WAHOO – As Nebraska reported the first confirmed cases of coronavirus in the state last week, public facilities in Saunders County are watching what unfolds.
Last Friday, a 36-year-old Omaha woman was taken to the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit at the University of Nebraska Medical Center for treatment of coronavirus, also called COVID-19. The woman had recently traveled to the United Kingdom with her father. Her father and another family member have also tested positive for the virus and are self-quarantined in their Omaha area home.
State health officials said the woman played in a Special Olympics basketball game at the YMCA in Fremont on Feb. 29.
Many other Special Olympics athletes and coaches were at the tournament, and secondary contact is a concern for area schools.
Fremont public and parochial schools and Plattsmouth and Logan View public school districts have cancelled classes for at least a week in response to the exposure.
No area students were involved in the event, local superintendents said on Monday.
School officials are monitoring the situation carefully, however. On Sunday afternoon, many superintendents took part in a conference call with state health officials to discuss the Fremont incident.
The area school closest to Fremont – Cedar Bluffs – remains open, said Superintendent Harlen Ptomey.
“No we will not cancel classes unless there is confirmed cases that have effect on us as a school,” he said.
Cedar Bluffs officials are monitoring the situation and the district’s Crisis Team sent a press release to patrons on Saturday and will continue to inform the public, Ptomey said.
Other school districts are also keeping in close contact with experts as they gauge whether or not to close school.
“We have not considered closing school at this time,” said Wahoo Public Schools Superintendent Brandon Lavaley. “If we would be faced with potentially making that decision it would only be through seeking advisement of public health officials.”
Mead Superintendent Dr. Dale Rawson said the district is following the guidance of Three Rivers Health Department, which covers Dodge, Saunders and Washington counties.
“Evidence of COVID-19 in our school or community with transference would impact the decision,” he added.
East Butler Superintendent Sam Stecher said health officials advised that keeping school open may actually mitigate the spread of the virus.
“The metric for the tipping point is not easily defined, which is why we will continue to stay in contact with those organizations and act on the information and advice provided,” he said.
Superintendent Jason Libal said Ashland-Greenwood Public Schools remains open for classes and activities. The district will consult experts if a decision to close was necessary, he added.
“We would lean heavily on the advice of our local, regional, and state health departments related to such a decision,” he said.
Public activities will also be held at area school districts, the administrators reported.
“Unless advised by the health department to the contrary, we will be maintaining our current calendar for regular day and after-school events,” said Lavaley.
Players, coaches and spectators from three area schools will be heading to one of the biggest public events on Thursday – the State Boys Basketball Tournament in Lincoln. Yutan, Wahoo and Ashland-Greenwood will be competing.
Officials with the Nebraska Schools Activities Association have no plans to alter the tournament schedule.
Area schools have excellent custodial staff, but they are focusing a little more on cleaning now that the virus has moved closer.
At Wahoo Public, the staff is spending extra time on high contact areas like bathrooms and doorknobs, Lavaley said.
Some schools step up cleaning during flu season regularly. Mead is an example.
“”We always clean during flu season and this year we are being more diligent than ever,” said Rawson.
East Butler has reevaluated and verified their cleaning procedures and are reinforcing handwashing, Stecher said. Cedar Bluffs is doing the same, according to Ptomey.
“We are teaching our kids more about hand washing,” he said.
A diagnosis of COVID-19 is more prevalent in adults than in children. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that most confirmed cases of the virus have occurred in adults. Older adults and adults with chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes or lung disease or those who have compromised immune systems are more susceptible to the disease.
Local facilities that serve the elderly are taking extra steps to keep their residents protected from COVID-19.
Although there have been no diagnoses of the virus in Wahoo, South Haven Living Center began restricting visitors and volunteers on Saturday.
“We are trying to reduce traffic in and out of our building,” said Administrator Brooke Belina.
Restrictions will be in place for an unknown length of time.
“It is hard to put a timeline on it because we know so little about this virus,” Belina said.
Belina said they are in constant contact with state and local health officials to monitor the situation.
“We are communicating with health departments on a daily basis to ensure we are keeping our residents safe,” she added.
At Saunders Medical Center’s long term care facility, persons under the age of 18 have been asked not to visit the facility, according to CEO Julie Rezac. All other visitors must sign in at the front desk and wear masks and residents cannot leave the facility with the visitors.
Saunders Medical Center (SMC) has also put in place some changes for visitors to the hospital and clinic. People coming to the hospital to visit must wear masks. Anyone with a fever of 100.4 or higher is asked to stay home.
SMC’s daycare facility is closed to keep children from exposure in a high risk environment, according to an email originally sent by Infection Control Manager Jessica Trutna.
The facility implemented a phone triage system early on to diagnose potential COVID-19 patients, which was outlined during a public forum on March 2.
They ask anyone who is sick with symptoms similar to the virus to call the SMC clinic or hospital first before coming in. The daytime number is 402-443-4191. After hours, call 402-443-1448.
A nurse will ask several questions that will help determine if there is an authentic risk of COVID 19 infection. That includes information about recent travel history.
If the hospital staff determines the patient may have the virus, they will be asked to come to the emergency room, where a health care professional will meet them at the door and take them to a special room.
As of Monday, there had been 423 total cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and 19 deaths. The virus has been reported in 34 states and the District of Columbia. In Nebraska, along with the three people with a confirmed diagnosis, nine are undergoing further testing at the Nebraska Public Health Lab, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Thirty-six cases have tested negative so far, the DHHS also reports.
According to the CDC, Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough and shortness of breath. Symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure.
Health officials suggest that anyone who experiences these symptoms should self-quarantine and call their health care provider. Health officials also urge anyone who is exhibiting possible symptoms of COVID-19 or any other illness to stay home.
The virus spreads by person-to-person contact when respiratory droplets are expelled by a cough or sneeze and land in the mouth or nose of someone standing nearby. The virus can also live on hard surfaces or objects and be passed along when these areas are touched and then the person touches their face.
Everyday preventative measures include avoiding close contact with individuals who are sick; keeping hands from eyes, nose and mouth; covering a cough or sneeze with a tissue that is discarded immediately; cleaning and disinfecting high touch objects and surfaces and washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
The newness of this coronavirus creates many unknowns, said Terra Uhing, executive director of Three Rivers.
“This is fluid, COVID-19, it is changing almost by the minute,” she said in a press conference Monday.
Hotlines have been set up to deal with COVID-19 questions. Three Rivers has collaborated with Dodge County Emergency Management and Fremont Area United Way to activate a 2-1-1 hotline for residents of Saunders, Dodge and Washington counties. The hotline will answer questions about prevention, symptoms and the situation in Fremont.
The Nebraska public health online system is located at dhhs.ne.gov/Pages/Coronavirus.aspx. The CDC’s information line is 800-232-4636.