Douglas County Discusses Plans for Vaccinating Courts


A health care volunteer primes a syringe with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Jan. 22, 2021. (Kenneth Ferriera/Lincoln Journal Star via AP)
By 
David Golbitz
The Daily Record

Criminal trials and court hearings ground to a halt last year after the onset of the pandemic.

While some hearings and other court proceedings have continued with the aid of video conferencing, courts found that holding trials and jury panels to be infeasible.

Douglas County attempted to hold a jury trial in July 2020, and despite everyone in the courtroom wearing masks and the jurors seated in the gallery to maintain social distancing, the case ended with a mistrial when one of the defendants’ relatives told the court she had tested positive for COVID-19 after sitting in court on the first day of the trial.

Since then, the courts have relied on Zoom and other teleconferencing technology to hold most of the proceedings, but cases that involve jury trials have been unable to go forward, leading to a backlog of hundreds of cases and a crowded county jail.

“We’ve always continued to move forward, and we’re closing out cases,” Douglas County District Court Presiding Judge Horacio Wheelock told The Daily Record. “The only thing that we’ve had an issue with is the jury trials because, we don’t want to create, even though we have the 6 feet social distancing, we have the mask wearing, we don’t want to create a situation where we bring somebody in who’s COVID-19 positive into a setting with a whole bunch of people that are negative.”

Wheelock said the plan going forward is to begin jury trials in March.

“The idea is that the numbers are down to a point where we can safely move forward,” with the continued use of social distancing and mask wearing, Wheelock said.

The Douglas County Health Department has participated in “a few discussions” with the Omaha legal community about COVID-19 vaccinations, a spokesman told The Daily Record last week. But a formal plan isn’t established.

“I have talked to district judges, county judges and also Don Kleine, so we have a process in place where we are trying to address the judicial system at this time,” Douglas County Health Director Dr. Adi Pour told the Douglas County Board of Commissioners at a meeting last week.

Legal professionals are not among the priority groups currently targeted, which includes everyone over the age 65. State officials have directed prioritization, but local health departments are charged with coordinating vaccine distribution.

Once the state is finished with the current step – Phase 1B – of its vaccination plan, it will move on to vaccinating Nebraskans age 50 and older. The Governor’s Office has said that age will remain the way the state chooses to prioritize vaccine doses.

The judicial system is just one of the groups that is starting to question their place in line for the coronavirus vaccine, joining teachers and other essential workers in questioning the priorities.

In a letter sent last week, four Omaha-area school and city officials called on Pour to “prioritize vaccinations for educators” and other school staff.

“Local schools are responsible for implementing health and safety protocols to protect the staff and students while prioritizing in-person teaching,” they wrote. “One of these layers of safety must include prioritizing vaccines for our educators and staff.”

The letter was signed by Millard School Board member Mike Kennedy, Omaha School Board member Spencer Head and Omaha City Councilmembers Aimee Melton and Brinker Harding.

Last Wednesday, Pour announced during a Douglas County Health Board meeting that teachers will begin to get vaccinations as soon as this week.

“Every week, we have been discussing it, we have looked at these plans,” Pour said. “I want to make sure the educators in Douglas County recognize how important educators are to us.”

Interest in the coronavirus vaccine remains high as officials juggle the challenges of tracking, receiving and deploying the high-tech medication.

Douglas County is expected to receive nearly 11,000 vaccine doses this week, with 90% going to people 65 or older. But the county is allowed to set aside 10% of doses to be given at the county’s discretion, which leaves around 3,000 doses being available for teachers and other priority groups.

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