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YEAR IN REVIEW: A virus changes our lives

YEAR IN REVIEW: A virus changes our lives

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There’s no doubt that 2020 was one for the history books. The way COVID-19 changed all of our lives makes it easy to select the Top 10 stories concerning the virus and the community’s effort to fight back. The coronavirus was so vast across our coverage area all of The Independent’s news team members covered some aspect of the issue at some point during the last 10 months. For the complete stories and affiliated articles, readers may visit theindependent.com.

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1. CHI Health St. Francis employees get first doses of COVID-19 vaccine (Dec. 16 — Jeff Bahr)

Registered nurse Aria Diehl was among the first 50 CHI Health St. Francis employees to receive the newly arrived Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, Dec. 15.

Diehl called COVID-19 “a very serious, very real thing that is happening in our community.”

Also among the first to receive injections were Dr. Shu-Ming Wang, physician assistant Nicole Schwensow and Dr. Michael Donner.

Donner, a primary care physician, said it was “an honor to be part of an historic day” in Grand Island.

Of the 975 doses of vaccine that arrived from the Pfizer plant in Michigan on that Sunday, St. Francis kept 245 doses for its employees and sent the other doses to other Grand Island, Hastings and Kearney locations. Some doses went to emergency medical services personnel in the area.

Each vial contains five doses.

CHI Health St. Francis President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Hannon called the vaccine “a glass vial of hope for the future.”

After treating patients for nearly a year with such products as remdesivir and bamlamivimab, St. Francis Pharmacy Director Doug Richling called the vaccine “a real game-changer.”

Roughly 100 employees were vaccinated that first day.

St. Francis gave vaccination priority to its employees who are at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19, including nurses, physicians, respiratory therapists and other staff members who visit the rooms of COVID-19 patients on a daily basis.

Priority also was given to people who handle infectious material.

The injections were the first round of the vaccine. Employees are expected to receive the second injections after three weeks.

“We can see that light at the end of the tunnel,” Donner said. “I still say that, even though we can see the light, we still need to get out of the tunnel.”

2. Citywide mask ordinance approved (Nov. 25 — Brandon Summers)

With new COVID-19 cases rising into the holiday season, Grand Island City Council approved a citywide COVID-19 prevention ordinance on Nov. 24.

The ordinance requires people to wear masks when indoors at premises open to the general public within city limits.

Mayor Roger Steele said the ordinance was necessary as Grand Island could not withstand a second shutdown.

“If (Gov. Pete Ricketts) shuts down businesses, it reduces commerce. It destroys jobs. And it destroys people’s hope for a better future,” Steele said. “Failing to pass this ordinance means we put at risk our schools, our hospitals, our medical providers, our businesses and our jobs.”

A Grand Island Board of Health, approved by the City Council in a special meeting the previous night, had its first meeting seven hours before the council session.

Dr. Rebecca Steinke, a member of the board, emphasized that night the risk faced by the city’s medical facilities if cases continued to increase.

“The numbers of COVID tests that came back positive in the last week confirm we’re already on that trajectory,” Steinke said. “It will be almost impossible to safely contain and properly care for that surge of patients, even with plans to double up rooms or use beds that are not meant for sick people. If things do not change soon, rationing of care will become a reality.”

Protesters said the new ordinance took away their personal freedoms and was an overreach of the local government.

Supporters argued that the ordinance would help the schools to stay open, and that there was significant medical research showing masks reduce the spread of the virus.

The ordinance will expire on Feb. 23, 2021, unless extended by the City Council.

3. No School: Grand Island schools making plans to teach, feed students while they stay home (March 15 — Austin Koeller)

After initially saying all classes would be held as scheduled, Grand Island Public Schools, Northwest Public Schools, Grand Island Central Catholic, Heartland Lutheran High School and Trinity Lutheran School announced on March 15 they were closing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as cases first began rising in the Grand Island area.

“Because schools have dense populations, closing can prevent students from spreading the virus to others in their families and the community,” a GIPS official said.

The first week of closure served as spring break for GIPS.

After that, GIPS promptly began work on implementing an online learning system.

In a letter to families posted on the Trinity Lutheran Facebook page, Principal Jerrita Staehr said her school will be closed through March 27 as a preventive measure.

