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Health
breaking topical top story
Lincoln mask mandate coming back as COVID-19 cases soar past 3,600 this week
  • Updated

With COVID-19 cases soaring and local hospitals strained, city officials announced Friday that they are bringing back Lincoln's mask mandate.

The mandate, which requires face coverings in all indoor public settings, will take effect Saturday and extend through Feb. 11.

Lancaster County had a mask mandate throughout the fall, but officials let it expire Dec. 23, saying at the time that local vaccination rates were high and there were more tools available to both prevent and treat the disease.

But that was before the omicron wave reached Lincoln. The highly contagious variant has led to soaring case counts. Lancaster County had nearly 2,900 cases last week, a pandemic record for a single week, and as of Friday afternoon had recorded 3,600 cases this week, including nearly 1,300 on Friday alone.

Lancaster County's COVID-19 risk dial has been in the red, or severe, range for nearly two weeks, but Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Director Pat Lopez said conditions have "moved beyond severe to extreme risk."

She and Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird both reiterated that people should limit their time in the community to only essential activities such as going to work or school, shopping for food or medicine, or going to the doctor.

Lopez said now is the time for an "urgent community response."

She said the tipping point that led to the decision to reinstate the mask mandate just three weeks after it expired was the local hospital situation.

Even though the omicron variant has been shown to cause milder disease, the sheer number of cases is leading to more hospitalizations. On Tuesday, there were 142 COVID-19 patients in Lincoln hospitals, the highest number since December 2020. Numbers have declined slightly since then but remain at their highest levels in a year.

Lopez said the hospital indicator used in the COVID-19 risk dial has been in the red for more than three weeks, and the rolling average of daily patients has risen from 113 on Christmas Day to 132 this week. As of Wednesday, only 8% of local intensive care beds were available.

Another concerning factor is the number of virus patients from Lancaster County, which is nearing 100. The more local patients there are, the fewer transfers that Lincoln hospitals are able to accept, she said.

Bryan Health on Thursday said it's been instituting many of its crisis care practices for several months now, including repurposing space, limiting elective surgeries and turning down many transfer requests.

Bryan also said it was seeing a number of cases of COVID-19 among staff members, although thanks to the fact that nearly all of them are vaccinated, there haven't been any serious cases.

Officials with the Lincoln-based health care system applauded the reinstatement of the local mask mandate.

"We are doing all we can to provide care for all health conditions in the manner you expect from Bryan Medical Center and Bryan Health, and request your understanding that the level of service and access you typically would get is currently disrupted," pulmonologists Bill Johnson and John Trapp said in a joint statement.

"We invite everyone to be a part of the solution," they added.

CHI Health said it had not yet moved to crisis standards of care at its hospitals, but interim CEO Jeanette Wojtalewicz said its hospitals are "stretched thin," with increasing patient loads at the same time large numbers of staff are out either because they have COVID-19 or are quarantining because of an exposure.

The total number of COVID-19 patients in Nebraska hospitals reached 671 as of Friday morning, which is an increase of more than 100 just in the past week. Gov. Pete Ricketts on Friday issued a directed health measure suspending elective surgeries at Omaha-based Nebraska Medicine after it said Thursday that it was instituting its crisis standards of care policy.

"The hospitals are really full," said Dr. Eric Avery, president of the Lancaster County Medical Society. "The COVID cases are way too high, and it's up to us to do the right thing, right now."

In addition to wearing masks, officials said doing the right thing means getting vaccinated if you haven't yet done so.

Vaccines are "proven, they're safe, they're effective," Avery said.

Lopez also touted the importance of booster shots. While she said she didn't have data on how many recent COVID-19 cases are in fully vaccinated people, she did say only 10% of the cases are occurring in those who have had a booster shot.

Officials also said another instance of doing the right thing would be avoiding large gatherings.

Gaylor Baird encouraged community groups to postpone meetings or hold them virtually, and she also said people planning to host events such as weddings or banquets should consider postponing them because people gathering in close proximity without masks is the way the virus spreads most easily.

"It's time to get real, and for at least the next four weeks, I'm asking you to make some tough decisions," she said.

The reinstatement of the countywide mask mandate comes just days after Douglas County's health director instituted one for the city of Omaha. Douglas County's health department does not have the same powers as the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department under state law, and on Thursday Attorney General Doug Peterson filed a lawsuit seeking to block the Omaha mandate.

