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Editorial: Amid omicron spike, Huse shows leadership with mask mandate
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Editorial: Amid omicron spike, Huse shows leadership with mask mandate

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Virus Outbreak-Nebraska

Dr. Lindsay Huse, the City Health Director, announces a temporary mask mandate for the city of Omaha outside the Douglas County Health Office in Omaha on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022.

Attorney General Doug Peterson has filed a lawsuit against Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse and other county and city officials challenging Huse's Omaha mask mandate effective Wednesday.

People everywhere will drop coins into donation jars, wear T-shirts and ribbons, even cut off their hair to rally for people who are suffering.

Perhaps a friend has experienced a particular cancer. Raising a little money for research by running a 5K is a way to both show support and to individually take some small action against an amorphous menace.

Yet some of us resist wearing a mask or getting vaccinated to do our little part to help society fight COVID-19, whose omicron variant’s rapid spread promises an imminent crisis in our hospitals.

While we have editorially supported wearing masks, we have been tepid toward mandates. We hoped they would fade away as the populace got vaccinated. We also have urged following doctors’ advice, and are persuaded that our medical system faces extreme risk in the coming weeks.

We believe Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse took the proper step in issuing an emergency, temporary mask mandate for Omaha, whose code makes her the city health officer and authorizes such orders.

“Significant staffing shortages, a very limited availability of beds and health-care professionals experiencing high levels of emotional and physical exhaustion are all combining to make the next few weeks a challenge that our hospitals have not seen in our lifetimes,” three Nebraska health-care leaders wrote in a guest opinion this week.

As the state set a record last week for the number of new COVID cases, 649 Nebraskans were hospitalized as of Tuesday with the disease, and 13.6% of staffed hospital beds in the state were occupied by COVID patients, on a seven-day rolling average. The state reported 127 additional COVID-related deaths last week, tying for the third-highest weekly total of the pandemic.

While the omicron variant generally produces mild symptoms and some signs point to it peaking soon, the sheer number of cases is sending enough unvaccinated people to the hospital to create this urgent situation. It’s not just the COVID patients. The crowding and staffing crunch — worsened as health workers test positive — has delayed care for a range of patients, including urgent transfers to hospitals for a higher level of treatment.

Outside of hospitals, businesses and agencies including Omaha police and fire departments are experiencing high absenteeism as omicron makes its run. Educators are under renewed pressure in a school year that they have described as already the most difficult in their careers as students catch up after remote instruction led to gaps.

So it is time for us to rally around our heroic health care workers and others on the front line and take what small actions we can to support them and those most vulnerable to COVID — including the unvaccinated.

Huse did that this week. Health workers were heartened.

“It was almost like we were cheering in the hallway, just hearing that we were receiving support from the health department,” said Dr. Angela Hewlett, who directs the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s COVID-19 infectious diseases service.

Yes, masks help.

“Absolutely, it’ll help,” Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s infectious diseases division, told The World-Herald’s Julie Anderson. “It won’t be miraculous. But we need to do what we can to start to slow this thing down if possible.”

He added, “A well-constructed, multilayered, tight-fitting face mask is effective, and there’s scads of information to show that.

“Are they perfect? No. And are they going to be perfect against a variant that is more transmissible? No. But it is one of the tools that is fairly easy for people to use that can really make a difference out there in the community,” Rupp said.

“In the final analysis,” he said, “it’s such a small ask for people to take some precautions for the next few weeks, try to get this thing slowed down and cushion the blow.”

Huse offered a similar view: “I can’t stand by and know that I could have done more and didn’t do more.”

Huse is leading.

Others, including Gov. Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson, who chose to sue Huse as hospitals fill and Nebraska COVID deaths rise again, should follow the lead of Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert. Stothert opposes this mask mandate but recognizes Huse’s authority. She stepped out of the way. Ricketts and Peterson should join her.

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