COVID Sig

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department announced Friday it will reinstate an indoor mask mandate amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. 

The mandate will go into effect shortly after midnight on Saturday, just days before the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is set to begin the spring 2022 semester, and continue through Feb. 11.

“Our data continues to head in the wrong direction,” Health Director Pat Lopez said during a news conference. 

The omicron variant of COVID-19 is now the dominant strain in Nebraska, according to Lopez, while the delta variant also continues to spread.

Lopez reported the 7-day rolling average of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 has increased from 113 on Christmas to 132 this week. Of those patients, 72% are from Lancaster County, and 736 cases of COVID-19 were reported on Wednesday, another new daily record, according to Lopez.

The health department’s “Risk Dial,” which monitors the risk of COVID-19 spreading in the community based on relevant metrics, remains at its highest level, indicating a “severe” risk of spread of the coronavirus. For one of the first times, Lopez said officials are now seeing an “extreme” risk of transmission.

Lincoln Public Schools announced Friday classes would be canceled the next three Fridays in order to keep schools staffed “to continue safely serving students.” On Thursday, Lincoln Pius X High School announced shortened school days through Jan. 21 in preparation for an expected increase in absenteeism.

UNL released its updated COVID protocols for the spring semester on Jan. 5, which included a temporary indoor mask mandate and one round of re-entry testing for students, staff and faculty. Random mitigation testing, where students are randomly chosen each week to be tested for COVID, will take place after as planned.

Leslie Reed, public affairs director for UNL, said no changes are necessary to UNL’s updated protocols in the wake of the health department’s new mandate as masks were already required.

“UNL always works together with us very clearly. They are testing 100% of everyone returning to classes after the holiday,” Lopez said. “I think we have all seen that we have to pivot at times regarding our community situation."

Dr. Eric Avery, the president of the Lancaster County Medical Society, said during the news conference that COVID-19 symptoms can be similar to those of allergies, but people he is testing with these symptoms turn out to have COVID-19.

““No one wanted to go back to having to do things like this, but we have to do it from the standpoint of safety,” Avery said regarding the reinstated mask mandate.

Lancaster County reported Thursday that 64.8% of its residents are fully vaccinated. The health department is aiming to fully vaccinate 75% of Lancaster County residents.

“To those of you who are not vaccinated,” Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird said, “I am asking you to consider: if you’re not willing to get vaccinated for yourself, who would you be willing to get vaccinated for?”

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