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Nebraska ‘headed in the wrong direction’ with virus cases

November 5, 2020 GMT

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Gov. Pete Ricketts implored residents Thursday to follow Nebraska’s voluntary coronavirus safety guidelines as the number of new cases and hospitalizations surged, and he hinted that the state could reimpose some of the social distancing mandates that were lifted in September.

His comments came as the state’s top public health official warned that Nebraska needed to reduce the number of cases to avoid overwhelming hospitals.

“It’s obvious we’re headed in the wrong direction,” said Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska’s chief medical officer. “We cannot surge our way out of this pandemic by just finding ways to increase hospital beds or staffing.”

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Nebraska reported a record 1,828 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday and the number of daily hospitalizations soared to an all-time high of 698 on the same day, following a week of massive growth.

Nebraska officials have confirmed 75,888 cases and 669 deaths since the pandemic began. According to the state’s online tracking portal, 26% of the state’s hospital beds are available for patients, as are 28% of the intensive care unit beds and 71% of the ventilators.

Ricketts announced several policy changes to try to keep the virus from spreading and avoid the kind of economic damage the pandemic caused earlier this year.

He said state agencies will get renewed flexibility to allow their employees to work from home, and Nebraska will apply for extra federal food stamp benefits for the month of December. Nebraska was previously the only state that chose not to continue the emergency food assistance that it was receiving from the federal government.

The Republican governor re-imposed some coronavirus restrictions last month to try to protect the state’s hospitals from the rising number of cases. On Thursday, he said he was still waiting to see the full impact of those measures, but he warned that more could be coming if people flout the state’s voluntary guidelines.

“One of the ways we can avoid tightening down the (restrictions) more is if people follow the rules,” he said.

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Ricketts also stressed the need for social distancing on Thanksgiving and urged residents to plan accordingly.

“We want people to be thinking about that holiday” and possibly celebrating in smaller groups, he said.

He stood firm, however, in his decision to not require schools to shut down or limit themselves to virtual learning. Ricketts said it was important for students to meet in-person because it’s better for their mental health and academic performance, and in some cases it’s the only chance for students to socialize with others or get a full meal.

“We believe the structured environment of the school is the better place to be,” he said.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said he was also worried that closing schools would lead to informal gatherings that help spread the virus. Last month, more than 40 students in Gretna tested positive to the virus after attending a non-school-sanctioned homecoming party.

“Folks can’t let their guard down, and I think that’s one of my concerns right now,” Blomstedt said.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte