Douglas County Health Department backs down from face mask mandate

Published: Jul. 31, 2020 at 9:55 AM CDT|Updated: Jul. 31, 2020 at 6:22 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Citing legal disputes that arose in the last 72 hours, Douglas County Health Director Dr. Adi Pour said Friday that she won’t be issuing a face mask mandate for Omaha or the county at this time.

The move came as a surprise as previous moves by DCHD had indicated a mask mandate would be in effect Monday.

“In the last few days, there has been some legal disagreement between the Attorney General’s office and city attorneys regarding the authority of the local health director to issue a mask mandate for the City of Omaha,” Pour said.

Pour says politics had nothing to do with the change of direction for the mask mandate in Omaha.

“Liberty also requires responsibility,” she said.

Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office issued a response just after noon Friday: “The Governor’s Office joined a call earlier this week with the Attorney General’s Office, Douglas County, and the City of Omaha to voice our opinion that state statute did not allow for a mask mandate in the way they proposed it. The Governor supports Dr. Pour’s decision, and is working with her to encourage people to wear a mask when shopping.”

The state Attorney General’s office said Friday afternoon that the legal issue was discussed with the Omaha City Attorney, but that the state did not direct city officials on whether to enact a mask ordinance.

Citing Nebraska statutes, the state AG’s office told 6 News that DCHD “may only take measures ‘to arrest the progress of’ infectious disease ‘with the approval of the Department of Health and Human Services.‘ ” The release notes that Nebraska law has an exception for the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, which allowed that health district to enact the mask mandate that went into effect in Lincoln on July 20.

Pour urged people to continue wearing face coverings in public, even without a mandate. With no mask mandate in place, city officials and medical experts in the community asked the community to step up to keep everyone safe.

Dr. Mark Rupp, professor and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, called attention to the political nature of the face mask mandate.

“Personally, I’m very disappointed that we’re not here before you to announce a masking mandate for Omaha and Douglas County,” he said. “I’m frustrated that as a community could not find a way to surmount perceived political threats, potential legal challenge, or logistical hurdles to mandate mask usage in our locality.”

Rupp echoed the sentiments of previous health officials at the podium Friday in urging the public to continue wearing face masks, even without a mandate in place.

“It is incumbent upon each of us to do the right thing, to show personal responsibility, and to wear a cloth face covering or face mask whenever we cannot maintain a safe minimum distance from one another or when we are in an indoor shared environment,” he said.

Face masks are not a perfect defense, he said, as many variances can decrease their effectiveness. “However they do offer some protection, and some protection is better than no protection.”

In addition to holding back potential infection by holding back respiratory droplets, Rupp said “masks serve as a strong reminder to all of us — a visual clue — that we are in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, and that we need to socially distance and that we need to practice good hand hygiene,” as well as reminding us to not touch our face.

“Unfortunately, mask-wearing has devolved into a divisive and political issue. this is faulty thinking. wearing a mask in simp a common-sense public health intervention to keep us healthy,” he said.

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said that wearing face masks should be a public health issue, not a political one. She said she was happy to see so many businesses in the community requiring patrons to wear face coverings.

“We need to be wearing masks in public all the time,” she said.

Stothert said the city has been consistent in emphasizing the importance of wearing masks, social distancing, and washing hands to fight community spread.

“And we still feel the same,” she said.

She repeatedly emphasized wearing face coverings.

“Wearing a mask is very, very important and it will help control the spread of COVID-19. We know that. It’s a simple request we want to make to every citizen in Omaha: Please wear your mask when you are out in public,” she said.

The mayor talked about the concerns officials have as school districts prepare for the return to class in coming weeks.

“I have great concerns as school starts — as do all the area superintendents,” Stothert said. “I talk to them frequently. They have Plan A, B, C, and D now, and probably a lot more, just not knowing what’s going to happen when school starts. And I think the mask-wearing is critical for that.”

Stothert said she will ask the city’s law department to draft a resolution supporting the wearing of face masks in public places that can be presented to the City Council for them to send out to the community.

Such a resolution would be non-binding by law, she said, but makes a strong statement.

The mayor said the city could put a city ordinance in place, but said she was concerned it would take too long.

Such an ordinance couldn’t it would take three meetings and a second reading of public testimony and then the law would into effect 15 days after the third reading.

The mayor said she’s heard many complaints that a face mask mandate would infringe on, or even remove, individual rights and freedoms.

“But the Constitution is not absolute, and in times of war and in times of pandemic and epidemic, it does give government the authority to make some pretty strict changes for the health and safety for all of our citizens.”

“Yes, you have lost some of your freedoms,” she said. “But the great thing about this country and our Constitution is that you will get those back.”

Stothert promised she herself would fight “to the Nth degree” to return those rights to the people, but “right now, we really really need to be responsible and do the right thing.”

