OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A prominent Nebraska infectious disease expert sounded the alarm Thursday about the state's surging coronavirus cases and called for a statewide mask mandate, a step Gov. Pete Ricketts has repeatedly refused to take.

Dr. James Lawler, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said the pandemic has reached its most dangerous point since it began and described the recent increase in virus hospitalizations as unsustainable.

“I’ve been in mass-casualty situations in combat zones in Afghanistan, I’ve been in Ebola treatment centers in very austere conditions, and I have never been as frightened about the status of the health system as I am about the status of our health care system in Nebraska right now," Lawler said during a video conference call.

Nebraska hospitals are straining to cope with the spike in coronavirus patients, and officials are urging the public to wear masks and take other precautionary steps to slow the spread of the disease. The virus has been surging in Nebraska, with more than five times as many COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Wednesday than the 185 it had two months ago.

Nebraska limits indoor gatherings to 25% of a space's capacity and requires people to wear masks at businesses where employees and customers are in close contact for more than 15 minutes, such as salons. At bars and restaurants, groups are limited to eight people and tables must be six feet apart.

But Ricketts has resisted imposing a statewide order broadly requiring people to wear masks in public, relying instead on individuals to take responsibility for wearing them. Ricketts said Thursday that the state does require masks for some people, such as restaurant workers, but he remains opposed to “broad-based mandates.”

“We do have mask requirements where appropriate,” he said.

Ricketts and Lawler both spoke on a video-chat news conference to announce a new public relations campaign dubbed “Do Right, Right Now.”

Ricketts has said he would impose more restrictions if 25% of hospitalizations in the state are for COVID-19, but that rate stood at 21% on Wednesday.

“Hospitalizations are spiking and we have to bend that curve,” said Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical officer. “Hospital staff provide critical care for us when we need it most, and right now they are flooded with patients and telling us they need our help.”

The number of people hospitalized with the coronavirus decreased slightly on Wednesday to 961, from 978 on Tuesday. The state reported its second-highest daily total of new confirmed cases on Wednesday, 2,812, which raised its overall total since the pandemic began to 106,617. It reported 10 new deaths, raising its COVID-19 death toll to 826, according to the state’s online virus tracker.

Nebraska has the sixth-highest rate of infection in the country. Over the past week, one out of every 116 people in the state was diagnosed with COVID-19, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Nebraska has risen over the past two weeks from roughly 1,241 new cases per day on Nov. 4 to 2,296 new cases per day as of Wednesday.

Lawler implored residents to heed the warnings of scientists and doctors who are trying to stop the pandemic.

“The reason that we ask for (mask) mandates it that we know they work,” he said. “Compliance increases (and) mandates result in a reduction in cases and in fatalities.”


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