Lopez said she has not talked to anyone from the state about Lancaster County's decision to reinstate its mandate, but she reiterated the importance of the health department being able to make the decision on its own.

"That ability to respond from a local level to our local needs is really critical, because we best know what our local situation is."

The mask mandate being in effect for four weeks may be an indication of hope that the current omicron surge will subside by then. In other countries and in other areas of the U.S., cases have surged for four to five weeks, then started to subside.

Lopez said Lincoln is now about two weeks into its omicron wave, but while omicron is the predominant variant, she cautioned that the county is still dealing with cases caused by the delta variant.

Dr. James Lawler, co-executive director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, said Friday in his weekly coronavirus video update that he expects the omicron wave to peak in Douglas County and much of eastern Nebraska in the next week to 10 days, with the rest of the state potentially another week behind that. He predicted that the peak in hospitalizations will occur about five to seven days after the peak in case numbers.


Education
breaking topical featured
LPS calls off school for next three Fridays amid staffing crisis
  • Updated

Lincoln Public Schools students will have Fridays off for the next three weeks amid a growing staffing crisis as COVID-19 cases soar to unprecedented levels. 

LPS classrooms will be closed Jan. 21, Jan. 28 and Feb. 4, district officials announced Friday.

Teachers will use those Fridays to make up for planning time lost while covering for absent colleagues and to help quarantined students who've missed instruction stay up with classmates. Staff may work remotely if their job allows it.

High school activities, including sporting events, will continue as scheduled on those Fridays, but before- and after-school activities at elementary and middle schools will be canceled and Community Learning Centers will be closed.

Classes at the district's Career Academy will be in session on those Fridays because of dual-credit instructional hour requirements and scheduling limitations.

LINCOLN PUBLIC SCHOOLS 

Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Steve Joel

"We're experiencing a staffing crisis, and we're concerned as we speak about having sufficient staff in our buildings each week to keep our schools open safely for student in-person learning," Superintendent Steve Joel said in a virtual news conference. "This is not something that we desire to do nor are we looking forward to doing, but we don't know what the future impact of the COVID virus surge is going to be."

The drastic move comes as COVID-19 cases driven by the highly transmissible omicron variant have surged in the district since students returned from winter break Jan. 5.

As of Friday morning, a record 823 students had tested positive for the coronavirus this week and 2,604 — well more than 6% of the student body — were in quarantine. Before this week, the previous high for students in quarantine was 1,926 the week of Dec. 6, 2020.

Last week, 438 students tested positive for the virus. Before that, the largest one-week total was 235 the week after Thanksgiving; and last school year, the highest that number ever reached in one week was 143.

While those numbers are sobering, officials' biggest concern is the schools' ability to staff classrooms, kitchens and buses, with a record number of staff members unavailable in the first two weeks of the second semester because of testing positive or having close contact with someone with COVID-19.

Add in a lack of available substitutes to cover those absences, and it equals an unprecedented staffing crisis.

"We're experiencing challenges at every position: teachers, paraeducators, nurses, counselors, social workers, psychologists, transportation personnel, nutrition services, custodial, office support staff, administrators, campus security," Joel said. "This is impacting Lincoln Public Schools in a way we've never been impacted before."

More than 100 staff members have tested positive this week, with more than 350 in quarantine, as of early Friday. Last week, the number of staff in quarantine was 281.

Officials said there are simply not enough substitutes to fill the void, meaning available teachers have been forced to abandon time they would typically use to plan lessons so they can cover classes — a problem that has essentially plagued LPS since students returned to in-person learning in the fall of 2020.

This week, the number of certificated staff vacancies that have gone unfilled has hovered between 30%-40%.

Despite pay incentives, LPS struggles especially hard to find subs willing to work on Mondays and Fridays. At times, district office administrators have had to step in to cover classes.

Staff have also expressed concern about a lack of available COVID-19 testing, and Joel said the district is working with the Health Department to provide schools with tests that can be administered on site. 

Last week, 284 staff members were in exclusion, and 147 tested positive, a single-week record. The record for most staff in quarantine in a single week was 456 back in November 2020.

"We have the confidence that if our teachers know that if we can get through Thursday, and that Friday is going to be a catch-up day, we're really hoping that helps them in terms of being able to catch a breath, hit reset, get caught up, get those planning periods back that they've lost during the week for covering, and then work with the students that have not been able to be in school in person," Joel said.

