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Timeline: Grand Island’s year of the COVID-19 pandemic

Timeline: Grand Island’s year of the COVID-19 pandemic

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It is an unimaginable anniversary.

The worldwide pandemic began, generally, in March 2020 and after one year the fight against the spread of COVID-19 continues.

There have been nearly 9,000 cases and 140 deaths in the three-county area of Hall, Hamilton and Merrick covered by the Central District Health Department in that time.

A second peak of positive cases in fall dwarfed the peak seen in spring.

Hope dawns for a conclusion to what was once thought would be an event that would only last a few weeks, maybe a couple of months.

A vaccine rollout that began in December and greater social precautions have brought positive cases down to their lowest since October. Those numbers continue to decline and there’s an anticipation of getting back to a normal life as vaccinations are rolled out.

But we are not safe yet.

These are the key events that have defined what hopefully will not be referred to as “the first year” of the pandemic.

March 15: Grand Island Schools closed

First, the schools were closed to keep kids safe.

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 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 at the time.

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

March 16: City Of Grand Island facilities close to public

Along with schools closing, 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 were prohibited. Soon after, live horse racing at Fonner Park was ceased.

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

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

Hall County closed its facilities to the public, as well. 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 all city and county buildings, and at the airport.

March 25: Working from home

For many people in many professions, working for home became the new normal.

The transition was not an easy for individuals or 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,” he 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,” he said. “People will see a different digital presence, and it will change the museum.”

The food service industry made monumental shifts to maintain their businesses. Drive-throughs became the priority all while offering online ordering and curbside pickup. Many restaurants have adopted these changes as part of their business strategy moving forward. Grocery stores promoted programs that allow shoppers to order items online and then have their groceries loaded contactless in their vehicles.

March 27: First COVID-19 death in Hall County

News of 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 also was 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 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 Nebraska, the first state directed health measures were issued by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

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

April 3: JBS Swift outbreak

When Grand Island became a nationally known COVID-19 hotspot at the start of the pandemic, the focus for rapidly rising positive cases was the JBS Swift meatpacking facility.

As public schools closed and the city closed its buildings to the public, JBS Swift announced that its operations would continue at full capacity as food supply was identified critical to the national infrastructure.

“As a food company, we recognize and embrace the important role we play in making sure people have access to safe, quality food as we collectively face the coronavirus challenge,” read a statement from JBS to The Independent.

Two weeks later, 10 of 33 reported new positive cases of COVID-19 were reported at JBS Swift.

Central District Health Department, whose three-county coverage area includes Hall County, later identified JBS Swift as being a central point for the first peak of COVID-19 cases in Grand Island.

JBS operations were allowed to continue.

“Food production (is) essential to the functioning of America and to your health and well-being,” Mayor Roger Steele said. “As mayor, I must balance the need for critical infrastructure, such as food processing and agriculture, against the need for all of us to take a step back.”

Precautions were taken at JBS.

Workers were encouraged, then directed, to stay home if sick. Protective equipment was provided, temperatures were checked and the plant was sanitized daily. Dividers were provided in the commons areas to allow social distancing.

Through directed health measures and social precautions, new COVID-19 cases dropped significantly.

In the fall, a second wave resulted in a peak of 826 new reported cases in one week, nearly double seen in spring. CDHD attributed the second wave to general community spread.

New cases were reduced with a citywide mask requirement through winter and the rollout of vaccines.

The struggle to control the spread of COVID-19 continues.

In early March, CDHD identified a cluster of positive COVID-19 cases among a number of people who were employed at JBS in Grand Island.

JBS was not identified, this time, as the source of the virus.

Nov. 25: Citywide mask ordinance approved

With the state’s directed health measures in place, new COVID-19 cases were kept low through the summer and the start of school with students given the opportunity to return to class.

As the numbers dropped, measures were relaxed, and not long after COVID-19 began rising to startling new highs.

As the holiday season approached, Grand Island City Council approved a citywide COVID-19 prevention ordinance on Nov. 24.

The ordinance required 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,” he 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 stay open, and that there was significant medical research showing masks reduce the spread of the virus.

The ordinance expired Feb. 23, 2021, without City Council extension.

Dec. 16: Vaccine rolls out

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 left the Pfizer plant in Michigan on Sunday, CHI St. Francis kept 245 doses for its employees and sent the other doses to its Grand Island, Hastings and Kearney locations. Some doses went to emergency medical services personnel in the area.

Each vial contains five doses.

CHI 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 bamlanivimab, CHI 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, which includes nurses, physicians, respiratory therapists and other staff members who visit the rooms of COVID-19 patients on a daily basis.

Priority also is given to people who handle infectious material.

The injection was the first round of the vaccine. Employees are expected to receive the second injection 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.”

Now, the vaccine is being distributed by a statewide priority system with health care officials, emergency personnel, those older than 65, teachers and others at higher risk. The health departments across the state are getting the vaccine into people’s arms as soon as they receive their supply.

Today: Grand Island’s hospitals prepared

Grand Island Regional Medical Center opened amid the pandemic and was ready to respond to the pandemic.

Larry Speicher, GIRMC chief executive officer, applauded the hospital’s staff members.

“Seeing our team of clinicians, nurses, physicians, lab and imaging technicians, respiratory therapists and support staff work together to manage services through this difficult time was and continues to be inspiring,” he said.

GIRMC is ready, along with the Hall County and Grand Island community, to meet whatever challenges the future may bring.

“I am also impressed with how well the Central Nebraska Health Department has managed the challenges,” he said. “As the virus adapts, so do our methods.”

Though the year was challenging and unpleasant, Grand Island’s medical facilities served as a beacon of hope.

CHI Health St. Francis President Ed Hannon said, “We knew so little about COVID-19 at first, but we knew our mission has always been to care for our community. Our teams learned all they could about treating this devastating disease and quickly adjusted our operations to battle this new threat.”

CHI St. Francis was swift in meeting the demands of the pandemic.

“We stood-up our Emergency Fast Track in mere days, and were the first to use new infusion drug therapies available,” Hannon said. “We were fortunate to have access to PPE, ventilators and backup staff when needed during the surge, a benefit of being part of a larger organization. Our freezers stored vaccine for the area and our staff were the first to line up for the vaccine. Now we’re helping to get folks vaccinated as quickly as we can.”

He added, “And all this is happening while we care for patients with more common needs like heart attacks, strokes, cancer or surgical care.”

Hannon is optimistic about the future.

“The future looks brighter than it did last year at this time,” he said. “Numbers are down and vaccination rates are increasing. At St. Francis we will continue leading, learning and adjusting as we find new and better ways to beat COVID-19. We will continue to be here to care for all who are in need and to help make our community a healthier place for all.”

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