Douglas County Health Officials Provide Reassuring Update on Unusual Public Health Activity

OMAHA — Nebraska’s largest county faces a spate of public health emergencies, but Wednesday’s Douglas County Board of Health meeting received an encouraging update on the situation.

One of the cases involved a rabies variant of raccoon never before seen in Nebraska.

The other case concerns an ongoing case of tuberculosis at a temporary child care center, where approximately 550 people, mostly children, may have been infected.

(Getty Images)

Both provoked extraordinary mobilization.

County Health Director Lindsey Hughes told the commission that all signs indicate the rabies variant detected in the stray kitten of unknown background is not spreading locally.

Hundreds of animal and road accident specimens have been tested so far, but none have tested positive, she said.

“This is great news and I hope it stays that way,” Hughes said.

Just as the response was winding down, she spoke: “We had another major public health emergency… There was no big break there.”

The latest tuberculosis investigation, announced Nov. 9, was initiated in response to an active case linked to the Omaha-Westview YMCA Child Watch in Northwest. This center provides short-term childcare for children while their parents or guardians exercise.

Hughes said the county typically investigates 15 to 20 tuberculosis cases a year. Tuberculosis can be fatal if untreated.

“What makes this particular instance unique is its scope,” she said.

Follow-up investigation identified more than 550 potential exposures. Testing began immediately, as did preventive treatment for children under 5 years of age.

Follow-up testing may be required depending on the time of potential exposure. No related active cases have surfaced so far, Hughes said.

“I’m really relieved that we probably won’t have an outbreak-like situation,” Hughes said.

He added: “It’s going to take some time, a few weeks, before we can confidently say, ‘We’re going to be OK.'”



Last weekend, 272 children contacted by the county were tested at Children’s Nebraska, said Justin Frederick, deputy director of the county health department.

Preschool children are at increased risk of rapidly progressing to active tuberculosis after infection. Infants who may have recently been infected and require follow-up testing were also offered treatment to prevent infection and progression.

Further testing will take place this week at a clinic at the YMCA site, with about 150 people signing up.

Frederick said in an interview that those at risk choose to see their family doctor. EThe exposures may have occurred at Childwatch near 156th and Ida Streets from late May to October.

“Right now, we’re very happy with the response,” Frederick said.

He said it was important to say there was no “real concern” about exposure to the general public.

Mycobacterium tuberculosis can spread through the air when an infected person coughs, talks, or sings.Testing was only recommended for people who Have had one or more close contacts with a contagious patient.

Health officials declined to identify the original patient. They said they were assisting the person in isolation and that the person was following his medication regimen until he tested negative.

Hughes declared a public emergency on Monday, opening the door to additional resources.


The county and its partners began a multi-pronged response in October that included testing, vaccinating and baiting the raccoons so they could be released.

Trapped raccoon. A kitten found in Douglas County was vaccinated and released as part of an operation after it was found to have a raccoon rabies variant never before seen in Nebraska. (Courtesy of Douglas County Health Department)

“We were able to vaccinate 753 raccoons, 41 skunks, four cats and one fox,” Hughes told the Board of Health. “So it was a pretty successful effort.”

Other steps include testing for road accidents and dead animals, which will likely continue into February, Hughes said. Approximately 18,000 oral rabies vaccines were also distributed in the county.

Concern was raised because raccoons are very common in Nebraska and often come into contact with people’s pets. Hughes said the raccoon rabies strain involved had not previously been detected west of the Appalachians.

Six people who handled the baby cat and four people at the veterinarian’s office received appropriate treatment.

Frederick said health and animal officials have been unable to find out the animal’s “backstory,” and the “hypothesis” is that either the kittens or the mother were somehow brought here from the East Coast. added.

“We are cautiously optimistic that this variant is not established here in Douglas County,” Hughes said of the variant.

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