OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) – The State of Nebraska on Tuesday denied the Douglas County health director’s request for a DHM implementing a temporary local mask mandate.
Douglas County Health Director Dr. Lindsay Huse informed the Board of Commissioners at their meeting Tuesday morning that she had sent a request to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services to approve a Directed Health Measure temporarily mandating masking here for everyone ages 5 and older at most indoor public venues.
That evening, the state’s chief medical officer said the request had been denied.
“Under the current circumstances, imposing restrictions on every individual at a district level is not appropriate. The Department has not imposed or approved restrictions on individuals unless the specific individual posed an identifiable risk to others,” Dr. Gary Anthone said in a letter to Dr. Huse.
He also said the state Attorney General would challenge any sort of DHM that the Douglas County Health Department might attempt to enforce.
“Governor Ricketts and DHHS have not supported a mask mandate and continue to encourage Nebraskans to exercise personal responsibility when it comes to masking and vaccination,” the letter states.
Dr. Huse said she had requested the mandate remain in effect in Douglas County until two key COVID-19 indicators fall below “substantial” on the risk chart, in line with federal guidance; or until eight weeks after COVID-19 vaccine approval for children ages 5-11.
The county is currently at “high” transmission risk, which is above “substantial.”
Dr. Hues and some members of the board said they realize the issue of mask mandates has become very political — it’s no secret that Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has been strong against mask mandates.
“The sad thing about this, I feel like this is almost a fight of science versus freedom, and that’s a lose-lose. Most of us believe in decent science. Most of us believe in freedom, so it’s not one or the other,” said Dr. Maureen Boyle, Douglas County Commissioner. “We do need to share both, but to really protect our community in the best way is really putting a mask on.”
The Omaha City Council did pass a mask ordinance last August, and voted to extend it several times before letting it expire in May. Several councilmembers whom 6 News spoke with Tuesday said they will wait to see what the state decides to do, but Aimee Melton and Brinker Harding said they would not support a mask ordinance for Omaha.
Mayor Jean Stothert said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that she wasn’t aware of Dr. Huse’s request to DHHS, and that she would not support another mask ordinance in Omaha.
Dr. Huse said during her report that vaccination rates had been slowly increasing, and expressed optimism that the FDA approval of Pfiizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for ages 16 and older would lead to an increase in vaccinations.
Also on Tuesday, Dr. Huse also noted a change to the COVID-19 indicators available on the health department’s online dashboard, particularly the “Risk Indicators.” The metric changed to better align with the transmission in the county — and with how other agencies track their data, to allow for easier comparisons — moving from a number of cases per 100,000 people on a daily basis to now show the number of cases over a seven-day period.
The health director also noted the shift to more current data sets, which happened after the U.S. Census Bureau released its latest population report.
Dr. Huse told the commissioners that local data is showing a trend of increasing cases among school-aged children.
“Until they can get vaccinated, we need to have other measures to limit transmission,” she said.
It’s not just about classrooms, she said: They’re in club sports, they’re going to public places with group settings, and participating in activities.
Hospitalizations are sitting around 80%, fluctuating slightly above and below that level from day to day, Dr. Huse said, and ICU capacity has paralleled those levels. Ventilator use has been very slowly increasing, she said.
She said she has spoken with several exhausted and alarmed local healthcare providers who have relayed stories about “the 50 or so patients that line the hallways of emergency rooms every day. And the nurses who are broken from a year and a half of witnessing serious sickness and death who are now still showing up, totally broken, and caring for the public even though the public doesn’t even care anymore.”
Kids and families deserve protection, she said. Implementing a mask mandate in the county until transmission risk subsides will keep children in schools, she said.
Watch Dr. Huse’s presentation to the Board of Commissioners
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