The crisis has become so severe, LPS is bracing for the possibility that individual classrooms, grade levels and even schools will have to close in the coming weeks because there simply won't be enough staff to operate them.

If classrooms and schools close, students would check into Zoom classes from home, a policy that's been in place since last school year.

Two special-education programs were closed this week because of staffing issues.

Principals will work with staff and administrators to determine when staffing levels hit a point where they can't safely operate a building, although there is not an exact metric LPS uses to determine that.

Joel, who returned to work Thursday after testing positive for COVID-19 last week, said shutting down the district entirely is not on the table. The majority of virus spread is occurring outside the classroom, he said, as evidenced by the post-holiday surge and said mask protocols in LPS schools are working.

"The best place for kids to be is school," he said.

LPS continued requiring masks this month after a countywide mask mandate expired in December. The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department reinstituted that mandate Friday.

Nebraska Department of Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt sent a memo to superintendents earlier this week stating there is flexibility in the number of required instructional hours schools must meet.

Blomstedt said Friday that LPS' schedule change falls in line with the intended use of that flexibility. 

Even with the three Fridays off, LPS elementary and middle school students will still meet that requirement, said Matt Larson, associate superintendent of instruction. But high school students will be just shy of their 1,080-hour mark.

In that case, LPS would request a waiver from state officials at the end of the school year, Larson said. 

Lincoln Pius X High School announced Thursday it would shift to a half-day schedule, with four class periods a day, through at least Jan. 21 to stay ahead of an expected peak in cases and to prevent students from falling even farther behind.

School officials have expressed hope that the surge will leave as quickly as it arrived and peak sometime this month. And while omicron is more transmissible, there are indications it is less severe than previous strains.

Updated

So long, Zoom. Hello again, masks. Schools are still adjusting to a new normal, but the resilience of teachers and students hasn't changed. K-…


Crime-and-courts
editor's pick
Report: 21 policy options to reform Nebraska's criminal justice system
  • Updated

A group of Nebraska public officials from across the criminal justice system Friday released the results of a months-long probe into the state's overcrowded prison system.

The final report includes policy changes for state lawmakers to consider this legislative session. The effort, which was facilitated by the nonprofit Crime and Justice Institute and funded by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Pew Charitable Trusts, produced 21 policy options.

Group members agreed that the vast majority of the options were worth further consideration, but the final report also reveals specific changes that prompted disagreement.

“The options are responsive to the data findings, provide an avenue for Nebraska to avoid additional spending over the next decade, and establish the ability to invest a portion of what would have been spent on new prison beds on measures to strengthen public safety and address behavioral health issues across the state,” the report reads.

The Legislature is already teed up to debate the ideas.

Many senators attended a recent briefing where Len Engel, Crime and Justice Institute director of policy and campaigns, presented data findings, and lawmakers asked questions.

And Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who chairs the Judiciary Committee and co-chairs the working group that issued the report, introduced a bill this week he said included the items in the report — whether they had full agreement or not.

"I regard it as a starting point for the discussion on criminal justice reform," he said.

Some tension had already come to the fore ahead of the report’s release, specifically about potential sentencing changes.

Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln, one of three legislators in the group, made her objections known publicly at the briefing earlier this month. The report was expected to be released beforehand, but Geist said she had asked for edits that hadn’t been adopted, holding up its publication.

After the presentation, Geist stood up and told senators in attendance that there was a “philosophical difference,” and she felt she hadn’t been heard. Among her concerns, she challenged the idea that “non-person, non-sex” crimes are “nonviolent.”

“I feel like we’re being asked to classify non-person, non-sex offense or crimes as nonviolent,” Geist said. “Therefore, we change the sentence structure for that person and have a less long sentence for them. And there’s a portion of us on the group that are not OK with that.”

She mentioned possession and distribution of drugs as an example of a “non-person, non-sex” crime that she took issue with.

PDF: Read the working group's report

According to the report, one policy option that didn't get support from all group members is making possession of a certain amount of drugs, other than marijuana, a misdemeanor offense. The goal would be to separate people with a substance-use disorder who are using a personal amount of drugs from people with larger amounts who may be dealing.

Drug possession was the leading offense at admission to Nebraska’s prisons in 2020, according to the report.

