The state of Nebraska and the nation find themselves in a unique moment in history where proper decisions about public health are potentially at odds with societal norms.
It has been a century since the last global pandemic, and it only takes a walk through an old country cemetery in Nebraska to realize the serious nature of that historical moment.
I remember walking the rows of infant and child grave markers in places across the state from Allen to McCook to Broken Bow when my family would place flowers on the graves of relatives I never knew. I spoke with my grandparents about the siblings and relatives they lost when they were 8 or 10 years old and the memories that were instilled in their minds.
Although they each have been gone for decades now themselves, I remember what they told me.
My grandparents experienced the shock and stress of caring for dying relatives and running to get supplies. On their way, they would pass other places flagged by a sign or symbol to let others know to stay away so as not to further spread the contagion.
They remembered their own fear of dying and they remembered their parents and grandparents getting sick and providing that care for them as well. I was always captivated by the memories but saw that as a distant history.
Back then, the disease and disaster spread gradually enough that communities responding to the spread of the disease were less impacted. I can only imagine the stereotypical country doctor running house to house to keep up and becoming ill in the effort.
I can only imagine a community spirit shuttered when it wasn’t safe to shake hands with your neighbor or not go to church or school. I can only imagine those days never knowing what normal would be going forward. Or so I thought.
Today, we stand a little more than a week from Nebraska’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. We do not have the luxury of the slow crawl of a pandemic across the world, as it is already upon us. Yes, experts have warned for years of the possibility of a global health crisis, but I never thought it would hit us.
Just like you, I’m in a state of shock. We sent shockwaves throughout the state yesterday with the announcement to limit spectators for the annual state boys' basketball tournament, an event with a rich history and traditions.
Nebraska always gathers as a community around big events. We see old friends and make new ones. It’s what makes us great.
Right now, it also makes us vulnerable to a spreading contagion that we do not understand. I am quickly realizing we are going to have to suspend some of our Nebraska traditions for some time. Stop gathering at large events.
This is not because we want to disrupt the community but because we want to sustain normalcy as best we can. We need to ensure public health officials and health providers are not so overwhelmed that when your elderly relatives, or vulnerable relatives with heart or lung disease or cancer, need assistance with the effects of COVID-19, they can’t receive the care they need.
I feel that the risk is all too real as I watch the pandemic unfold in Italy and, closer to home, in Washington state. I think it is possible that schools may have to close for periods of time so as not to overwhelm the health of teaching staff, students and community members as well as to slow the potentially rapid expansion of COVID-19.
I remember holding the hand of my grandmother while walking down that row of old graves from 1918 as she said that she hoped it never happened again. I was still afraid it would.
I hope to hold the hand of a future grandchild and say that my brother with cancer survived this event, my father-in-law recently out of heart surgery survived and our relatives survived because there was thoughtful and strong leadership that pulled the state together to understand the risk in 2020.
Matthew L. Blomstedt is Nebraska's commissioner of education.
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