GRAND ISLAND —Two representatives from the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security have given the JBS plant a positive review in its response to COVID-19 following a tour of the plant last week.

Dr. James Lawler, executive director of international programs and innovation for the UNMC Global Center for Health Security, and Shelly Schwedhelm, executive director of emergency management and biopreparedness, both visited the plant last Tuesday.

Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele said at a biweekly press briefing Monday morning that he spoke with Gov. Pete Ricketts last Friday and asked if he could receive a copy of the report from Lawler and Schwedhelm on JBS in an effort to provide information to the people of Grand Island.

In an email to Steele — which was read in its entirety by Steele at Monday’s press briefing and provided to the media — Schwedhelm said that when she and Lawler visited JBS, she was greeted by plant manager Zack Ireland “with total transparency.”

She said she and Lawler spoke with Ireland and JBS safety officer Betti Dugar and walked through the attached checklist, touring the plant in full gear. Once the tour concluded, Schwedhelm said she and Lawler discussed challenges and potential mitigation strategies with Ireland and Dugar.

Schwedhelm said there are a few things JBS has put in place that “were absolutely what we would call best practices.” Those included:

— Implementation of barriers where possible.

— Audits on use of social distancing and correct mask use.

— Use of visual signage in multiple languages.

— Use of a text app for workers that is free and converts messages to varied languages as appropriate.

— Robust environmental cleaning processes.

— Workforce policies with no penalty for absenteeism. JBS had removed workers over age 70 and pregnant workers two weeks prior with full pay given their increased risk.

Schedhelm said she and Lawler offered some suggestions to Dugar and Ireland related to air flow and HVAC items which Ireland immediately responded to.

“Zack quickly jumped on that and engaged the engineers to see how to take action,” she said. “He reported back success with this.”

Schwedhelm said Ireland expressed concerns on the tour last week about gatherings related to the Ramadan holiday. Steele said JBS published its guidance for safe practices by employees during the Ramadan holiday in Arabic, Somali and English.

Steele said he did not receive additional comments from Lawler, but assumed he echoed Schwedhelm.

Teresa Anderson, health director of the Central District Health Department, did not attend Monday morning’s press briefing. Steele said the reason for her absence was because a CDHD employee tested positive for COVID-19. He read a prepared statement from Anderson during the press briefing.

The statement read: “Central District Health Department was notified yesterday (Sunday) that we had a staff member who tested positive and worked with symptoms. I think this proves that we all are at risk for COVID-19. Everyone in our building has been wearing masks for weeks, so we are now at low risk for catching the virus.

“Regardless, we are taking additional measures to lower the risk of spreading the virus. We will isolate to the best of our ability, but we still need to be able to conduct the business of public health.”

Anderson said CDHD is taking safety measures such as having some employees work from home and only having a few people in the building at any given time. She added they will continue to practice social distancing and wear masks.

Anderson reminded people to continue to practice social distancing by staying six feet apart from others, avoiding group gatherings, wearing a mask in public whenever possible and staying home if they feel ill.

She also advised people to avoid any group gatherings, including church and other religious services until CDHD sees a decrease in the number of daily COVID-19 cases.

Gov. Ricketts announced last Friday that he would relax some restrictions in certain parts of the state that have been less affected by the virus. Religious services can be held again statewide starting May 4 with some limitations, including more distance between worshippers.

“We do not know how bad this will get before we see numbers start to fall,” Anderson said. “But we are not anywhere close to being able to relax. Please continue to stay home, stay healthy and stay connected.”

Ed Hannon, president of CHI Health St. Francis, also spoke at Monday’s press briefing. He said the number of positive COVID-19 cases will continue to rise because more people are getting tested as more testing becomes available.

Early on in the COVID-19 crisis, Hannon said Grand Island primary care providers were treating patients with respiratory illnesses and assumed many of them were positive for the virus despite not being able to test them for it.

“That limited testing is gone now and we are now starting to test everybody, so we will see those numbers show up as being positive for COVID-19,” he said. “There is no doubt that we will start to see those numbers continue to increase.”

Hannon said that despite this, CHI Health St. Francis is beginning to see a “glimmer of hope.” He said the hospital had been concerned that it would reach its maximum capacity, but that has never occurred.

According to Hannon, CHI Health St Francis has “gotten to a census” of 14 to 16 patients in its intensive care unit at times and is able to transfer some of its more stable patients to other facilities to care for more patients until they can be stabilized.

He said CHI Health St. Francis has 20 ventilators and has never put more than 15 of them into place. The hospital has 120 beds with only about 60 patients occupying them as of Monday morning.

Over the past six days, Hannon said, the hospital has seen a decline in the number of patients coming into the emergency room. He said from a hospital standpoint, the COVID-19 numbers have been stabilizing.

“We are not really declining, but we are not over the hump at all,” Hannon said. “The great work that we are all doing together by staying home, staying connected and washing our hands is working. We are making some progress — we are flattening the curve. I just want to assure the community that we are still doing our job and are doing it well.”

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