Lancaster County saw a significant drop in COVID-19 cases last week, and local officials are hoping it's the start of a trend.
The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department recorded 770 cases for the week ending Saturday, a 25% drop from the previous week and the lowest number of weekly cases since mid-August.
Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Director Pat Lopez said officials are seeing "a sign of improvement" with local COVID-19 numbers, which she called "very encouraging."
But Lopez said it's still too early to tell if the decrease will continue.
Dr. Bob Rauner, president of the Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln and chief medical officer of OneHealth Nebraska, said he believes the local mask mandate has played a role in bringing cases down, and he believes the decline will continue.
"I think we are seeing a true drop in cases due to the mask ordinance and K-12 masking in most schools," Rauner said.
The Health Department reinstituted the mask mandate Aug. 26 after a sharp rise in cases that began in late June. It requires anyone 2 and older to wear a mask in most indoor spaces when they can't maintain at least 6 feet of distance.
Lincoln Public Schools and most other schools in the county had been requiring masks for students and staff only in grades K-6 before the mask mandate but expanded the requirement to all grades Aug. 26.
The mask mandate is scheduled to expire Sept. 30, and Lopez said it's too early to tell whether that will happen or it will be extended. She said there needs to be a sustained drop in COVID-19 case numbers, as well as the test positivity rate, for officials to consider letting the mandate expire.
"That's why the next week or so is going to be critical for us," she said.
Rauner said another reason he believes masks are working is that COVID-19 hospitalizations for Lancaster County residents are leveling off, while the number of out-of-town residents in local hospitals continues to go up.
On Tuesday, there were 119 COVID-19 patients in Lincoln hospitals, the highest number in nine months. However, only 72 of them were Lancaster County residents, the same as on Friday. The number of patients from other counties stood at 47 on Tuesday, up from 32 on Friday.
Even though hospitals have postponed a number of elective surgeries per an order from Gov. Pete Ricketts, they are still extremely full. Bryan Health reported that as of midnight Sunday, it had 51 intensive care patients for its 50 ICU beds.
On Friday, Bryan transferred two non-COVID-19 patients from Lincoln to Crete Area Medical Center, which it also owns, to free up beds, said spokesman Edgar Bumanis.
Lopez said local hospital capacity continues to be a "serious concern."
The decline in cases is not specific to Lancaster County. Douglas County saw 26% fewer cases last week, while cases declined 62% in the Sarpy/Cass County Health District.
Cases statewide did not see a similar drop, however. According to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nebraska had 5,313 cases in the seven-day period ending Friday, down less than 0.5% from the previous week's total of 5,329.
That ended a span of 11 straight weeks of rising cases in the state.
Lopez said she's not confident that cases are leveling off statewide because of a lack of COVID-19 testing options in rural areas.
"There's really very little testing available outside the Omaha and Lincoln area," she said.
Photos: The scene in Lincoln with much of city shut down
City Council distancing
Gameday empty Saturday
Thank you Bryan West
No fans allowed
Volleyball social distancing
Boo at the Zoo
Downtown mask art
Marching band competition
East Campus proposed budget cuts
No Football Saturday
UNL in-person class
Farmers Market influencers
Weeping Water vs. Fillmore Central/Exeter-Milligan
First day of middle school
First day of school
Pius X volleyball practice
House of Flowers delivery
City Council BLM protest
Rally and hearing
Lancaster County Super Fair
LPS board meeting
Meatpacking workers rally
Lincoln Northeast graduation
Gov. Ricketts address Legislature
Masked Archie the Mammoth
First Jury Trial in Four Months
Lincoln Community Playhouse
The Kindler Hotel
Garth Brooks Drive-In Concert
Urban Air Adventure Park
Gere Branch Library
Music on the Move
Bars Opening in Lincoln
LPS Teachers Retirement
Holmes Lake Manor Horse Visit
Lancaster County Courthouse
Church Social Distancing
Children of Smithfield
Parkview Christian Teacher Appreciation Day
Lincoln Christian 2020 Seniors
Test Nebraska site
Drive-Thru Career Fair
Center for People in Need food distribution
Masks For Truckers
Teacher and Staff Parade
Virtual City Council
Good Friday Music
Masks on a walk
Watch: A timelapse of the mural at Saro Cider
Watch: Hand sanitizer rolls off Innovation Campus assembly line
No fun here
Tower Square sign
WATCH: Celebrating a birthday with a parade
Simpsons in the windows
Drive-thru COVID-19 testing
UNL Beekeeping virtual class
Lincoln Lutheran Online Teaching
Blue for public health
Basketball without fans
Thanksgiving to go
Socially distant Santa
Christmas tree demand
Basketball fans reduced
Mike Hilgers at Legislature's First Day
Zoo Bar membership
New high school
Biking in snow
This story contains material from the Omaha World-Herald.
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