For all the complaining and an increasing lack of compliance, the Lincoln-Lancaster County mask mandate has worked.
That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the most important COVID-19 statistics -- the number of deaths attributed to the coronavirus in the county.
Despite the mandate's success, however, Lancaster County is suffering from mask fatigue.
Increasing numbers of people are going maskless in public places and large gatherings -- things we couldn't enjoy this time last year. More people are asking why they are required to wear masks when no one else in the state is and, when, or if, the mandate will end.
As of now, the mandate is set to expire Dec. 23. Lopez said two weeks ago that the department’s intention is that it will not be extended unless conditions get drastically worse, such as “if our hospitals go into crisis standards of care.”
But with deaths rising -- the Health Department reported four Tuesday alone -- along with positivity rates and hospitalizations, the timing could be tenuous.
Enter the omicron variant, which has already been discovered in Nebraska, and appears to be highly transmissible but has less severe symptoms. It could very well trigger a spike in cases and, more critically, an increase in hospitalizations, many from out of the county where vaccination rates and mask usage are lower.
According to data from the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, the county’s COVID-19 death rate is 102 per 100,000 residents. That is considerably lower than Douglas County’s rate of 150 deaths per 100,000 and the state’s rate of 161 deaths per 100,000.
Had Lancaster County’s rate matched that of Douglas County, the local death toll would include 154 more fatal cases. Had it matched the state rate, 189 more people would have died from COVID-19.
“I think it’s just really important for people to see the purpose of doing these measures is to prevent death,” Health Director Pat Lopez said last week.
And it is clear that the mask mandate and the effort at getting the county vaccinated have worked. Nearly 63% of those eligible in the county and 70% or more of those age 25 and older fully vaccinated.
Omicron won’t be the last variation to emerge as the coronavirus continues to spread and mutate around the globe.
Nor will that spread be contained and dramatically reduced until a high percentage of the population is vaccinated -- a goal that is seemingly out of reach because of those unwilling to accept the shot, despite the clear fact that COVID-19 vaccines greatly reduce the risk of serious illness or death.
Many of those who have done what they needed to do to fight this virus -- getting vaccinated and following the mask rules -- are the ones looking for some daylight.
Because of that, the Health Department needs to set easily understood standards for mask requirements, including those for the reward of removing the masks that we’re all, understandably, tired of wearing.