Stothert also said no CARES Act funds decisions had been made yet for the city of Omaha, and that issue was not connected to the face mask mandate.

Dr. Kari Neemann, DCHD medical advisor who is also an adult and pediatric infectious disease doctor who sees patients at Children’s Hospital and Nebraska Medicine, talked about her experience treating adults and children with COVID-19.

“I’ve seen what it can do,” she said. “While children, for the most part, tolerate this virus very very well... there are those children that get sick and require admission to the hospital."

She also talked about treating children with multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, which caused multi-organ disfunction.

In the past two weeks, there has been an increase here in children with acute COVID-19 infection, she said. Two had acute respiratory distress and needed to be placed on a ventilator.

“The families of these patients had been doing everything right,” she said. “They had been social-distancing their kids. They hadn’t been out of the house in months. They hadn’t allowed sick people into their homes. But parents have to go to work, and occasionally an extended family member who appeared well visited.”

The children were infected by an asymptomatic case in the community, she said.

“Our community failed these families,” she said.

Everyone can help make this better, she said, by wearing masks, washing their hands, and keeping social distance.

“Masks work,” she said. “We are having more and more evidence that this works.”

She compared face masks to seat belts and car seats, which weren’t standard, initially, until it was learned over time what their benefit was to society. Likewise, directed health measures will have a benefit to everyone in the community.

“I would ask our community to step up. Do your civic responsibility,” she said.

Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical officer who was also in attendance to represent the governor’s office, gave kudos to health departments and directors across the state — and Dr. Pour in particular — for their hard work in handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Specifically, Dr. Pour truly epitomizes what a public servant is and what a pub health expert is,” he said. “As a doctor for more than 40 years, I cared for one patient at a time. I can’t imagine how it feels to care for half a million people at a time.”

Applauding state efforts to combat the virus, he recalled the news conference in March when state officials announced Nebraska’s first COVID-19 case.

At that time, they stressed the importance of non-pharmaceutical interventions, he said.

“That was our only way to slow the spread of the virus,” he said. “There was no vaccine, and no one was immune.”

He talked about the success of the governor’s “21 days” campaign unveiled in April.

“Nebraskans did the right thing,” he said. “And we did flatten the curve. We preserved our health care capacity.”

Anyone that needed a hospital room or care, or a ventilator, was able to have one, he said.

Today, the same precautions are a mainstay of COVID-19 precautions, he said, but have evolved in recent months to what state officials call the “three Ws”: wear a mask, watch your distance (and wear a mask when that’s not possible), and wash your hands frequently.

“We know the importance of protecting yourself and others when you wear a mask, and we will continue to stress that at the state level,” Anthone said, noting that he expects Nebraskans will step up and do the right thing.

Dr. John-Martin Lowe, who has recently written studies on the aerosolization of COVID-19, said he wanted to add a little bit more context to what had already been stated in the news conference.

The studies were conducted on air samples among people who were mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic, he said.

“Our studies show that talking and coughing and other verbal activities are fairly efficient at putting virus out into the air and exposing others,” Lowe said.

The studies show added value in covering your mouth and nose while you’re talking, he said.

“This becomes an important consideration when we’re indoors and when we’re with a number of people,” he said.

While he recognizes “masks are no silver bullet,” they are very effective, he said.

“Our team wears masks, and we have not had one infection,” he said, noting his team operates in the most high-risk environments. They took the very first COVID-19 patients from airplanes into quarantine units, and have responded to outbreaks at meat-packing plants.

“We wear masks in meetings,” he said.

Wearing face masks is “a calling as a community during this extraordinary time during a global community,” he said. “This is going to require a community effort to control coronavirus.”

He also drew attention to what he called “a silent issue”: Those who have been quarantined in their nursing home rooms since February “and will remain there until we get this pandemic under control.”

6 News talked with an Omaha resident named Brandon in the parking lot of the health department Friday protesting against wearing a mask.

“I won’t wear a mask,” he said. “I want to address the real issues. We are in a public health crisis of epidemic and pandemic proportions before corona. We’re talking about obesity, diabetes, cancer.”

Whatever officials decide about mask-wearing, they still have a long way to go to convince everyone that wearing a mask helps fight COVID-19.

“You know what, (Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony) Fauci uses epidemiology — the lowest standard of scientific inquiry,” Brandon said.

Citing DCHD concerns about the reopening of schools and elevated reports of new cases, she said that Douglas County would remain in Phase 3 of the governor’s DHM while many other counties move to Phase 4 on Saturday.

Pour said she could revisit a mask mandate in the future.

Watch the Q&A from Friday’s news conference

Watch the entire news conference

6 News reporter John Chapman contributed to this report.

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