Nebraska Leaders’ Hands Are Tied to Fight Pandemic at State Level

This is the third installment in a three-part series about the COVID-19 pandemic in Nebraska. Read the first two installments about the effects of the pandemic on the state as well as the toll it’s taking on health care workers.

By Chris Bowling

Tony Vargas doesn’t do well feeling defeated. The state senator representing District 1 in South Omaha can deftly flip any situation on its head to see opportunity and solutions.

But if anything could challenge that optimism, it’s COVID-19.

In April, he was in New York City, watching his father, Antonio Vargas, die after catching the virus. Weeks later Vargas was back in Nebraska watching his bill to protect meatpacking workers, hard-hit by the virus, flounder. Senators refused to wear masks, and recently Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte announced he “got his wish” by catching the virus, a step toward herd immunity.

A video was shared online showing Ricketts, who’s talked up masks in press conferences, not wearing a mask in a crowded Omaha bar. The server who shot the video was fired. On Twitter, Taylor Gage, the governor’s spokesman, insinuated doctors calling for stronger health health measures did so because of their political views.

Just like most places in America, COVID-19 has become a political issue that Vargas, and many other politicians, can do little about.

“It frustrates me that our hands are tied to do that,” he said. “But I also recognize that the governor is able to do something about it, and he’s choosing not to utilize this tool that could potentially save more lives.”

Since Ricketts declared a state of emergency, Vargas said he and other senators have tried to lobby the governor for stronger health measures, but to little effect.

The strategy now is grassroots advocacy: retweeting doctors sharing harrowing stories inside COVID ICUs, trying to build coalitions with business owners and changing public health from the bottom up.

“We’ve seen Iowa move in new ways and that happens because of elected officials or everybody working in concert to say that we need to do more,” he said. “We saw that in North Dakota, we’ve seen that in Utah, and it really gives me hope, it really does.”

And now city’s around the state are chiming in. Norfolk, Gretna and Ralston have all instituted mask mandates while Lancaster County has rolled back on public health measures without the Governor’s permission.

For others like Senator Megan Hunt it’s so little so late. It doesn’t mean they stop trying, but the fact that working class people and the most vulnerable have had to find solutions for these problems is unacceptable.

“[Those in power] know that they can leave the workers and the poor and the vulnerable among themselves to support each other with their little food banks and their clothing drives and their GoFundMe,” she said. “A nation and a state that depends on GoFundMe to keep people housed, to keep people healthy, to keep children fed, is a broken state.”

Hunt wants people to take note of how elections contribute to these situations. Because of the legislature’s political makeup, something she attributes to the $1.8 million Ricketts has personally spent in the state, it’d be impossible to gather the 33 of 49 senators to call a special session to put decision-making tools back in their hands, Hunt said.

Vargas hopes people see that, too, but he also wants them to see mounting public pressure change the governor’s mind. Either way, it’s just not an option to quit, he said, especially when things are so dire.

Vargas thinks back to April. His dad was unconscious for 29 days. He had a collapsed lung and two incisions along his abdomen. He was 100% reliant on a ventilator. His mom, older brother and nephew were bedridden with the illness. And then his dad died. If he shut down then, no one would have blamed him.

But he thought about his parents. They were immigrants to this country who had nothing, didn’t know the language and had no job. They fought against so many odds to make a life for him and his brothers. He owed it to them to keep going.

“I haven’t reached my breaking point yet, and I really hope I don’t,” Vargas said. “But if my parents, my mother, can get through this then I have to do everything I can to maintain a level head and keep fighting. That’s what I signed up for.”

An Uphill Battle Ahead

Time isn’t stopping for COVID-19.

Every day the sun sets and Amanda Pappas gets a skinny vanilla latte from Scooters before her night shift. It’s her one pick-me-up before she goes into the COVID ICU where so many don’t leave.

As the sun rises, Dr. Jordan Warchol walks into an already busy emergency room where people stand waiting for beds.

Days pass and Dr. Kelly Cawcutt watches while no new directed health measures come. As weeks turn to months, Lisa Walters wonders how much more health care workers can take.

Because the worst case scenario keeps getting surpassed and the nightmares seem just around the corner. Still, doctors need to adapt. If there is a breaking point, Dr. Ross Davidson said, he’ll lose something inside of him, but he’d never stop showing up to work.

“I think that we have an uphill battle ahead,” he said. “I think that if we want that uphill battle to be less steep, we’d have to change things now, like literally tomorrow. I don’t think it’s going to happen. So what I’m personally preparing for is a pretty long winter with a lot of work and a lot of seeing a lot of people be very sick and die.”