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Kansas City Will Reissue Indoor Mask Mandate As Hospitals Fill Up With COVID Patients

Truman Medical Center pharmacist Sara Lauterwasser injects ICU nurse Sarah Kiehl on Dec. 14, 2020 with the first COVID-19 vaccine at Truman Medical Center/University Health. The hospital is now requiring all staff be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Truman Medical Center/University Health
Truman Medical Center pharmacist Sara Lauterwasser injects ICU nurse Sarah Kiehl on Dec. 14, 2020 with the first COVID-19 vaccine at Truman Medical Center/University Health. The hospital is now requiring all staff be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Tuesday's announcement from Mayor Quinton Lucas follows new CDC guidance urging that vaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas with significant COVID-19 spread.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says he will issue a renewed health order on Wednesday requiring masks indoors, following new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC on Tuesday urged fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors in areas considered to have “substantial” or "high" COVID-19 transmission. The agency also recommended all students, teachers and staff at K-12 schools wear masks, even if they're vaccinated.

"I have stuck with CDC guidance throughout the pandemic and today is no different," Lucas tweeted on Tuesday evening. "I will return Kansas City to a mask mandate indoors based upon national and regional health guidance and discussion with other Kansas City leaders."

Both Kansas City and Jackson County lifted their initial mask mandates in May, when COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations were on the downswing nationally.

However, those trends have since reversed, caused by the more-contagious delta variant and Missouri's low vaccination rates. Just 41% of Missouri residents are fully vaccinated, lagging behind the national average of 49%.

As of Monday, the state is now averaging over 2,400 new COVID-19 infections every day, a 77% increase in just the last two weeks. According to The New York Times, there are currently 1,749 Missourians hospitalized across the state.

New data from the CDC found that all but two Missouri counties are currently COVID-19 hotspots — only Scotland County in the northeast corner of the state and Pemiscot in the bootheel had "moderate" levels of transmission.

"We cannot ignore the rapid spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant in Missouri— outpacing much of the country," Lucas continued. "We will do all we can to ensure our corner of this state is safe."

Kansas City follows the lead of St. Louis and St. Louis County, which reinstated their own mask mandates on Monday.

New Mandates In Jackson County

Jackson County announced Tuesday a new health mandate requiring all county employees to get their COVID-19 vaccine or go through weekly tests. Starting on Sept. 30, all full-time and part-time Jackson County staff will have to show proof of full vaccination, or else receive a COVID-19 test each week.

Jackson County Executive Frank White said the requirement is an effort to combat the highly-transmissible delta variant, which has contributed to surging hospitalization numbers across the region.

“You look at the percentage of people who are becoming infected with the virus, the majority are unvaccinated,” White said. “So we make every effort to vaccinate most of our folks to keep them safer, keep their family safer.”

White said the 14-day positivity rate has tripled since June 6, while case counts have quadrupled in eastern Jackson County.

Under the new mandate, masks will continue to be required in all Jackson County buildings and facilities, regardless of vaccination status.

Hospitals At Capacity

Meanwhile, hospitals across Missouri are nearing capacity as they face a dwindling number of staffed beds.

The Missouri Hospital Association said in a letter to Attorney General Eric Schmitt they are struggling to find enough health care workers to keep up with the recent surge in patients.

The association said agencies are charging hospitals “exceedingly high rates” to supply staff, placing a greater burden on rural and smaller hospitals that are unable to afford contract labor.

“Without some effort to temper those market forces, hospitals’ ability to staff needed units and provide necessary care for all Missourians who need it can be disrupted,” wrote Herb B. Kuhn, president and CEO of the Missouri Hospital Association.

Officials at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City said they have reached capacity, the latest local health system to raise such concerns.

Dr. Barbara Pahud, Children's Mercy’s research director of pediatric infectious diseases, said on the University of Kansas Hospital’s daily update that they're seeing an uptick in children coming in with COVID and other respiratory illnesses.

And Dr. Angela Myers, the hospital's division director of pediatric infectious diseases, said there's also a spike of patients admitted with childhood illnesses like respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. That virus is usually only seen in the winter, but Myers said the hospital admitted more than 20 patients with RSV over the past several weeks.

Myers said the rise in cases is linked to the region’s lack of mask mandates. When pandemic restrictions began last year, she said RSV cases disappeared within a week.

“We're out in public more, gathering together more, so we're having more exposures with each other," Myers said. "We also have a young group of children who weren't exposed to these respiratory viruses for more than a year."

Myers recommended parents protect their young children from COVID and other respiratory illnesses by putting a mask on them when they’re indoors or around other unvaccinated people.

On Monday, Truman Medical Centers/University Health announced it would require COVID-19 vaccines for all of its workers — the first health care system in the region to do so. The entire workforce will be required to get vaccines by Sept. 20.

Most other hospitals in the region have so far declined to mandate vaccines, including Children’s Mercy University of Kansas Health System, Providence Medical Center, Advent Health Shawnee Mission, and HCA Midwest Health.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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