With COVID-19 cases rising in Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts on Tuesday continued to reject calls for a mask mandate and set the stage for the kickoff of a statewide coronavirus education and communications campaign Thursday.
"I don't think mask mandates are appropriate," the governor said at a news briefing.
"They create resistance," he said. "Masks are just a tool, not the only tool, (and) they are not a panacea to solve all the problems."
At the same time, Ricketts continued to urge Nebraskans to wear masks when they go to the grocery store and when they are in crowded or enclosed settings and unable to maintain 6 feet of distancing from other people.
"I don't like mandates," the governor said. "Let's find ways to voluntarily do things like wear a mask."
Masks dominated questioning at the briefing, sparked in part by the decision of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds to abandon her opposition to a mask mandate, ordering that they be worn in public indoor spaces and in crowded conditions.
Reynolds, a Republican like Ricketts, announced her decision in a live televised address to Iowans as the state approached 2,000 deaths from the virus and nearly 1,400 hospitalizations.
"Every state may take a different approach," Ricketts said. "Masks are an important tool. They work, but they're not the only tool."
Ricketts took note of "a tremendous increase" in COVID-19 hospitalizations in Nebraska, a figure rising from about 200 a couple of months ago to 938 Monday night.
That led to the governor's current policy of imposing a series of new restrictions if coronavirus hospitalizations rise from their current level of roughly 20% of staffed hospital beds to 25%.
Based on state COVID-19 dashboard figures showing 4,166 hospital beds statewide, the numbers of coronavirus patients would need to reach 1,042 to hit the 25% threshold.
From the beginning, Ricketts has defined his policy as protecting hospital capacity to deal with COVID-19 patients.
The new restrictions would reimpose earlier mandates that restrict the size of indoor gatherings to 10 people and outdoor gatherings to 25 people while also requiring bars to return to carry-out and delivery service only.
In answer to a flurry of questions, Ricketts said municipalities in Nebraska that are considering issuing local mask mandates should first "check with their legal advisers" to determine whether they have authority to do so.
In Beatrice, the Board of Health voted Tuesday to put a mask mandate in place, and similar proposals are under consideration in Grand Island, Hastings, Kearney and Fairbury.
Legally authorized mask mandates are in effect now in Lincoln and Lancaster County and in Omaha.
Ricketts urged Nebraskans to limit their Thanksgiving gatherings this year to individual family groups and connect with other family members virtually, perhaps through Zoom.
Through Monday night, the state reported 101,601 positive cases and 797 deaths.
Dr. Gary Anthone, the state's chief medical officer, said the state has been successful in finding the closest hospital bed available for COVID-19 patients, with hospitals working through a hospital transfer center.
"No patient has been denied a bed," he said.
Anthone said a growing number of medications have become available to treat or slow replication of the virus, in some cases reducing the need for hospitalization.
The latest approved treatment involves giving monoclonal antibodies to outpatients as soon as possible after a positive test.
Researchers are also testing the possibility that Vitamin D supplements may prevent or decrease the severity of the virus.
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