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'We can't quit' now: Columbus mayor, community leaders talk virus plan
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'We can't quit' now: Columbus mayor, community leaders talk virus plan

Columbus is ahead of the game when it comes to being proactive to “flattening the curve” for COVID-19 as far as the mayor is concerned, but the area is hardly out of the woods.

“We can’t quit - social distancing has to continue,” Columbus Mayor Jim Bulkley said on Tuesday morning during a joint press conference held by the City of Columbus, East-Central District Health Department, Columbus area schools and Columbus Community Hospital in the Columbus City Council Chambers.

It marked the second week the local entities hosted a collaborative press conference to keep the community informed about current happenings and concerns with the rapid spread of COVID-19 throughout the nation and Nebraska. The conference came a day after the first case was confirmed in nearby Madison County and all Columbus area school districts announced they had extended their hiatus triggered earlier this month by concerns over the virus to at least through April 30.

Officials from numerous area agencies spoke during the gathering, including those from CCH. Dr. Mark Howerter, CCH’s medical director of the emergency department, and CCH President/CEO Mike Hansen discussed the virus outbreak across the state, stressing the importance of flattening the curve and the much-discussed COVID-19 tests.

It was said the hospital currently has 53 test swabs. Howerter mentioned 14 tests have been done so far, with four of them coming back negative from the reference lab and 10 of them pending as of Tuesday evening. The challenge, they both noted, is using the tests when needed without overdoing it due to limited supply throughout the nation.

“We can’t go crazy and test everybody. We could exhaust all our tests in one day,” Howerter said, likening tests to a savings account that isn’t well-stocked.

CCH is using criteria outlined by the health department to determine when to use the tests. Howerter said people who have traveled and were knowingly in contact with someone exposed to the illness, or displays suggestive symptoms especially considered to be in the more high-risk category are the candidates who will be subject to the test swabs.

The CCH leaders also used the press conference to announce the health care facility's new outdoor triage. Beginning sometime later Wednesday, people will be able to pull up near the emergency room wing and have a nurse determine if they need to go to a specific area for respiratory symptoms or if they can be seen for other medical issues to limit exposure and keep people safe.

Medical and health department officials urged residents to keep practicing social distancing and washing their hands, noting that people should assume COVID-19 is in Platte County and has not been reported due to a limited number of tests being supplied nationwide thus far.

The mayor and Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce President Jeanne Schieffer asked residents to support local businesses however they could during this trying time, with Bulkley noting the importance of thinking outside of the box and utilizing curbside, pickup and delivery services.

The three area school superintendents said the districts would keep families and students regularly informed about how things play out in the coming weeks.

Ultimately, the mayor said, Platte County has to buckle down and work together to get through what could be an extended challenging period.

“We’re facing something none of us are used to – it’s new ground. Flattening the curve is very important,” he said, adding that East-Central and City are asking folks who leave the state to self-quarantine for 14 days upon their arrival at home as another added precaution (that rule doesn’t apply to those commuting to Council Bluffs or Sioux City, Iowa, for work). “We’re all going through this and it’s tough on everybody. It’s not going to end tomorrow, it may not end in a couple of weeks. It may be months, but we can’t quit.”

Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at matt.lindberg@lee.net.

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Managing Editor

Matt Lindberg is an award-winning journalist and graduate of the University of Kansas.

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