“The circumstances will be evaluated on a weekly basis to determine if we remain closed or (if) we will be able to once again open our doors,” Staehr said. “Our top priority is the health and safety of our students and families.”

Preparations were made to switch to a distance learning format.

Some classes offered online assignments, while others had a combination of paper packets and online components.

GICC administration and its board decided to cease all student gatherings, including classes, practices and activities, at GICC through March 22, GICC Principal Jordan Engle reported.

“At the conclusion of the week, our board of education will reconvene and consider whether new information is available to make a determination on the following week,” Engle said.

Though its buildings were closed, GIPS continued to address food insecurity and help meet the needs of its students.

GICC, too, turned its attention to offering virtual resources for its students.

4. “Hall County has its first COVID-19 death” (March 27 — Jeff Bahr)

The first COVID-19-related death of a Hall County resident, a woman in her 60s, came Friday, March 27.

It was the second COVID-19 fatality in Nebraska.

She was also the third person with a lab-confirmed case of coronarivus in the three-county area overseen by the Central District Health Department.

Two lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported by CDHD the day before: a Hall County woman in her 50s, who was then isolated at home, and a woman in her 60s, who was being hospitalized and isolated in Hall County.

All three were the result of community spread, and not from travel.

South Heartland District Health Department the day before reported two additional cases of COVID-19: one was a man in his 40s, and the other was a man in his 50s from Colorado who had spent time in Adams County. Both were hospitalized and isolated.

As cases began to rise across the state, the first directed health measures were issued.

By December, the number of COVID-related deaths in the three-county area had risen to more than 100.

5. “Mayor Roger Steele sets closings to avoid stress on local health care system” (March 16 — Jeff Bahr)

Within weeks of the first warnings of COVID-19 spreading, the city of Grand Island closed its buildings to the public.

Closing municipal buildings was critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19 and protecting the city’s health care system, Mayor Roger Steele said, arguing that while medical facilities can handle a stream of sick people, it is much harder to accommodate a flood of sick people.

Steele also wanted to discourage people from meeting in groups unless truly necessary.

Grand Island Public Library and the Community Fieldhouse were closed in March, and public meetings in city facilities became prohibited. Soon after, live horse racing at Fonner Park was ceased.

Steele championed the city’s ability to prevent the spread of the virus.

As did officials at JBS Beef Plant who responded with health safety measures to protect their workers, including dividers, separation, extra cleaning procedures and personal protective equipment. JBS reduced production at one point because of absenteeism at the facility but remained open as ordered by President Donald Trump. JBS since has bounced back and helped community organizations with hundreds of thousands of dollars from its Hometown Strong initiative.

Steele said, “I’m at the point of being optimistic that Grand Island is going to come through this.”

Hall County closed its facilities to the public, as well. Still city and county operations continued, though.

Central Nebraska Regional Airport already was seeing a “significant decrease” in boardings.

In the meantime, new sanitizing practices were put into effect in city and county buildings, and at the airport.

6. “Transition to working from home easier for some than others” (March 25 — Carissa Barwick)

Working from home became the new normal in 2020 for many people in many professions. The transition was not an easy one, for individuals or their employers.

Makeshift workspaces were created in homes so employees could continue to work while practicing social distancing, then a wholly new concept.

R.J. Post, a copywriter and digital content creator for Idea Bank Marketing in Hastings, eased the transition from working in an office to working at home by keeping the same routine.

“I’m getting up at the same time, I’m getting dressed as if I’m going to work and I’m starting and ending my work day at the same time,” Post said.

Jessica Hendricks, executive director for Leadership Tomorrow, said a challenge with working from home was time management, especially because she has children ages 6 months and 2 and a half years at home.

“I work when the little ones are asleep,” Hendricks said.

Stuhr Museum marketing director Mike Bockoven said working from home meant creating a larger online presence to get out the museum’s mission.

“The new things we are doing will definitely carry over when we are back in the office,” Bockoven said. “People will see a different digital presence, and it will change the museum.”

7. “Family glad to be home in Grand Island after trip to Europe” (March 16 — Jeff Bahr)

The impact of COVID-19 wasn’t just local. It was global. Traveling became both obstacle and risk and simply getting home was a matter of good fortune as COVID-19 spread.

