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Masks won't be required in Omaha, Douglas County health director says

Douglas County’s health director backed off a mask mandate for Omaha on Friday after the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office challenged her ability to implement one.

Adi Pour, at a Friday press conference, cited “legal disagreements” between the state and the Omaha City Attorney’s Office.

Pour had been moving toward implementing an indoor mask mandate under her authority within Omaha city code. The Douglas County Board of Health on Monday voted to support her move.

But Pour said that a disagreement had surfaced since then and led her to pull back to avoid a legal fight.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has questioned Omaha’s and Lincoln’s abilities to implement local mask requirements. When asked if Ricketts had contacted her, Pour responded passively, saying it was in the last 72 hours that the disagreements occurred.

“There was a legal decision,” Pour said.

Ricketts has said repeatedly that he opposes mask mandates and has instead encouraged Nebraskans to wear them voluntarily. Pour has said that she would require approval from the state to issue a countywide directed health measure like those that closed bars and restaurants earlier in the pandemic.

Instead, Douglas County health officials, working with city officials, pursued a different path, seeking to exercise Pour’s powers under city code to issue orders in public health emergencies.

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said the Attorney General’s Office contends state law trumps city code, even though the attorneys in the city’s Law Department think the City of Omaha is on solid ground if Pour wants to implement a mask order.

“That was basically the issue,” the mayor said.

The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office issued a statement Friday saying the office’s role “is to evaluate the law, not create or direct public health policy. Under Nebraska law, the Douglas County Health Department may only take measures ‘to arrest the progress of’ infectious disease ‘with the approval of the (Nebraska) Department of Health and Human Services.’ Nebraska law contains an exception for the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department,” the Attorney General’s Office said.

Ricketts, as the state’s chief executive, oversees the Department of Health and Human Services.

Absent a mask mandate, Douglas County and Omaha officials pleaded with people who refuse to wear masks to change their habits for the good of children, people with compromised immune systems and the elderly, particularly as the start of school approaches.

Health experts from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, who attended the press conference, expressed frustration at the development. They called the community to task for the continued coronavirus spread.

The health experts also outlined the growing body of evidence indicating that masks work to slow the spread of the virus, especially when combined with social distancing and proper hand hygiene.

Said Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the infectious diseases division at UNMC: “Personally, I’m very disappointed that we are not here before you to announce a masking mandate for Omaha and Douglas County.”

Rupp said he’s frustrated that the community could not overcome “the perceived political threats, potential legal challenges or logistical hurdles to mandate mask usage in our locality.”

Dr. Kari Neemann, a UNMC/Children’s Hospital & Medical Center physician who serves as an adviser to the Douglas County Health Department, said Omaha has had pediatric patients contract COVID-19 through community spread of the virus. Two recently were admitted to Children’s in respiratory distress, and one was placed on a ventilator in the intensive care unit.

“Our community failed these families,” Neemann said.

Neemann said her son was exposed to the virus while in day care and is quarantined at home after exposure.

“Our community failed him and it failed his classmates,” she said.

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Schools soon will be opening. While most children who contract COVID-19 won’t become seriously ill, many of the teachers and support staff, based on their age and other health conditions, will be at risk for more severe disease. That also goes for parents and grandparents at home.

To open schools safely, Neemann said, “we need to get our community transmission down.”

John Lowe, a UNMC assistant vice chancellor for Inter-professional Health Security Training and Education, said two UNMC studies indicate that infected people, even those who haven’t yet developed or don’t develop symptoms, can expel the virus into the air when coughing and talking.

People have been taught for years to cover their mouths when coughing, he said. This new information shows the value of covering one’s mouth and nose while talking.

Pour said she will continue to review data every day and left open the possibility of revisiting her decision. “But for now,” she said, “I have to trust everybody in this community to do the right thing moving ahead.”

When asked why she didn’t simply issue a mandate and let the courts resolve the legal issue, Pour said she considered it but opted not to take that path.

“My focus now needs to be on public health and not (getting) caught up in potential court litigation,” she said.

Stothert said she had talked to the president of the Omaha City Council, Chris Jerram, about drafting a council resolution that would strongly support the wearing of masks in public places.

The resolution would be nonbinding.

The council could pass a mask ordinance, but Stothert said that would take weeks to follow the process and bring it to implementation.

