Omaha lifts mask mandate as COVID cases plunge in Nebraska
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations has improved enough in Nebraska that local health officials lifted Omaha’s mask mandate Wednesday, and some of the state’s largest hospitals said they were easing certain restrictions.
The number of people hospitalized with the coronavirus statewide has fallen steadily since hitting a peak of 767 on Jan. 28. State health officials said 436 people were hospitalized with the virus Tuesday — the lowest number since early November.
“We are certainly optimistic based on the trends we’ve seen over the past few weeks in terms of hospitalizations in Nebraska and across the country,” Nebraska Hospital Association President Jeremy Nordquist said. “However, there will be a long transition before hospitals can reach a new normal. Many of our hospitals continue to face staffing challenges, placing additional burden on our health care heroes.”
The CEO of Bryan Health in Lincoln, John Woodrich, said his hospitals are planning to lift all visitor restrictions for non-COVID patients next month. The hospitals also will require all employees who have been working remotely to return to the office starting Feb. 27, and they will restart their valet parking service on March 7.
“We know the pandemic’s not over, but we are seeing some great signs,” Woodrich said.
Bryan Health and other hospitals across Nebraska have already begun easing restrictions on surgeries. A CHI Health spokeswoman said doctors at their 14 hospitals in Nebraska and western Iowa are working through a backlog of surgeries and procedures.
Nebraska Medicine spokesman Taylor Wilson said hospital officials are “cautiously optimistic” about the improving numbers, although hospitalizations haven’t fallen as quickly as case numbers. Nebraska Medicine reopened an outpatient surgery center in west Omaha this week, and it has started to relax visitor rules at its two hospitals.
CHI Health has also eased visitor restrictions at its hospitals.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new COVID-19 cases in Nebraska fell dramatically over the past two weeks, dropping from 2,263.71 new cases per day on Jan. 31 to 429.86 new cases per day on Monday. That number was consistently above 4,000 from mid January until Jan. 26 during the peak of the surge of the omicron variant of the virus.
The number of virus cases the state reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also decreased sharply last week. The state reported 4,868 cases, down from 10,435 the week before, 22,302 the previous week and the record of 29,141 cases set in the week that began Jan. 16.
Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse said the seven-day total number of COVID-19 cases reported per 100,000 Omaha residents fell below 200 Wednesday and the number of hospital patients has been falling. Area hospitals were 85% full Wednesday. That’s what prompted the Omaha mask mandate to be lifted.
“COVID is certainly alive and well in Douglas County, however, we are making some really fantastic progress right now,” Huse said.
Although Omaha’s mask mandate was lifted, the state’s lawsuit challenging continues. A spokeswoman for the Nebraska attorney general’s office, Suzanne Gage, said the case will determine whether local health officials have the power to issue a mask mandate without getting state approval. Trial is set for June 16.
In Lincoln, health officials have said Lancaster County’s mask mandate would remain in place through Feb. 25.