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Lancaster County infection rate, local hospitalizations alarming, health official says
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Lancaster County infection rate, local hospitalizations alarming, health official says

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Spread of the coronavirus in Lancaster County has accelerated, with levels rivaling those experienced amid the outbreak at the Smithfield meatpacking plant in Crete this spring, a local health department official said Friday.

The rate of positive COVID-19 tests this week is near 17%, which exceeds rates near 14% in early May, when hundreds of local residents who work at the Crete plant contracted the coronavirus, according to the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department.

What's more, Lincoln counted its largest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations Friday at 65, including 31 Lancaster County residents, said Scott Holmes, who manages the department's environmental public health division.

"We are very concerned about our numbers right now," Holmes said.

Lancaster County reported 119 new coronavirus cases Friday but no new deaths, and Health Department officials kept the COVID-19 risk dial in the mid-orange, or high-risk, category.

Holmes said the elevated rate of community spread is in large part a consequence of outbreaks caused by college students who didn't take precautions while socializing outside the classroom.

Also this week, the Health Department publicized an outbreak stemming from a Sept. 11 event at the Lincoln Eagles Club, where about 75 people attended a gathering and dance to commemorate 9/11. 

That outbreak grew by six people to 16 cases Friday, including one person who remained hospitalized, Holmes said.

10 attendees at event at Lincoln Eagles Club got COVID-19, officials say

Asked whether the Health Department is investigating the Eagles Club for possible health directive violations, Holmes said department staff continue to focus on identifying those exposed by the outbreak. 

The cluster likely will infect more people and it brings a clear lesson, he said.  

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"Had they been wearing masks, we would not have this outbreak," Holmes said. 

Health Department staff encourage anyone who attended the event to contact the department immediately.

With hospitalizations from COVID-19 rising in Lincoln, the city's hospitals had only 30% of their intensive-care unit beds available, Holmes said.

The Health Department and the hospitals have a surge plan to handle an influx of coronavirus cases, but at this point, he said hospitals have the capacity to convert other beds into ICU beds or transfer some patients for care at other hospitals.

People seeking COVID-19 tests at Bryan urgent care locations will need to see a doctor

Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird said she and her team have not considered enacting further restrictions to confront the trends because they're continually optimistic about personal efforts such as mask-wearing and engineering controls such as plastic barriers to mitigate transmission. 

The county has recorded 461 cases this week, pushing the overall total to 6,137. The single-week high for cases was 690 from Sept. 6-12. Statewide, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services reported 43,162 cases and 468 deaths as of Friday night.

The good news is that schools in Lincoln and in Lancaster County have not experienced outbreaks, the mayor said. 

Lincoln Public Schools reported seven new cases Thursday, at Cavett, Huntington and Kooser elementary schools, Mickle, Park and Schoo middle schools and Southeast High School. On Friday, the district reported five additional positive cases, including two at Southwest High School, one at Southeast, one at Lux and one at both the Science Focus Program and Independence Academy for special-education students.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln saw a jump in cases Friday — 22 new positives — after several slower days, bringing the campus's total to 767.

Residents can help limit coronavirus spread, Gaylor Baird said. 

"This isn't rocket science," she said. "It's public health."

State penitentiary COVID-19 cases among staff lead to modified lockdown

Photos: The pandemic era in Lincoln

Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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