Some group members were concerned that the change would undermine problem-solving courts and other diversion efforts, according to the report.

Another area of disagreement: providing judges guidance that consecutive sentences should be reserved for serious and harmful offenses.

The data analyses showed that the use of consecutive sentences has increased significantly and that they haven’t been used consistently. And, it found that consecutive sentences were most often the result of discretionary decisions by courts rather than law.

A recommendation to create a geriatric parole mechanism, where individuals are released at a certain age, was also among non-consensus policy options, and so was a recommendation to discourage mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent felonies. According to the report, the use of mandatory minimum sentences has more than doubled over the last decade, and time served for mandatory minimum sentences has risen by 42%.

Among the 17 recommendations that did garner consensus (they're accompanied by specific potential policy changes in the report):

* Establishing a streamlined parole process for nonviolent individuals;

* Establishing supportive housing programs for people on supervision;

* Narrowing broad sentencing ranges for burglary and low-level theft;

* Expanding problem-solving courts;

* Improving reentry practices;

* Prioritizing restitution for victims of crime;

* Increasing incentives for students pursuing behavioral health work to go to areas that are short on services; and

* Standardizing the structure of diversion programs across the state and making sure counties have resources to administer them.


National
AP
COVID testing website launching; CDC encourages N95 masks
  • Updated

WASHINGTON — The federal website where Americans can request free COVID-19 tests will begin accepting orders Wednesday as the White House looks to address nationwide shortages, but supplies will be limited to just four free tests per home.

Starting Wednesday, the website COVIDTests.gov will provide tests at no cost, including no shipping fee, the White House announced Friday.

As he faced criticism for low inventory and long lines for testing, President Joe Biden announced last month that the U.S. would purchase 500 million at-home tests to launch the program and Thursday the president announced that he was doubling the order to 1 billion tests.

But Americans shouldn't expect a rapid turnaround on the orders and they will have to plan ahead and request the tests well before they meet federal guidelines for when to use a test.

The White House said "tests will typically ship within 7-12 days of ordering" through the U.S. Postal Service, which reports shipping times of 1-3 days for its first-class package service in the continental United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at-home testing when experiencing COVID-19 systems including fever, cough, sore throat, respiratory symptoms and muscle aches, five days after a potential COVID-19 exposure, or as part of test-to-stay protocols in schools and workplaces.

"Certainly if you're going to gather with family, if you're going to a gathering where people are immunocompromised or where they're elderly or where you have people who might be unvaccinated or poorly protected from a vaccine that might be an opportunity you want to test," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday.

Officials emphasized that the federal website is just one way for people to procure COVID-19 tests. Starting Saturday, private insurance companies will be required to cover the cost of at-home rapid tests, allowing Americans to be reimbursed for tests they purchase at pharmacies and online retailers. That covers up to eight tests per month.

The White House said the four-test limit on website orders will be applied to each residential address and will apply to the first tranche of 500 million tests. It estimates that the cost of purchasing and distributing the first block of tests at $4 billion.

Meanwhile, U.S. health officials Friday encouraged more Americans to wear the kind of N95 or KN95 masks used by health care workers to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Those kinds of masks are considered better at filtering the air. But they were in short supply previously, and CDC officials had said they should be prioritized for health care workers.

In updated guidance posted late Friday afternoon, CDC officials removed concerns related to supply shortages and more clearly said that properly fitted N95 and KN95 masks offer the most protection.

However, agency officials noted some masks are harder to tolerate than others, and urged people to choose good-fitting masks that they will wear consistently.

"Our main message continues to be that any mask is better than no mask," CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said in a statement.

The CDC has evolved its mask guidance throughout the pandemic.

In its last update, in September, CDC officials became more encouraging of disposable N95 masks, saying they could be used in certain situations if supplies were available. Examples included being near a lot of people for extended periods of time on a train, bus or airplane; taking care of someone in poor health; or being more susceptible to severe illness.

On Thursday, Biden announced that his administration was planning to make "high-quality masks," including N95s, available for free. He said more details were coming next week. The federal government has a stockpile of more than 750 million N95 masks, the White House said.

The latest CDC guidance notes that there is a special category of "surgical N95" masks that are specially designed for protection against blood splashes and other operating room hazards. Those are not generally available for sale to the public and should continue to be reserved for health care workers, the agency said.


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