Lancaster County’s current directed health measure and related mask mandate due to COVID-19 will end on Dec. 23, according to the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department. 

Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department Director Pat Lopez announced the move at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, citing the fact that all eligible residents have had the opportunity to get the vaccine. Lopez encouraged residents to continue to wear masks around others when outside their homes. 

The mandate will officially expire at 11:59 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 23.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln public affairs director Leslie Reed said in a statement the university anticipates being able to inform the community of any recommendations after winter break.

“UNL is evaluating course-specific safety protocols for classrooms that were in place before the 2021 fall semester and which courses may fall within those parameters for the 2022 spring semester,” the statement Reed provided to The Daily Nebraskan states.

Deb Fiddelke, UNL’s chief communication and marketing officer, said masks will be encouraged but not required for those who remain on campus during winter break, including students still in the residence halls 

Community members can expect an update about COVID-19 policy for the spring semester within the first week of January, she said, after staff members return from their holiday closedown on Monday, Jan 3. 

When asked about the possibility of returning to online classes due to the Omicron variant, Fiddelke said “We are going to do everything we can to maintain in-person education.” 

But Fiddelke said the university remains ready to pivot due to changes in the COVID-19 landscape.

The university’s policy before the fall 2021 semester required masks whenever students were in close proximity and allowed for students and instructors with health concerns for themselves or their families to make a request that masks be required in their classes. Masks are currently required in all classes and indoor spaces at UNL.

Just before the conference, the department identified the first case of the omicron variant in Lincoln, according to Lopez. The Douglas County Health Department announced 10 cases of the omicron variant Tuesday as well. 

The omicron variant has become the dominant strain in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Hospital capacity remains a concern in Lincoln, Lopez said, as there are 126 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 with 21 on ventilators in local hospitals. The county has seen 17 deaths due to COVID-19 so far this month. 

The COVID-19 risk dial for the area remains in elevated orange, but 64% of Lincoln residents are fully vaccinated for the coronavirus, according to Lopez. 

Lopez said the mandate was maintained in the community for the past month to allow parents and guardians to vaccinate their children after the vaccine was approved for new age groups. 

The department continues to strongly recommend vaccination for all individuals five years old or older and encourages masking in situations of close contact outside the home.

The mask mandate has led to decreased case numbers, but at this point it is up to the public to make decisions for the good of everyone, according to Lopez. She said getting vaccinated and masking in enclosed spaces remain the best tools against COVID-19. 

The end of this health measure does not mean the mask mandate will not return, Lopez said, and the department may revisit it if cases rise due to the omicron variant. 

“Something we have to understand is we’re going to see variants,” she said, “especially when people aren’t vaccinated.”

This article was updated at 5:50 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 21, to include updated information on UNL's COVID-19 policy from Deb Fiddelke.