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COVID-19 risk dial improves slightly as city's mask mandate continues
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COVID-19 risk dial improves slightly as city's mask mandate continues

From the Milestones in Nebraska's coronavirus fight series

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department has moved its COVID-19 risk dial to the low-orange range, still considered high-risk but an improvement from last week's rating of mid-orange. 

The change, announced at Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird's coronavirus briefing Friday, comes as Lincoln's mask mandate nears the end of its second week and was prompted by trends observed in the risk dial's key indicators.

Interim Health Director Pat Lopez said each of those five indicators, which include new case counts and positive test percentages, have trended downward or remained steady over the past week.  

The mayor announced 29 new COVID-19 cases in the community Friday, bringing the total to 3,021. The death toll in Lancaster County remains at 15. In all, 1,279 local people have recovered, and hospitalizations remain at 19, including 12 Lancaster County residents. 

The mask mandate has been helpful in reducing spread, Lopez said, and public buy-in has been vital to its success. 

“Most people are doing a great job in wearing face coverings," she said. 

The slight improvements celebrated in Lincoln on Friday came as Omaha officials who seemed set on enacting a similar mask mandate opted against it after the Nebraska Attorney General's office challenged the city's ability to enact one.

Lincoln's mandate is not being challenged, Lopez said, because the city-county health department predates the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, offering an exemption of sorts from state control.

The local average weekly case count — a key factor in the risk dial's placement — has shown signs of leveling off since the mandate began July 20, Lopez said, and positive test rates may have begun to trend downward again.

Testing capacity and availability remain high, Lopez said, as more than 5,000 residents were tested this week, bringing the county's total to 44,000 tests.

“Unlike many locations in the country," she said, "testing capacity and availability is not an issue here.”

Lopez said the department would like to see a faster turnaround on results from testing laboratories, which would allow local health officials to begin contact tracing sooner on positive cases, but that is out of the department's control. Once it receives the information, she said, the department has adequate staff and resources to meet the demand for contact tracing in the community.

Hospital capacity remains healthy locally, Lopez said, with nearly 50% of ICU beds and 90% of ventilators still available. 

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On the whole, she said, things are headed in the right direction, but further adherence to preventative measures is the only way to continue the positive trends.

“We are still in orange, and the risk of spread remains high," Lopez said.

Epidemiologist Raju Kakarlapudi said the health department closely tracks measures and metrics to place the dial accurately each week. Those parameters are based on information from sources such as Johns Hopkins and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and have been regularly updated throughout the pandemic to reflect updated scientific discoveries on the virus and its spread.

Kakarlapudi said the dial provides a robust descriptor of the pandemic's course in the area and provides a reference for public policy decisions by taking several factors into account at once.

Gaylor Baird said that while the dial and its placement has become a lightning rod for public opinion, it provides a considerable amount of information to the public in a succinct manner. 

“Our health department has taken great care to look at the big picture,” Gaylor Baird said.

The dial's lower placement and the ability to safely stage large gatherings such as Lincoln Public Schools' graduation ceremonies give the department hope that further reopening efforts can be successful, Lopez said. The department worked with Pinewood Bowl ahead of the Beach Boys' concert scheduled there this weekend, and officials will closely follow case counts and contact tracing related to the event next week. 

Statewide, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services reported 445 new cases Friday, bringing the number of total cases to 26,211.

There were four deaths reported in the state Friday, which raised the total to 332. The total number of people tested for the virus rose to 275,544.

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Photos: Lincoln during the pandemic

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