The past seven days haven’t been quiet for Dr. Lindsay Huse. The director of the Douglas County Health Department issued a citywide mask mandate for Omaha, saw a lawsuit from the state of Nebraska and had text messages posted by Mayor Jean Stothert, all while COVID-19 continues spreading more than it ever has in her community. But on the morning of Jan. 19, she got a moment of calm.
“I just want to applaud her efforts and the efforts of the county board because this is the right thing to do at a critical time in our history,” Ben Salazar, the lone public commenter said over Zoom during the Douglas County Board of Health meeting.
Despite increased cases and fervor around the pandemic, Wednesday’s meeting on area public health concerns was tame as Huse shared COVID-19 and staffing updates while taking questions from board members.
New cases on a seven-day average continue doubling previous pandemic records, but Huse said the county is seeing encouraging signs. Hospital capacity was at 85% and 86% during the last two days and new cases saw a slight dip after a non-stop, meteoric rise.
“That is heartening,” Huse said. “I am hoping beyond hope that that comes down as quickly and precipitously as it rose.”
The data will lead future decisions on the current four-week mask mandate as Huse wants to see average cases per 100,000 people drop from 1,693.7, the number on Wednesday, to under 200. She’d also like to see hospital capacity to remain at around 85%.
But even some positive signs are outweighed by examples that COVID-19 is still at its peak in the community. Deaths, especially among the unvaccinated, continued climbing and by Wednesday reached 967, while the University of Nebraska Medical Center has enacted a crisis plan. About one in three Douglas County residents who gets tested is testing positive for COVID-19, though that doesn’t account for at-home tests and other tests not reported to the Douglas County Health Department.
In addition, the county health department is still dealing with challenges from other illnesses like the flu, which caused one death in the past week, Huse said. That person also had COVID-19.
Huse said the department is working to alleviate some of those issues. While a new federal program will allow households to request up to four at-home tests to be delivered by the United States Postal Service, the county is working to purchase more tests. The county is also working on a survey or form to capture more at-home testing results, with more news to come soon, she said.
While the state’s legal challenges to the citywide mask mandate were not discussed, later that day the city filed an argument in support of the mandate. An unofficial poll conducted by the Douglas County Board of Commissioners found most callers did not support the mandate.
Huse also spoke to personnel changes in the county health department, including hiring Jamin Johnson to complete its Health Equity office. The group will help tackle inequalities around social determinants of health like employment, housing and more, which often disproportionately affect people of color. The Douglas County Board of Health declared racism a public health crisis in the community in June 2020.
Board secretary Jeanee Weiss asked whether the department had gotten any closer to establishing a housing ombudsman, which had been discussed prior to COVID-19. Huse said work had stalled, but now a fully staffed Health Equity should be able to tackle the issue.
The next public Board of Health meeting will be held on Feb. 16 at 1805 Harney St., across from the Omaha-Douglas Civic Center in the former downtown United Way building.