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Lincoln’s mask mandate has been extended until Dec. 23, according to a news conference from the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department Director Pat Lopez and Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird.

Lopez said a recent surge in cases, largely due to the delta variant, makes masking critical to push case rates down and keep hospital capacity low. 

“We are allowing this time until December 23 for anyone who is eligible to be vaccinated to get vaccinated,” she said. “We are urging them to do it. At that point, our plan is to only extend the mask mandate until December 23.”

The hope now, Lopez said, is that this will be the last time that the mask mandate is extended for the area, but if hospital capacity and other factors do not improve, another extension will be considered. No other restrictions will be put in place, such as capacity restrictions or restrictions on hours for businesses, Lopez said. The latest mask mandate for Lincoln began on Aug. 26, and has been extended multiple times

“We also have several people coming into the community who don’t follow our same guidelines and who aren’t vaccinated, so those are things we’re going to have to deal with all the time,” she said. 

University of Nebraska-Lincoln spokesperson Leslie Reed said the university saw a spike in cases in mid-November, but cases have since declined and positivity rates are below 2%.  

While the university is always concerned about managing outbreaks, she said current practices maintain consistently good results. 

“We do follow what the LLCHD requires, and we have been following what the LLCHD requires, so the short answer is: nothing is going to change,” she said. “We’re going to keep the same procedures and policies until December 23.” 

Cases are going up across the state, Lopez said, and hospitals are short staffed and overpopulated all over Nebraska. 

Gaylor Baird said she has grave concerns about a recent increase in the number of COVID-19 related hospitalizations in the community, which are trending upwards just before the holidays. 

“When I opened my email this morning and found the message from Director Lopez with today’s number of people hospitalized with COVID-19, my heart sank,” she said. “The number of cases is high, and it’s moving in the wrong direction.”

Vaccine rates have reached 50% among 16-24 year olds in the community, Gaylor Baird said, but more can and needs to be done to combat COVID-19 in Lincoln. 

Boosters are important as well, she said, because they add extra protection and extra piece of mind for those who receive them. 

Lopez also encouraged Lincoln residents to get boosters as soon as they are available to them. The department’s focus has recently been on vaccinating children aged 5-11. 

Lincoln has seen a higher number of new cases, a higher overall positivity rate for tests and strained hospital capacity over the last few weeks, Lopez said. These factors and others have kept the community’s COVID-19 risk dial in the mid-orange range. Since mid-October, the number of new cases has risen each week, according to Lopez. 

Hospitalizations occur more frequently in unvaccinated members of the community, Lopez said, as 80% of local hospitalized patients have not received a COVID-19 vaccine. Patients requiring intensive care are almost always unvaccinated, and hospital capacity continues to be a concern.

Lincoln has suffered 12 COVID-19 related deaths in the community so far in the month of November, according to a LLCHD news release