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Nebraska Governor On Decision To Partially Reopen State In May

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

States have been making their own decisions about how to confront the coronavirus pandemic - whether to shut certain businesses down and for how long. And now they're making their own decisions about when and how to reopen. So we're going to hear from a governor who is in that process, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts. He is a Republican. He was first elected in 2015.

The state hasn't had nearly as many confirmed cases or death from COVID-19 as other states, but confirmed cases of infections have been increasing among workers in at least one of its meat-processing plants, so we wanted to hear about how the governor is thinking all this through.

Governor Ricketts, thanks so much for talking to us.

PETE RICKETTS: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: The department of - your Department of Health and Human Services tweeted that as of yesterday evening, the state had 53 confirmed COVID-19-related deaths and a total of 2,732 cases. Now, you've said you're planning to try to begin reopening businesses and getting back to a more normal schedule on May 4. What gives you the confidence that that is the right date, and this is the right time?

RICKETTS: Well, what we're looking at is what's happening to health care systems. When we put our plan together at the beginning of March, that's what our public health experts and our folks, our resources at the University of Nebraska Medical School Center told us - is, you know, what you're doing is you're slowing down the spread of the virus so that it doesn't all peak at once, and all these people don't flood your hospital system and need to get that hospital bed, that intensive care unit bed or that ventilator, and you can't provide it.

And so that's what has really been my North Star on this - is OK, if we're keeping our hospital system in place, then we're doing the right things. You know, this is a virus. We can't stop it from coming, right? We have flu season every year. But we can slow it down so that we can make sure we build up that capacity, that we can build up the PPE and all the things to be able to take care of people.

And so when I look at Omaha, and I say, jeez, when we've got, you know, over 40% of our hospital beds are available, over 40% of our ICU beds available and 75% of our ventilators are available in our biggest metropolitan area, then we can start loosening some of the restrictions. We're just going to do this a step at a time to make sure that we watch very closely what happens because if it looks like we're starting to see more people going to use those resources, than we may have to slow it down a little bit.

But if we can take this step and keep (unintelligible) relatively stable, then maybe the latter half of May or in early June, we can take another step.

MARTIN: So we know that meat processing is a big part of Nebraska's economy. It's obviously something that the rest of the country appreciates as well, right?

RICKETTS: Yeah.

MARTIN: But other states have seen meat processing plants become hotspots of infection. It's been reported that in Dakota County, which is home to a Tyson plant, it's - there's been reported 133 new COVID-19 cases as of last week, bringing the total to 246. Do you have a role in ensuring the safety of the workers there and the communities in which they live? What steps is the state taking? Do you feel you have a role here?

RICKETTS: Yeah, absolutely. So we are working very closely with our local public health departments and the companies themselves to be able to establish - for example, I've got weekly calls with all our food processors here in the state of Nebraska to be able to share best practices and talk about what's going on in each of the different counties.

In fact, the University of Nebraska Medical Center has actually created a meat-processing facility COVID-19 playbook to be able to distribute to everybody in this industry so that they can start following these best practices. And now that playbook has actually been distributed to Iowa and Missouri as well.

And last week, they did a survey of all the meat processors to kind of determine what steps they were taking. You know, for example, you know, all of them had implemented social distancing strategies during breaks, instituted screening processes, instituted flexible workplace and sick leave policies. There was areas for improvement.

But we've also sent our experts out to visit the plants and walk in to say, hey, OK. Look at your air handling systems. You can probably do this a little bit better here. Or you need more sanitizing stations here and here, or you need to be cleaning these surfaces more frequently.

MARTIN: Forgive me, Governor - some employees have reported, though, that they don't think that the nature of the work does lend itself to social distancing. Do you think that that might be true? And if so, what do you do then?

RICKETTS: Oh, there's lots of challenges to be able to make - do social distancing, not just at the plant but also in the home life. And so we're tackling that as well by working with our health clinics, our public health departments. I do actually now two days a week Spanish-language press briefings to be able to help get that message out.

So there's multiple facets to this that we have to address. The plants themselves are not, you know, the sole cause of the problem here because they're concentrated, yes, and they're taking such a social distance. But the entire spectrum of everything we've got to address is got to be working there, too, from the language to the home life and everything.

MARTIN: There are governors, including some Republican governors, who - like yourself who've felt that this has just been much more of a Wild West experience than they feel that it should have been. They feel that there should have been much more sort of coordination. It sounds like you're handling this on on your own, and - as most of these governors, frankly, are. But do you think that that's true? Do you think that there should have been more federal coordination of this?

RICKETTS: Well, I've been living through this just like everybody else. And hindsight is always 20/20. There were things two months ago that I knew now, I would do things differently. But that's called experience. Let's go back and remember - as late as January 20, both the WHO and the Chinese Communist Party said there was no human-to-human transmission. So if you think back to January, and the entire world believes there was no human-to-human transmission of this, then what steps do you take, right?

So I think people who want to say, well, there should have been more coordination - well, yeah, in an ideal world, you would have loved to have more coordination. Well, let's remember that nobody was really expecting this to be a big deal. Let's go back to H1N1 a decade ago. The United States government spent billions of dollars on PPE that nobody used. You know, the United States government bought a bunch of PPE, which we actually benefited from now, right? Because that's what they distributed out through the strategic national stockpile.

But that was - everybody thought it was going to be a big deal, and it turned out to be nothing. So I think it's hard to go back and say you'd like to have better coordination when nobody really knew what this is going to be like.

MARTIN: Well, with respect, Governor, though the national security agencies did report another coronavirus epidemic was likely and reported all of these things. And also, there are American scientists working with the WHO who also did report to national authorities that they were deeply concerned - that they said that the story that they were - that was being reported was not accurate. So there were people who reported this, and there were American intelligence officials who have predicted this for a long time. So I just - respectfully, I just feel like I have to say...

RICKETTS: Michel, that's exactly the point, right? Four years ago, they reported that there was a virus coming. Well, OK. So we waited for four years. And, you know, over four years, the vigilance of having that ready to go, what are we going to do turned out to be nothing for four years until it turned out to be something.

MARTIN: You talked about this earlier. I just wanted to get you to tell me again. Like, what's your North Star here? Like, what is guiding you as you make these decisions? Because, you know, there's no shortage of advice and information coming from lots of different quarters here. How would you describe what you're going to be paying attention to as you go forward?

RICKETTS: So the whole point of everything we do with regard to social distancing and the restrictions we put in place is to slow the spread of the virus so that you do not overwhelm your health care system. It's a virus. We can't stop it from coming. It's coming. We can slow it down to make sure that everybody who needs that hospital bed or that ventilator can have access to it when they need it. That's what we're focused on. So as long as we're doing that, we're winning.

MARTIN: All right. That is the governor of Nebraska, Pete Ricketts.

Governor, thank you so much for talking to us. I hope we'll talk again.

RICKETTS: Great. Thanks a lot, Michel. I appreciate having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hey, thanks for reading.
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