The council could waive the ordinary legal requirements to speed up the process. But that would take six votes, Stothert said, adding that she’s not sure the council has six votes in favor.

“Right now, we really need to be responsible and do the right thing,” Stothert said.

Stothert also noted that Lincoln, which issued a mask mandate several weeks ago, has a legal “carve-out” that puts it in a different situation. The Lincoln-Lancaster County health director is hired by and reports to Lincoln’s mayor.

In Douglas County, the health director is hired by the Douglas County Board of Health. Omaha’s city code makes the county health director the city health director. During an epidemic, the health director can issue orders to limit diseases in the city.

Chris Rodgers, the president of the county health board, said he disagreed with Pour’s decision but is glad she left the door open for a masking requirement.

“We knew this was going to be hard,” he said. “We think this is the right thing to do — at least I do.”

Councilman Vinny Palermo, who wasn’t at the press conference, said he was “extremely disappointed” in Pour’s decision not to mandate masks. “It is reckless, for parents and teachers especially,” he said. “If the numbers are bad now, wait until school starts. It will be a wildfire that we wish we would have prevented.”

Palermo saw the announcement on his phone while waiting in his garage for someone to pick up boxes of masks. He and Douglas County Board member Mike Boyle have worked with members of the South Omaha community to distribute 65,000 free masks from the Douglas County Health Department in recent weeks. They’re getting 50,000 more and will keep distributing them.

More people are wearing masks voluntarily, Palermo said, but a mask mandate would lead to many more people taking that precaution.

Palermo said he would support an emergency ordinance for a mask mandate.

Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska’s chief medical officer and a participant in the press conference, urged people to wear a mask, keep their distance from others and wash their hands.

“We know that Nebraskans will again step up and do the right thing like they did in the past, and together as Nebraskans we’ll beat this virus,” he said.

Said Pour: “Please everyone in this city, in this county, do the right thing.”

World-Herald staff writer Christopher Burbach contributed to this report.


Our best staff photos from July

Photos: Our best staff images from July 2020

Local
Thousands receive free masks in North and South Omaha

Face masks have been distributed free by the tens of thousands in South and North Omaha, and that push continued Friday even as an anticipated Douglas County mask mandate failed to materialize.

Omaha City Councilman Vinny Palermo teamed up with Douglas County Board member Mike Boyle to distribute 65,000 reusable masks from the Douglas County Health Department in recent weeks in South Omaha, which has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus. They’re expecting another 50,000 masks soon.

Their effort joins several other mask distributions, such as one by the Omaha Housing Authority and The Simple Foundation for OHA residents, refugees and others. The County Health Department also has worked with the Empowerment Network, churches and mosques, Black Men United and the Omaha Police Department’s Northeast and Southeast Precincts.

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“It makes a big difference,” said Alberto Gonzales, a police gang intervention specialist who is helping distribute masks in South Omaha. “There’s some people who can’t afford to buy them or don’t want to, but when we give them one, they’ll wear it. We tell them, we care about you. We care about South Omaha. We want you to be safe.”

Boxes of masks have gone to such businesses as bars, restaurants, car washes, gas stations and banks, and to schools, churches and factories. Police Athletics for Community Engagement, which is requiring people watching its soccer league games to wear masks, gave away more than 2,500 masks at its soccer field. Palermo delivered a couple thousand more to PACE on Saturday to hand out at its Champions Day baseball.

“The more we give out, the more places in this area that have them, the better,” Palermo said. “Everybody’s going to do what they’re going to do. But if you have them, you wear ’em.”

Businesspeople have been happy to receive them and give them away to customers, Palermo said. Many have asked for more, such as Ted’s Mower at 52nd and Q Streets, where Palermo delivered another box Friday. Ted’s managers put them out on a table for customers to take. People like them, manager Deb Bergstrom said. Some put one on in the store. Several have asked for extras for their spouses or children. The answer is yes.

“It’s definitely helping,” Palermo said. “It has to be helping.”


The faces of the mask effort

Photos: The faces of the mask effort

Local
COVID-19 hospitalizations rise as Nebraska sees increase in cases

More people are being hospitalized with COVID-19 as cases rise in Nebraska.

Hospitalizations jumped to 150 statewide as of Thursday after sitting at 103 as recently as last Saturday. In the Omaha metro area, the number of COVID-19 patients in local hospitals rose to 106, up from 72 last weekend.

