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Editorial: It's time to double down on virus safety as we near holiday gatherings

Editorial: It's time to double down on virus safety as we near holiday gatherings

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On Oct. 6, a group of doctors from the University of Nebraska Medical Center issued a warning that Nebraska’s largest surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations was rising rapidly.

Nebraska hospitals were 85% full, compared with 50% full in April and May, the previous, smaller peak.

“COVID-19 has now killed nearly 500 Nebraskans, and many more are likely to die if we don’t take more action immediately,” the doctors warned.

Now, just a month later, Nebraska deaths are pushing toward 700. The last two weeks of October set startling records for COVID-19 deaths in the state, with 99 people lost — fully 15% of Nebraska’s virus deaths over more than seven months. October as a whole recorded more than a quarter of the state’s deaths.

Don’t buy the fallacy that case counts are up only because testing is up. The doctors tell us — and these grim numbers confirm — that increased positive tests mean increased hospitalizations. Deaths, the hardest data point of all, follow both of those.

It’s November — we will be spending more and more time inside.

In recent months, the UNMC docs noted, we’ve let our guard down — Omaha and Lincoln mask mandates notwithstanding.

“Early in the pandemic,” the doctors said in a statement, “Nebraska took sensible and strong actions to mitigate COVID-19 spread, and we reaped the results of those actions by having one of the lowest fatality rates of any state. We built a solid structure of community protection, but like the game of Jenga, we steadily have removed block after block of that tower: lifting limitations of occupancy inside restaurants, opening bars, allowing large gatherings and opening schools at full student density. As the structure weakens, our case counts accelerate. Now, some communities are considering rolling back the use of face masks. Remove that block, and the entire structure may collapse.”

Everyone is tired of all this. The pandemic is a grinding irritant that has stolen so much joy, from travel to events to simple human contact.

“But we are hearing too many COVID patient stories that start with, ‘I went to a party’ or ‘I visited extended family, but everyone seemed well,’ ” the doctors said. “You’ve seen it on your Facebook feeds — a dozen friends eating dinner in a small indoor space with no masks in sight. This is the perfect environment for COVID-19 to continue to spread, which threatens the lives of our most vulnerable neighbors and family members. We can’t let down our guard.”

And now comes the holiday season, the warmth of Thanksgiving, the pleasure of family, leading toward Christmas and Hanukkah. By definition, our traditional gatherings run contrary to guidance from Gov. Pete Ricketts to avoid close contact and confined places. It is another cruel indignity of 2020 that the coronavirus imposes on our holiday traditions.

We must be diligent. Families and friends must decide whether and how to gather and how to handle masking and distancing, but sensible precautions are in order. Some schools and businesses plan to have students and workers stay home the week after Thanksgiving to avoid spreading the disease. It’s a good idea that we encourage.

We have a community obligation — to relatives, to coworkers, to workers in businesses we patronize, to neighbors. We have learned a lot since spring about how to be safe, but unless we actually do these things, we put ourselves and others at risk. Often over the holidays, we ask how we can help others. This year, that opportunity presents itself nearly every minute.

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