Ricketts says Nebraska won’t ease restrictions all at once

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- When Nebraska begins to lift social distancing restrictions, it will do so gradually to prevent another surge in coronavirus cases, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Wednesday.

Ricketts said he still hopes to lift some restrictions at the beginning of May, but he plans to take a cautious approach so that public health officials have time to see whether it’s causing cases to spike. For instance, he said the state’s ban on gatherings of more than 10 people may first be loosened to allow for groups of 20 or 25 people before it’s eliminated.

“It would be something along those sorts of lines,” Ricketts said at his daily news conference at the Capitol. “Reopening sit-down restaurants and bars may be a part of that as well, too. As we get into this toward the end of the month, we’ll be re-evaluating where we are with regard to where the virus is and making those decisions.”

Ricketts and public health officials are trying to avoid a flare-up of the virus that could overwhelm the state’s hospitals with sick patients. The Republican governor has issued an array of restrictions on public gatherings, such as forcing schools to close and limiting restaurants and bars to takeout, delivery or carryout services. He hasn’t issued a formal stay-at-home order as most of the nation’s governors have done, although Nebraska’s restrictions are similar.

Nebraska and the rest of the world won’t return to a “true normal” until public health officials find a vaccine for the virus, said Dr. James Lawler, a University of Nebraska Medical Center infectious disease expert who advised Ricketts on the state’s response to the pandemic.

In an interview, Lawler said Nebraska doesn’t appear to be as hart-hit as other states, largely because state officials had more time to react with school closures and crowd restrictions than larger states such as New York. But he warned that the situation could change quickly, and “there’s a lot of room for improvement” in how well Nebraska residents have followed the restrictions.

“The data that I can see overall are encouraging,” Lawler said. “But we still don’t have widespread community testing available and we don’t have great visibility of disease prevalence in the community.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Earlier Wednesday, Nebraska health officials reported more deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. The statewide total is now at least 13.

Lincoln reported that city’s first death from the coronavirus. Officials in Douglas County reported two deaths in the Omaha area, including a woman in her 70s and another woman in her 90s who was a long-term care resident at the hard-hit Douglas County Health Center. The long-term care center has seen 15 residents and 10 employees test positive for the disease; two residents there have died.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services also gave some details about two deaths reported earlier. One was a woman in her 60s from Hall County and the other was a man in his 80s from Custer County.

The number of cases statewide had risen to 519 as of midday Wednesday. More than 7,440 residents have tested negative.