As COVID-19 cases reach record levels, it’s time to reconsider state’s approach to food aid

Farm and Food

Here in Nebraska, we are moving into our third straight week of record-level COVID-19 cases.

On average, 800 new cases are being reported a day, which is more than double the average just last month, and Nebraska has shot up to number five in the country for most cases of COVID-19 per capita. These numbers, to be clear, are higher than those recorded during May’s “peak” period.

Douglas County, in particular, is seeing spikes, leading the Douglas County Health Department to push its risk dial to red for the first time. But, such increases are also being seen across the state. Hospitalizations are up 47 percent since May, and there is a growing concern that medical facilities in the state will run out of emergency room beds, as happened in New York City in the spring. As a response, Gov. Pete Ricketts announced last week renewed restrictions on public gatherings and mandated that hospitals reserve 10 percent of their ICU beds for surge capacity.

As we head into the winter months, with people gathering increasingly in indoor settings and with family and friends traveling for Thanksgiving and Christmas, experts anticipate a continued surge of the pandemic, perhaps harsher than the worst numbers seen in the spring in the summer.

Gov. Ricketts has taken a reasonable step in renewing restrictions on public gatherings and charging hospitals with protecting their bed capacity; that is the sort of thing we would expect as the situation continues to change. Changing circumstances call for changing responses, and this will be true as long as this pandemic is among us.

Just as it is reasonable to enforce new precautions, it is also reasonable to recognize the broader impacts this new surge is having on the community, and to respond to those as well.

Earlier in the fall, the governor optimistically cut off emergency food assistance granted by Congress, believing that the state was going back to normal. He was the only governor, and Nebraska the only state, to do so. But, the state was never back to normal, and an unusually high number of people continued to need food assistance, just as they do now. What this new surge shows us is that the pandemic is not going away and could get worse before it gets better.

Just as we accepted that important food aid in the spring, so should we again as we head into the winter. With more cases and hospitalizations than ever and with the challenges that wintertime presents to those in poverty or experiencing food insecurity, it simply makes sense to accept those benefits.

It is reasonable and rational to change our public policy based on the changing situation. Gov. Ricketts has recognized this with his public health mandates. It would be sensible for him to recognize it in his response to the growing number of Nebraskans who need help putting food on the table.