No masks, no matter in Nebraska’s last COVID-free county: ‘Most people around here don’t really care’

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Hayes Center

Hayes Center, the county seat of Hayes County.

By mid-September, the coronavirus had covered much of the state, officially infecting Nebraskans in all but two of its 93 counties.

But then Blaine County had its first case last week, leaving Hayes County as the lone blank spot on the state’s color-coded COVID-19 case map.

“The 500 people in Blaine County are broken-hearted, because they had a pretty good record going,” said Charles Cone, director of the Loup Basin Public Health Department.

And in Hayes County, they asked: COVID who?

“It’s not even part of our conversation,” said Tony Primavera, superintendent of Hayes Center Public Schools. “We’re living fairly normally out here.”

“Most people around here don’t really care,” said Kylene Littrel, owner of Scott’s, the only grocery store in Hayes Center. “There’s a few, but not very many.”

The county braced for an outbreak in March, and took precautions. On its Facebook page, Scott’s said if parents weren’t comfortable bringing children in the store, they’d send someone out to wait with them. Or they’d deliver orders to their cars, or their homes.

“Please know we love you and your children and only want to keep everyone safe and happy!” the grocery wrote.

The county closed its courthouse and stocked up on masks. The school shut its doors and sent students home to finish the year learning remotely.

“We kept waiting for the first wave to come,” Primavera said. “And we’re still waiting.”

Coronavirus spread in Nebraska

The wave had started strong. Between March 6 and May 1, nearly two-thirds of Nebraska’s 93 counties recorded at least one documented case of COVID-19. With a few exceptions, the coronavirus had reached the eastern third of Nebraska, the Interstate 80 corridor and much of the Panhandle.

The pace slowed over the summer, and days and weeks would pass without a new county making the list. Still, counties kept falling, and when September started, just three — Grant, Blaine and Hayes, rural and remote counties with a combined population of about 2,000 — remained officially virus-free.

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The virus had acted as expected: Relatively unexpectedly.

“I’d call it random and unpredictable in terms of geographical spread,” said Tom Safranek, the state’s infectious disease doctor.

The virus had to come from somewhere, so the earliest cases were likely the result of Nebraskans traveling out of state, picking it up and bringing it home, or out-of-staters visiting Nebraska. And if home was more densely populated — like much of eastern Nebraska — then there was more of a chance of it spreading.

“If you had a traveler from a town like maybe McCook, they may not be mingling with so many people where there’s a greater chance of spread.”

Safranek believes Nebraska was likely infected before the first documented case in early March. Health experts didn’t know all of COVID’s symptoms at the time, and testing was limited.

“The combination of not knowing that spectrum of symptoms and not having widespread availability of testing, we probably overlooked a lot of COVID in the early days.”

But once it took root here, it found ways to spread. Even to rural counties with more square miles than people.

“All you need is to have a party out there and a gathering and one person with it, and you can have an outbreak. It could happen anywhere.”

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Like Hayes County, now considered by the CDC one of six U.S. counties without a COVID case. But the region’s health director believes the coronavirus could have already hit there, its presence going officially undetected and undocumented.

“There’s no medical facilities,” said Myra Stoney, director of the Southwest Nebraska Public Health Department. “And there’s no testing happening in Hayes County.”

Of its 900 or so residents, just 44 have been tested, she said — either at doctor’s offices down the road in McCook or Imperial or Grant, or at a Test Nebraska site in another county.

And if people aren’t tested, they don’t know if they have the virus, she said.

Hayes County Commissioner Jeffrey Unger agreed that a small test sample can lead to low — or no — positive results. But he hasn’t heard of anybody getting sick, he said.

And there’s another reason his county has evaded the infection. His constituents are staying close to home.

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“It’s pretty sparsely populated, and a lot of people work within the county and not a lot of people are traveling outside the county.”

Social distancing was also easy in Blaine County, with 500 people and more than 700 square miles, said Cone, the Loup Basin health director.

“By the nature of their population, they’re pretty well isolated to begin with.”

But there’s a double edge to that. Residents of rural counties often have to travel to bigger communities with higher case counts to buy essentials. That could be how the Blaine County resident was infected, Cone said.

His department continues to urge diligence — distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing — but he understands why some residents in his nine-county district might not listen, especially those in the most isolated areas.

“After a while in Blaine County, if they haven’t had it and haven’t had it, I can’t blame them for not wearing masks, because they haven’t had it.”

Stoney’s nine-county department in southwest Nebraska is up to more than 225 cases; Keith County tops the list with more than a quarter of them, likely because it’s on the interstate. She and her staff also continue to urge social distancing and mask-wearing to slow the spread.

But their message isn’t reaching much of Hayes County.

Almost none of the regulars at Scott’s Grocery wear masks, its owner said.

“Honestly, we kind of joke about some of the people who come in from out of town and are kind of freaked out about it,” Littrel said.

The school encourages, but doesn’t require, its staff and 130 students to wear masks.

“It’s optional,” Primavera said. “But, frankly, nobody’s wearing them, to be honest with you.”

Hayes County Fair

The school superintendent anticipated COVID-19 cases after the Hayes County Fair in late July, but the county is still officially virus-free.

He thought his county might see some cases after its late-July fair, but that came and went without an outbreak.

So the school started its new year as scheduled and is operating as if it weren’t surrounded by a pandemic. But the superintendent knows that could change.

“It’s nothing I’ve done or the town’s done. We’ve just been lucky so far.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter

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