LINCOLN, Neb. (CN) — As Covid-19 surges in Nebraska, the state’s Republican governor — who has resisted mask mandates and safety restrictions — has been forced into quarantine after he and his wife were exposed to the virus at a Sunday dinner party.
Governor Pete Ricketts went into quarantine Tuesday morning as a press release revealed that he and first lady Susanne Shore were exposed while dining al fresco, but in close contact to an infected person.
“On Sunday night, Governor Ricketts and the first lady joined three people for dinner outside,” said Taylor Gage, a spokesperson for the governor, in the statement. “One of the people they joined tested positive for coronavirus on Monday. Neither the governor or first lady are showing any symptoms, and they will get tested at the appropriate time.”
Both will quarantine for 14 days at home in Omaha.
The news broke at an embarrassing time for Ricketts, who has been a staunch opponent of stay-at-home orders and mask mandates. His state has seen a dangerous rise in Covid-19 infections and hospitalizations in recent weeks, ranking in the top 10 among states for Covid-19 cases per capita, a dubious distinction.
The contiguous block of largely rural Plains states is suffering from the worst outbreaks in the country. According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, these include North Dakota (155 new cases per 100,000 residents); South Dakota (130); Iowa (101); Wisconsin (99); Nebraska (91); and Wyoming (88).
According to numbers provided by the state, Nebraska’s positivity rate has risen from 7.3% on Oct. 3 to 17.3% on Nov. 7. Its largest county, home to Omaha, posted a worrisome positivity rate of 31.3% at the end of last week.
The state has consistently announced over 1,000 new infections per day this autumn, with a high of 2,681 new infections on Nov. 6 being the latest in a string of exponentially rising record numbers. The previous high before the autumn surge was 677 new cases on May 7. To date, 710 people have died of Covid-19 in Nebraska.
While the initial wave this spring mainly hit cities like Omaha and Lincoln and centered around the meatpacking industry, this latest wave includes outbreaks in rural counties where people believed they were largely safe from exposure. All but two of Nebraska’s 93 counties is currently dealing with Covid-19 infections.
With 794 Nebraskans hospitalized with Covid-19 symptoms, the state currently has 31% of ICU and total hospital beds available. While the availability numbers look OK, medical experts in the state worry that the rapidly rising number of infections could quickly overwhelm health care systems, particularly with Thanksgiving and traditional holiday season gatherings only weeks away.
“Gov. Ricketts, like Trump, has failed in his duty to — first and foremost — protect Nebraskans from this pandemic,” Nebraska Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb told Courthouse News. “Nebraska Covid-19 cases are soaring and our hospitals are dangerously close to reaching capacity. This is failed leadership.”
Dr. John J. Lowe, an assistant vice chancellor for health security training at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, issued a similar warning on Twitter, stating that “deaths are set to overwhelm our health care system” if these trends continue.
Just yesterday, Ricketts announced new directed health measures that limit the capacity at indoor gatherings to 25% of capacity, and require masks at salons, barbershops, tattoo parlors and similar establishments where maintaining six feet of separation is difficult. However, at that same press conference, the bare-faced governor refused to observe social distancing standards while presenting a certificate to honor adoption advocates.
That Ricketts chose to not wear a mask during the press conference Monday, when he had unwittingly been exposed to the virus, has not escaped the notice of his critics.
State Senator Megan Hunt, a Democrat from Omaha and frequent foil to Ricketts, posted this message on Twitter: “Sending the Gov, his family, and all who have been around him my best wishes for their health and safety.”