University of Nebraska Medical Center Dr. James Lawler sounded the COVID-19 alarm bell again Thursday, warning of potential doubling of deaths and infections that may overwhelm Nebraska's hospital system within the next few weeks and calling for a statewide mask mandate to help stem the tide.
Gov. Pete Ricketts, who participated in the same Zoom conference, continued to reject a mandate when asked to react to Lawler's call.
"We do have mask requirements where appropriate," the governor said.
"I think we should use masks," he said, but he remains "opposed to broad-based mandates."
The dramatic disagreement over how to respond to the sharply rising spread of the virus across the state was sparked by Lawler's opening remarks during a virtual news conference launching a campaign by the Douglas County Health Department and the Omaha Community Foundation urging Nebraskans to "Do Right, Right Now" in taking action to combat the deadly virus.
In his opening remarks, Lawler — director of UNMC's Global Center for Health Security — said "it's time to listen to doctors and physicians and scientists" and change course to confront what he warned will be "the most dangerous time of this pandemic."
Both COVID-19 cases and deaths in Nebraska could double within the next two or three weeks, he said, overwhelming hospital capacity "unless we dramatically change course."
On Thursday alone, Douglas County reported a daily record of 978 new coronavirus cases, with 372 new cases confirmed in Lancaster County.
"Wearing face masks is not a perfect solution," Lawler said, but when that action is layered together with washing hands repeatedly and maintaining 6 feet of physical distancing, it can create "a relatively impenetrable barrier."
"The reason that we ask for mandates is that we know they work," he said. "Compliance increases, (and) mandates result in a reduction in cases and in fatalities."
Lawler said it's time to end gatherings of more than 10 people in the state.
Nebraska is now on the verge of "getting into the territory of South Dakota and North Dakota," he warned, where COVID-19 now virtually is "an unchecked epidemic."
North Dakota and South Dakota, both states of fewer than 1 million people, are averaging 14 deaths a day over the past week, or 2 deaths per every 100,000 residents.
With over 800 deaths from COVID-19, North Dakota is not far behind Nebraska's total, although Nebraska has 2½ times as many people.
Responding to a question later in the Zoom event, Ricketts said "we all need to step up and take care of each other" by wearing a mask, washing hands repeatedly and maintaining social distancing.
"Nebraskans have always stepped up to take care of each other," the governor said.
"Do the right thing," he said. "Do it right now."
Asked about the growing number of Nebraska municipalities that are considering issuing mask mandates, Ricketts said he would "encourage cities to check with legal counsel on their legal authority to do so."
Mask mandates are currently in effect in Lincoln, Omaha, Beatrice and Fairbury. Kearney approved one that takes effect Monday.
Susanne Shore, Nebraska's first lady and a former hospital nurse, issued "a plea to everyone to wear masks" during her remarks at the Zoom conference.
Hospital personnel are experiencing "grueling, day-after-day" challenges, she said, working to save lives during a period of "unfathomable stress."
Ricketts and Shore are in quarantine at their home in Omaha after being in contact with a friend who tested positive for the virus. Neither has been showing symptoms of infection.
The Do Right, Right Now campaign has expanded from Omaha and Douglas County to include a partnership with the Nebraska Department of Education and Nebraska Children and Families Foundation.
Dr. Adi Pour, director of the Douglas County Health Department, said the campaign has moved statewide and will continue for six to nine months.
"It's imperative to educate the public on how to fight the spread," she said, and reduce the rate of new cases and hospitalizations.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @LJSdon
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