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Lincoln mask mandate coming back as COVID-19 cases soar past 3,600 this week

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City and health officials held a press conference Friday to reinstitute the county's mask mandate as COVID-19 cases skyrocket on account of the omicron variant.

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.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.

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Business reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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