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Citing vaccination levels, Lincoln to end months-long mask mandate
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Citing vaccination levels, Lincoln to end months-long mask mandate

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On the same day Lancaster County officials announced the first confirmed local case of the COVID-19 omicron variant, they said they will be dropping the countywide mask mandate.

City officials, in their weekly coronavirus briefing, referenced the availability of vaccines to everyone age 5 and over and booster shots as the underlying rationale for allowing the directed health measure to expire.

Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird said 84,000 Lancaster County residents have gotten booster shots. The state says that 69% of those residents eligible for the vaccinate are fully vaccinated.

Lancaster County reinstated its mask mandate in late August in the face of rising cases due to the delta variant and was the only city or county in the state to require masks in indoor settings over the past four months.

That led to criticism both from people who felt there shouldn't be a mask mandate and from supporters of the mandate who didn't feel it was being enforced.

COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations rose throughout the fall, even though they have remained well below levels reached last fall and winter. That's likely due to the county's rate of vaccination, which is among the highest in the state.

After hitting a high of more than 1,200 cases the week ending Dec. 4, the county has seen its case numbers decline slightly the past two weeks, to just over 1,000 cases a week ago. However, that's still one of the highest weekly totals of 2021.

Unlike case numbers, hospitalizations have risen recently, with Lincoln reaching a 2021 high of 129 COVID-19 patients on Friday. That number had dropped to 112 on Monday.

The mask mandate officially expires at the end of the day Thursday.

Masks will still be required in some places, including hospitals, health care facilities and senior living centers, on public transportation and in the Lincoln Airport terminal.

Director Pat Lopez said the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department will strongly recommend that masks be worn in schools and at sporting events, theaters and other settings where people are seated close together.

In a statement, Lincoln Public Schools officials said they will announce any changes to the district's pandemic protocols for the second semester on Wednesday, the last day of classes before the holiday break.

Classes in LPS are set to resume Jan. 5.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln told faculty and staff in an email Tuesday the campus would look at reverting to its COVID policies and procedures planned for the start of the 2021-22 school year, if the local mask mandate was allowed to expire.

The university's policy, which was announced before the county's directed health measure took effect, included requiring masks in settings where students worked in close proximity or for an extended period of time, including lab courses, performance courses such as dance, music and theater, art and design studios, and experiential learning opportunities.

It also allowed instructors or students who are unable to be vaccinated or have family members who are unable to be vaccinated because of health concerns submit requests to the university that masks be required in their classes.

UNL will make a decision on its COVID policies and procedures before the start of the spring semester on Jan. 18, spokeswoman Deb Fiddelke said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.

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