patients we’re still using today.”
Lawler said the researchers also learned a lot about how to care for COVID-19 patients. That includes tips they picked up from overseas colleagues with whom they had worked in the past. Colleagues from Singapore, who faced the virus early, clued them into using proning, the practice of placing patients on their bellies to open up lung capacity, and to initially putting patients on high-flow oxygen rather than intubating them. Both practices helped keep patients off ventilators and improved outcomes.
Those lessons and those provided by others were shared across the state through twice-weekly calls among public health agencies and Nebraska’s six health care coalitions, which include hospitals, health care associations and emergency response agencies.
Those efforts continue, Schwedhelm said. The latest focus is vaccines, but health officials are also planning for a potential next surge, given the rise of COVID-19 variants that spread more readily.
The group is also conducting a survey about space, staffing and equipment, including the protective gear and supplies needed to care for COVID-19 patients. During the first wave of the virus, securing adequate protective gear was a challenge. During the second, staffing was strained by the surge in patients.
Now the group is reviewing bulk oxygen supplies, given oxygen shortages in Brazil and California. Those areas have recently seen surges associated with the variants.
“We didn’t have much option but to adapt and keep moving forward,” Schwedhelm said.
Milestones in Nebraska's coronavirus fight
See the top stories on coronavirus in Lincoln and Nebraska since the pandemic first affected the area in March.
Hospitals must keep 10% of their beds open to continue to offer elective surgeries, $40 million in CARES money will be targeted to reducing hospital staff shortages and large gatherings will again be limited to 50% capacity.
While many of the 30 COVID-19 deaths have involved Lancaster County residents with underlying health conditions, Lopez said some deaths, like that of 46-year-old man, involved people who were otherwise healthy.
LPS says all the exposures of positive cases -- including the 10 at Zeman Elementary since Sept. 10 -- have been traced to sources outside the school.
"The assumption that if you get sick we're going to have a hospital bed for you is a false assumption," said Dr. Daniel Johnson, division chief of critical care at the Nebraska Medicine.
There are 501 deaths linked to the coronavirus in the state, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. The state's case total is now 47,807.
After months of mostly sitting idle, Pinnacle Bank Arena was filled with dirt, bulls and plenty of cowboy hats Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
In other years, "Backyard Farmer" fielded about 100 viewer questions each week. This season, that number reached 240.
Nebraska reported more new cases of the coronavirus on Friday than at any point during the pandemic, with 792 cases pushing the statewide total to 46,977.
UNMC Chancellor Dr. Jeffrey Gold also noted that there still are "plenty of hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators" available to meet the challenge.
Test Nebraska was the only option available to allow the state to quickly ramp up its capacity to thousands of tests per day, a state official said.
The club's Facebook page advertised the gathering as a "9/11 Never Forget" event. The event drew 75 people with dancing and little mask wearing.
Prices for hogs dropped 53% from January to April, according to the report, while prices for live cattle dropped 25%. While crop prices did not see as big of a decline, they were in worse shape heading into the year than livestock prices.
Pat Lopez is isolating at home and has been in contact with Health Department staff, Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird said.
The plan is for the season to begin the weekend of Oct. 23-24, and it revolves around rigid coronavirus protocols.
As of Friday afternoon, Lancaster County had recorded 498 new cases this week, up from last week’s high of 476.
Coronavirus-related restrictions will be loosened even though COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are at their highest levels since late spring.
Lincoln City Attorney Yohance Christie said: "This lawsuit has no merit."
Nebraska has developed its own in-house rapid coronavirus system, which will considerably speed up the testing process for student-athletes.
Voluntary tests were offered to 600 inmates last week, and 332 agreed to be tested. Tests will be offered to the remaining inmates at the facility starting Sunday.
Lydia and Carlos Tibbs were an inseparable duo known for their joyful embrace of life and of the people they met. "They covered you with their love."
The dashboard shows the first case on campus was reported Aug. 16 at the tail-end of student move-in for the fall semester. The highest number of cases reported in one day was Wednesday, where 31 cases were reported.
Kevin Hopper, a technical consultant in Information Technology Services, fell ill earlier this summer and was hospitalized for about a month before he died Aug. 19, according to an obituary.
North Star coach Tony Kobza attributed some of his team's missteps on Friday night to unique practice circumstances. But it's not an excuse, he says.
Athletic director Bill Moos confirmed to the Journal Star that 51 employees in his department of more than 330 are being furloughed for four months.
LPS reported four positive COVID-19 cases during the first week of school, compared to 35 cases in Omaha-area schools.
NU will have to dip into its healthy "rainy day" financial reserve. Bill Moos: "It's as rainy as I've ever seen it."
The Lincoln City Council suspended its rules, then held a public hearing to appoint Pat Lopez as health director, a decision drawing the scorn of local residents already critical of her decisions.
On the first day of remote learning, 14,322 students Zoomed into classes, collectively spending more than 3 million minutes on Zoom, though some had problems getting onto Zoom.
The 16 cases confirmed Friday marked the lowest number of new daily cases this week, and Lancaster County headed into the weekend positioned to have the fewest weekly total of new cases since late June.
Contests hosted by LPS schools will be limited to immediate family only, which is defined in a news release sent out Friday afternoon.
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The decision comes one day after Scott Frost and three other Big Ten coaches went public with their desire to play football this fall.
"I think the matter is, by and large, over,” Madsen's attorney J.L. Spray said of the dispute between the business and Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department.
At around 7:55 a.m., officers arrived at Madsen's, marking the first time police have been involved in the weeklong squabbling between the local business and city over alleged violations of directed health measures.
“I think overwhelming is a good word,” said Lincoln Education Association President Rita Bennett, especially for teachers who all want to do things well. “It is very, very frustrating. No one wants to drop a ball.”
Information contained in property tax protests gives a rare look into what kinds of declines some national companies are seeing in Lincoln.
There are three options for ticket holders who don't wish to attend games this season.
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In a closed third-floor courtroom with dozens watching online, the Lincoln City Attorney's Office laid out its case Wednesday for why a judge should order the closure of Madsen's Bowling and Billiards for violating directed health measures.
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Adi Pour said Nebraska Attorney General's Office questioned her ability to implement a mask requirement.
The in-person portion of the fair looked much different Thursday, with none of the usual extras including rides, carnival games, food stands and entertainers. It seemed that there were more animals on the fairgrounds than people.
Come Saturday, 27 of the state's 93 counties will be clear of most restrictions prompted by the coronavirus.
More than half of COVID-19 cases in the past three weeks have hit those between 21 and 29.
Students will attend in-person classes two or three days a week based on their last name.
The housing unit where the outbreak occurred is separate from the intake area where more than 100 protesters were processed over the weekend, a spokesperson said.
So far, 376 employees have asked for some kind of accommodations from LPS, including requests to work remotely, take leave or modify their work spaces with plexiglass barriers or additional PPE.
Despite the closures announced Saturday, many young Lincoln residents went out in the area that night to drink and dine. Many were seated in outdoor areas, but some bars had a number of patrons indoors as well.
Lancaster County broke last week's record for the most cases of COVID-19 reported in a single week.
Two downtown bars, along with the Railyard commons area, have been ordered to close for violations of the city's directed health measure.
Celebrations were in order for Lincoln Southwest graduates as they streamed out of Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday morning. Inside, it was time to get to work.
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