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Lancaster County brings back mask mandate

Lancaster County brings back mask mandate

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Weekly case counts now are at their highest sustained level since February and have topped counts during the original surge in spring 2020.

Lincoln, it’s time to dig out your masks.

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department on Tuesday announced plans to reinstitute the local mask mandate due to rising COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Beginning at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, people 2 and older — regardless of vaccination status — will be required to wear masks in indoor spaces when 6 feet of separation can’t be maintained. The mandate will be in effect until Sept. 30, at which time officials will reevaluate whether it is needed.

Lincoln Public Schools said in a message to parents that it would institute a full mask mandate starting Wednesday. Previously, only students and staff in grades K-6 were required to wear masks.

The Health Department also raised its COVID-19 risk dial for the fifth straight week, from low-orange to mid-orange.

Lancaster County was the first city or county in Nebraska to have a mask mandate during the pandemic, instituting one in late July of last year, and it was in place longer than any other city or county, extending through May 20.

When the county relaxed the mask mandate, weekly cases had dropped below 100 for the first time in nearly 11 months, and they stayed there for eight weeks, bottoming out at 33 the week ending June 11.

But cases started a steady climb the last week of June and that soon became a rapid climb, with cases doubling every two weeks as the delta variant started tearing through mostly unvaccinated people. Last week, Lancaster County recorded 788 cases, the highest number in seven months. The Health Department said the county has averaged at least 100 cases a day since Aug. 17.

The surge has led to a sharp increase in hospitalizations, with Bryan Health again choosing to postpone some elective surgeries because its two hospitals were essentially full. The average number of people hospitalized locally for COVID-19 has increased to 78, up from 42 at the beginning of the month.

With more cases and hospitalizations, there’s also been a surge in deaths.

As of Tuesday, Lancaster County had recorded 18 COVID-19 deaths this month, more than in May, June and July combined.

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department is able to institute a countywide mask mandate because of a quirk in state law. The department was formed in 1889, before the statewide creation of county health departments, meaning it does not fall under the state’s jurisdiction when it comes to public health emergencies.

The new mask mandate in Lancaster County is similar to the one that was in effect before. Masks will not be required in a number of situations, including eating and drinking in a restaurant, while exercising, and for those who have a medical condition or disability that prevent wearing a mask.

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