A Grand Island family, returning from Europe, had to wait in a line of 3,000 to 4,000 people one Sunday in March at Dallas/Fort Worth Regional International Airport.

Leah Fairbanks and her daughters, Emmahlae, 17, and Eärendil, 15, had left Nebraska on March 7 for London and Paris before returning to the U.S.

The delay in Dallas lasted hours.

Some young children, 1 and 2 years old, were crying as their families waited in line. Some youngsters were “just falling apart,” Fairbanks said.

Even while touring Paris, fears were mounting about the spread of the virus.

“People started scaring us about being able to make it back home,” Fairbanks said.

Canceling or postponing the flight to Europe had not been a concern.

“When I left, the coronavirus wasn’t as scary as it was (now),” she said.

In the weeks after their return, Fairbanks and her boyfriend worked from home. Her daughters, students at Grand Island Senior High, were also home during that time because the pandemic resulted in the schools being closed.

8. “Rising COVID-19 cases are jeopardizing Hall County Emergency Services” (Nov. 19 — Brandon Summers)

A second wave was inevitable, but no one would have expected it to be worse than it was in the spring. Not long after the start of the state’s Phase 4 directed health measures, new COVID-19 cases skyrocketed to the point where critical services were being put at risk.

Emergency calls increased “both in number and severity,” said Jon Rosenlund, Emergency Management director.

Rising COVID-19 cases put public safety responders and health care personnel at risk, and affected patient transport.

Hospitals were also forced to meet the challenges created by more COVID-19 cases, creating a greater risk of having to require rationing and triage for resources.

By late November, there were a “relatively low number of beds available” for patients with COVID-19 and all other needs in Hall County and the surrounding area.

And creating more beds and more space could not be done with the wave of a wand.

People had to wait longer to see a doctor, even in smaller hospitals.

Hall County Emergency Management encouraged the public to avoid gatherings, wash hands frequently, wear a face mask or covering and to stay inside if not feeling well.

9. “Central District Health Department dispelling myths about COVID-19: Stores out of hand sanitizer, masks” (March 6 — Carissa Barwick)

COVID-19 hadn’t even arrived in Nebraska when stores in Grand Island were seeing shortages in needed supplies, such as hand sanitizer and toilet tissue.

Central District Health Department had only begun its efforts in explaining what the virus was to the public, its effects on the body and where it came from.

CDHD also began advocating people wear masks while out in public and to stay home if not feeling well.

It recommended that people use a hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol-based, but finding it soon became difficult.

CVS on Second Street in Grand Island reported that the store was sold out of masks and had been out of hand sanitizer since the week before.

CVS pharmacist Tony Zheng said he had seen people buy as many towels and packages of bottled water as possible just in case they would have to be quarantined in their homes.

John Placzek, the store manager at Ace Hardware, said the N95 masks had been sold out for a couple of weeks.

It would be a while longer before more supplies would arrive.

10. “Economy, tourism industry hit hard, but Grand Island leaders continue to be optimistic” (July 11 — Robert Pore)

As the numbers of new COVID-19 cases finally began to wane, the economic impact of citywide shutdowns became apparent. Cities and counties lost much revenue, which caused shortfalls for 2021 budgets.

The pandemic also has resulted in a number of national chain retailers closing their stores in Grand Island, though some of those businesses already were experiencing a downturn prior to the pandemic.

Hall, Adams and Buffalo counties each saw an 80% dip in motor vehicle sales in April, from $12 million to $2.2 million in Hall County.

Grand Island/Hall County Convention & Visitors Bureau reported a huge loss in tourism and the revenue that comes with it.

Hotel occupation tax receipts in Grand Island fell from $66,586 in 2019 to $19,565.

Housing listings and sales were not as greatly affected by the pandemic, Grand Island Area Chamber of Commerce reported.

Concerns began to rise about how, to say nothing of if, Grand Island would be able to host the Nebraska State Fair. In the end the State Fair took all the precautions necessary for participants’ safety and hosted a fair focused on 4-H and FFA activities.

Grand Island’s business community remained optimistic, though, that the community would be able to reduce the spread to make hosting such events possible.

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