With COVID-19 cases soaring and local hospitals strained, city officials announced Friday that they are bringing back Lincoln's mask mandate.
The mandate, which requires face coverings in all indoor public settings, will take effect at 12 a.m. Saturday and extend through Feb. 11.
Lancaster County had a mask mandate throughout the fall, but officials let it expire on Dec. 23, saying at the time that vaccination rates were high and there were more tools available to both prevent and treat the disease.
But that was before the omicron wave hit locally. The highly contagious variant has led to soaring case counts. Lancaster County had nearly 2,900 cases last week, a pandemic record for a single week, and as of Friday morning had already recorded more than 3,000 cases this week, including more than 1,000 just for Friday.
Lancaster County's COVID-19 risk dial has been in the red, or severe range, for more than two weeks, but Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Director Pat Lopez said conditions have "moved beyond severe to extreme risk."
She and Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird both reiterated that people should limit their time in the community to only essential activities such as going to work or school, shopping for food or medicine, or going to the doctor.
Lopez said now is the time for an "urgent community response."
She said the main tipping point that led to the decision to reinstate the mask mandate just three weeks after it went away was the local hospital situation.
Even though the omicron variant has been shown to cause milder disease, the sheer number of cases is leading to more hospitalizations. On Tuesday, there were 142 COVID-19 patients in Lincoln hospitals, the highest number since December 2020. Numbers have declined slightly since then but remain at their highest levels in a year.
Lopez said the hospital indicator used in the COVID-19 risk dial has been in the red for more than three weeks, and the average of daily patients has risen from 113 on Christmas Day to 132 as of this week.
Another concerning factor is the amount of patients from Lancaster County, which is nearing 100. The more local patients there are, the fewer transfers the Lincoln hospitals are able to accept, she said.
Bryan Health on Thursday said it's been instituting many of its crisis care practices for several months now, including repurposing space, limiting elective surgeries and turning down many transfer requests.
Bryan also said it was seeing a number of cases of COVID-19 among staff members, although thanks to the fact that nearly all of them are vaccinated, there haven't been any serious cases.
"Our hospital and others across the state are severely taxed," the health system said in a statement. "We are seeing accelerating numbers of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations as the omicron variant spreads unyieldingly across our state."
CHI Health said it had not yet moved to crisis standards of care at its hospitals, but interim CEO Jeanette Wojtalewicz said its hospitals are "stretched thin," with increasing patient loads at the same time large numbers of staff are out either because they have COVID-19 or are quarantining because of an exposure. As of Thursday, that number was 389 employees.
The total number of COVID-19 patients in Nebraska hospitals reached 671 as of Friday morning, which is an increase of more than 100 just in the past week. Gov Pete Ricketts on Friday issued a Directed Health Measure suspending elective surgeries at Nebraska Medicine after it said Thursday that it was instituting its crisis standards of care policy.
"The hospitals are really full," said Dr. Eric Avery, president of the Lancaster County Medical Society. "The COVID cases are way too high, and it's up to us to do the right thing, right now."
In addition to wearing masks, officials said doing the right thing means getting vaccinated if you haven't yet done so.
Vaccines are "proven, they're safe, they're effective," Avery said.
Lopez also touted the importance of booster shots. While she said she didn't have data on how many recent COVID-19 cases are in fully vaccinated people, she did say only 10% of the cases are occurring in those who have had a booster shot.
Officials also said another instance of doing the right thing would be cutting down on gatherings.
Gaylor Baird encouraged community groups to postpone meetings or hold them virtually, and she also said people planning to host events such as weddings or banquets should seriously consider postponing them because people gathering in close proximity without masks is the way the virus spreads most easily.
"It's time to get real, and for at least the next four weeks, I'm asking you to make some tough decisions," she said.
The reinstatement of the countywide mask mandate comes just days after Douglas County's health director instituted one for the city of Omaha. Douglas County's Health Department does not have the same powers as the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department under state law, and on Thursday Attorney General Doug Peterson filed a lawsuit seeking to block the Omaha mandate.
Lopez said she has not talked to anyone from the state about Lancaster County's decision to reinstate its mandate, but she reiterated the importance of the health department being able to make the decision on its own.
"That ability to respond from a local level to our local needs is really critical because we best know what our local situation is."
The mask mandate being in effect for four weeks may be an indication of hope that the current omicron surge will subside by then. In other countries and in other areas of the U.S., cases have surged for four to five weeks and then started to subside.
Lopez said Lincoln is now about two weeks into its omicron wave, but while omicron is the predominant variant, she cautioned that the county is still dealing with cases caused by the delta variant.
Dr. James Lawler, co-executive director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, said Friday in his weekly coronavirus video update that he expects the omicron wave to peak in Douglas County and much of eastern Nebraska in the next week to 10 days, with the rest of the state potentially about a week behind that. He predicted that the peak in hospitalizations will occur about five to seven days after the peak in case numbers.
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