GRAND ISLAND — At a Grand Island press conference Monday morning, Central District Health Department Director Teresa Anderson was conspicuously absent.
Anderson has led the response to the hard-hitting coronavirus outbreak in the three-county region surrounding Grand Island.
But even her department isn't immune to the contagious virus.
A health department worker has tested positive for the coronavirus, the department discovered Sunday, and had worked while experiencing symptoms.
Now the public health workers at the front lines of trying to track and contain the virus in a central Nebraska hot spot are self-isolating as much as possible, or working in small numbers at the department's office while wearing masks.
"I think this proves that we all are at risk for COVID-19," Anderson said in a statement read at the event by Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele.
The health director said employees have been wearing masks for weeks, so they have a lower risk of catching the virus. Still, more will work from home and isolate as much as possible while still coordinating testing and tracking of local coronavirus cases.
By Sunday night, the department, which covers Hall, Hamilton and Merrick Counties, counted 931 confirmed cases and 25 deaths across the three counties. Hall County, where Grand Island is located, accounts for 876 cases, the most in Nebraska and roughly double the number of known infections in Douglas County, the most populous county in the state.
"Please remember we are at a critical time here in the Central District," Anderson said in her prepared remarks. "The number of cases continues to rise at an alarming rate."
Gov. Pete Ricketts announced 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.
Still, Anderson asked Grand Island-area residents to avoid group gatherings, including church and religious services, until the number of positive cases there begins to drop.
"We don't know how bad this will get before we start to see numbers fall, but we are not anywhere close to being able to relax," she said.
Grand Island Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt said this weekend he was seeking advice from his council of priests on tailoring an approach to fit the varying levels of infection in the diocese’s large expanse of Nebraska, stretching from the Platte River north to the state line and west to Wyoming.
That includes some counties that have had no cases, some that have had no new cases for a couple of weeks and some places such as Grand Island and Lexington that have still-growing outbreaks.
Edward Hannon, the president of St. Francis Hospital in Grand Island, noted "glimmers of hope" amid the grim-and-growing daily count of coronavirus cases.
"We’re testing more people, so we should expect that that number will go up," he said.
Hospital admissions of COVID-19 patients at St. Francis aren't declining yet, he said, but they do seem to be stabilizing.
The hospital now has 20 ventilators but hasn't had to use more than 15 at the same time. About 15 patients typically are in the intensive care unit there, and the rest of the hospital is about half-empty. Twenty-four patients have been transferred to other hospitals, including in Omaha.
And most people who are getting sick are able to recover at home, he said.
Since the start of the outbreak in March, St. Francis has admitted roughly 100 COVID-19 patients, or about 10% of total infections in the Central District Health Department.
"The great work we're doing in the community together" — washing hands, staying home, keeping 6 feet apart — "is working," he said. "We're making some progress, we're flattening the curve, which we set out to do."