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State sues to block Omaha mask mandate as virus cases soar

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OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The state of Nebraska has gone to court to block Omaha’s new mask mandate even though the number of virus cases has risen dramatically this month as the highly contagious omicron variant spreads.

The Nebraska Attorney General’s office said Thursday that it filed its lawsuit late Wednesday and asked for an immediate hearing. The state argues that Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse doesn’t have the authority to issue a mask mandate unless the state approves it beforehand, and the state Department of Health and Human Services has rejected her previous requests.

Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts also reiterated his opposition to any mask mandates in response to the new Omaha rule.

Huse said Tuesday that she believes she is on solid legal ground in issuing the mandate under the powers granted to her by city code. She said the rule is needed because of the recent “astronomical spike in cases” that is filling up hospitals.

Huse and Omaha’s city attorney didn’t immediately respond Thursday after the lawsuit was announced, but Mayor Jean Stothert and the city council president have both said they believe the health director has the authority to impose the mandate even though Stothert opposes it.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Nebraska has risen over the past two weeks from 892.14 new cases per day on Dec. 28 to 3,161.57 new cases per day on Tuesday.

The state set a record last week when it reported 17,382 virus cases to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was up from 10,682 the week before that and 4,956 the previous week. By Tuesday, the state had already reported 11,333 cases this week.

The number of people hospitalized with the virus statewide grew to 649 Tuesday. The state estimated that 23% of the hospital beds across Nebraska remain available but only 11% of the beds in Omaha hospitals were free. Hospital officials have said they are close to their limits because they are treating so many non-COVID patients, and the number of virus hospitalizations may double over the next couple weeks.

The mask order would be lifted if virus case counts and hospital capacity improve significantly, but currently the county is reporting an average of 1,534 new cases per 100,000 people over the past week and that number would have to be below 200 before health officials would consider dropping the mandate.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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