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Lincoln mask mandate coming back as COVID-19 cases soar
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Lincoln mask mandate coming back as COVID-19 cases soar

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Nebraska hospital leaders warned Monday that the state's health systems are getting hammered by rising COVID numbers and staffing shortages.

LINCOLN — 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 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 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 3,000 cases this week.

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.

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 have as of yet been no 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 reinstatement of a countywide mask mandate comes just days after Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse 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.

City and county officials, including Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, who opposes the mask mandate, have said Huse does have the authority to institute a mandate under the city’s municipal code. In implementing the temporary mandate, Huse cited an “astronomical spike in cases” that is threatening to overwhelm already strained hospitals and health care workers.

Omaha’s mandate will remain in effect until a judge rules otherwise or until Huse deems it no longer necessary. A hearing on the mandate is scheduled in Douglas County District Court for Jan. 24.


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