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Lincoln's COVID-19 risk dial moving to red amid surge of cases
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Lincoln's COVID-19 risk dial moving to red amid surge of cases

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The risk dial increased to red for the first time in months, but no new directed health measures are being instituted as a result.

Local officials are painting the town red again, and not in a good way.

Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Director Pat Lopez announced Tuesday that the county's COVID-19 risk dial will move into the red, or severe, range for the first time in nearly a year.

The move comes amid a nationwide COVID-19 surge, with Lancaster County recording more than 1,600 cases last week, its highest weekly total in more than a year. The county reported 351 cases Tuesday and already has 571 so far this week.

Lopez said the increase in new cases was expected and is caused by "a combination of people letting down their guard, holiday gatherings and the arrival of the omicron variant."

Omicron is "spreading fast and causing a large number of cases over a short time," she said.

Lopez said there have only been about 10 cases of omicron confirmed in Lancaster County so far, but all indications are it's much more widespread.

The Nebraska Public Health Laboratory reported that 77% of positive tests it sequenced Monday were caused by omicron.

Nebraska seeing surge in COVID-19 cases

The variant "will be predominant across the state in the next week or so," said Dr. Michael Schooff, CHI Health's primary care medical director.

Dr. Renuga Vivekanandan, an infectious disease expert with CHI Creighton University Medical Center-Bergan Mercy, said she believes more than 90% of the cases in the state will be omicron by next week.

Locally, officials are worried enough about the case surge to bump the risk dial to its highest level, although they are not planning any new directed health measures.

The Health Department allowed the countywide mask mandate to expire right before Christmas, and there are no plans to bring it back at this time, Lopez said. But she again encouraged people to wear masks, especially if they are attending large events, such as athletic contests or concerts, noting that they are "taking a risk" by gathering with other people.

A large crowd is expected for Friday night's Eric Church concert at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

Meanwhile, Lincoln City Libraries remain open, but all in-person events are canceled through January.

Lincoln Public Schools on Monday reversed course and said it will require masks in all buildings when school restarts Wednesday. It had previously planned to make masks mandatory only in elementary schools.

In the Omaha area, where COVID-19 cases are currently at their highest level since the pandemic began, Ralston Public Schools and Creighton University both announced mask mandates, joining Omaha Public Schools and the Westside school district.

LPS brings back all-school mask requirement amid concerns over post-holiday staffing shortage

Douglas County hit its highest level of COVID-19 cases ever recorded last week, and it continues to see hospitalizations rise, with 340 COVID-19 patients Tuesday.

Statewide hospitalizations also have been climbing, hitting 532 as of Tuesday morning, up from 449 on Christmas Eve.

Lincoln hospitals had 113 COVID-19 patients Tuesday, which is down from the 2021 high of 130 on Thursday.

Lancaster County reported three more deaths Tuesday: two women in their 70s and a man in his 50s. The man was vaccinated; both women were not.

Lopez did not rule out future mandates or restrictions if conditions worsen.

"At this point, we're keeping all our tools available to us, and we'll respond as necessary," she said.

For now, though, the best way for people to protect themselves from the virus continues to be getting vaccinated, Lopez said. She said more than 64% of county residents are fully vaccinated, and 55% of people eligible for booster shots have gotten them. Among children ages 5-11, 32% have had at least one shot and 24% are fully vaccinated.

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Though omicron has proven more adept at evading both vaccine and natural COVID-19 immunity, evidence has shown cases are much more mild in those who are vaccinated or who have had a prior infection.

Lopez said the Health Department is ramping up its vaccine efforts and is hosting two walk-in clinics this weekend at Culler Middle School, which are offering first, second and booster doses to anyone who is eligible.

On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration approved Pfizer booster shots for kids ages 12-15, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to sign off on that decision later this week, possibly as soon as Wednesday.

If and when that happens, "we'll be ready to start administering boosters to this age group as soon as possible," Lopez said.

Another issue is the availability of testing locally. Nomi Health's site at Gateway Mall routinely has lines of cars stretching all the way east to 66th Street, and it's difficult to get appointments elsewhere.

Lopez said Nomi Health is working to add another lane to its testing operation, while the Health Department is considering the possibility of adding another testing site in Lincoln, although she offered no details and said that option is still being evaluated.

Demand up for COVID-19 testing following holiday, Lincoln health director says

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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