Both Omaha and Nebraska hadn’t seen that many COVID-19 hospitalizations since about June 17.

That lines up with case trends and the progression of a COVID-19 infection. Omaha and Nebraska last saw daily case numbers that high back in late May and early June, resulting in higher hospitalizations a few weeks after that as the conditions of people with COVID-19 worsened.

Last week, health experts warned that Nebraska’s daily count of positive cases had turned higher and would lead to higher hospitalizations within weeks.

The Nebraska Medical Center has reopened a second COVID-19 unit after a period in which the medical center’s hospitalizations dropped from its peak, said Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the infectious diseases division at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

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Although the Nebraska Medical Center’s patient numbers are about two-thirds of that peak, Rupp said the hospital’s count has been rising.

The increase comes as the hospital takes in patients for all other medical problems. Rupp said the hospital’s capacity to take on another COVID-19 surge is “pretty limited.”

“We really don’t have much capacity to flex at this point,” he said, “and it’s kind of scary.”

Statewide, Nebraska had 1,417 hospital beds available as of Thursday, according to data from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. That represents an available capacity of 37%.

Nebraska hospitals have 262 intensive care beds available, also reflecting 37% availability, according to state figures.

In Lincoln, hospitals remain in a healthy position, Pat Lopez, director of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, said Friday. A total of 19 patients with COVID-19 are hospitalized there, and 55% of local ICU beds are available, Lopez said.

Friday, Lincoln city officials said pandemic indicators are staying flat or slightly improving. The city’s numbers still reflect a high risk of COVID-19 spread.

Lincoln is in its second week with an indoor mask mandate.

Lopez urged people to remain vigilant in wearing face coverings, keeping distance and washing their hands. “That will allow us to continue to progress in the right direction,” she said.

Friday, Adi Pour, director of the Douglas County Health Department, cited a positive trend in the Omaha area: The number of COVID-19 patients on ventilators here has dropped to four.

That is the lowest total since Douglas County started reporting the figure publicly in early April.

“That is very good,” Pour said.

Pour said she’s hearing that hospitals are putting a patient on a ventilator only if there’s “no other possibility.”

Overall, metro area hospitals have 245 medical and surgical beds available, but that means 82% of those beds are occupied.


Videos: Feel-good moments in Nebraska amid the pandemic

State-and-regional
Group forms to help ensure that Nebraska Lottery money goes to grants for environmental projects

LINCOLN — A group of influential Nebraskans, including former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson and former Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, have formed a “friends” group to ensure that lottery money is granted to environmental projects.

The formation of the Friends of the Nebraska Environmental Trust comes after the trust’s board, in June, voted to defund a handful of grants aimed at preserving a unique Pine Ridge ranch and saline wetlands near Lincoln and instead award the $1.8 million to help purchase ethanol blender pumps for gas stations, a move supported by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

That change brought harsh criticism from some conservation groups, saying it was politically motivated and didn’t adhere to the purpose of the trust grants, which is to “conserve, enhance and restore the natural environments” of Nebraska. There was also concern that the swap ignored the ranking process for grants, which gave much higher scores for the conservation projects that were defunded than for the ethanol pump effort.

The Environmental Trust, which was formed three decades ago, gets about half of the proceeds of the Nebraska lottery and doles it out in grants for projects like restoring silt-choked lakes and enhancing recycling. It has distributed more than $330 million in local grants to all 93 counties in the state.

In addition to Nelson and Beutler, founding members of the new group include former Environmental Trust board members Lynn Roper, Susan Seacrest and Dayle Williamson, all of Lincoln, and Gail Yanney of Omaha.

Among the group’s stated goals is to “closely examine the recent 2020 grant application process to determine compliance with the law and good governance practices,” a press release said. It wasn’t immediately clear whether that meant legal action would be considered against the decision in June.

“We want to ensure the trust lives up to its full promise,” Yanney said. “Those of us who were trust board members saw first-hand that trust funding can be a great a catalyst for community conservation projects. In addition, projects often have a positive economic impact, and can be a valuable talent recruitment tool since we know millennials and Gen-Zers place a high priority on environmental issues.”

Ricketts, who appoints nine of the 14 members of the Environmental Trust board, is a big supporter of ethanol, which has served to increase prices for corn. He said the switch in funding granted last month, on a 7-2 vote, was appropriate.


Our best staff images from July 2020

Photos: Our best staff images from July 2020

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