As University of Nebraska-Lincoln students return to campus for the spring 2022 semester amid the university’s own mask mandate, the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department is warning of worsening conditions of COVID-19.

Lancaster County had a record high of 2,893 cases the week ending Jan. 8, Health Director Pat Lopez said at a weekly news conference Tuesday. While a mask mandate was not reinstated, Lopez urged members of the community to take measures to mitigate the rapid spread of the omicron variant. 

UNL will maintain its mask requirement on campus on a temporary but indefinite basis as the semester begins, and Lincoln Public Schools will maintain a mask requirement throughout the month of January. UNL will also require re-entry testing for members of the community.

Douglas County announced the reinstatement of a mask mandate Tuesday. In a tweet, Gov. Ricketts has already promised legal action, saying the Douglas County Health Department does not have the authority to impose a mandate.

On Jan. 11, the health department raised it’s COVID-19 risk dial to red, indicating a severe risk of spread of the coronavirus.

“If you don’t think our situation is urgent, you’re wrong,” Lopez said. “If you’re sick of COVID, now is not the time to become complacent.” 

According to Lopez, 50% of current COVID-19 cases are in those aged 30 or younger, with 30% of cases in citizens in the 19-29 age group. While hospitalizations are not at record highs, Lopez said 92% of local intensive care unit beds are occupied.

The health department recommended the following precautions to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus:

  • For the next three to four weeks, only go out for work or school, to buy food, seek medical attention or to get vaccinated

  • Get vaccinated, including a booster shot if applicable

  • Wear a mask indoors and around other people outside your household

  • Avoid large crowds and do not attend events such as concerts or athletics

  • Get tested if you have symptoms that match COVID-19

Lopez said a mask mandate remains an option for the health department, and officials are continuously working with medical professionals to evaluate the situation.

With UNL students poised to return for classes on Tuesday, Jan. 18, Lopez said there is a concern the situation could worsen. UNL recorded positivity rates of 15.88% and 20.68% for the weeks ending Jan. 1 and Jan. 8, according to the UNL COVID-19 Dashboard.

These are the highest recorded positivity rates since the week ending Sept. 12, 2020, when the positivity rate was 13.85%. A UNL spokesperson said in a phone call that the current positivity rate is not a meaningful number, as the university does not have students on campus and is primarily testing those with exposure or symptoms of COVID-19

“UNL has worked with us throughout the pandemic, and all students will be masked,” Lopez said.

Lopez’s biggest advice for students returning to campus is to get vaccinated.

“I would advise [students] to make sure they’re using their masks and that they’ve been vaccinated or have received their booster,” Lopez said. “That’s really one of the most critical pieces that they can do.”