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Wyandotte County Health Officials Push For A Mask Mandate, But Commissioners Take No Action

Local jurisdictions are weighing the decision to update their health orders after Kansas City issued a mandate that would require masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Local jurisdictions are weighing the decision to update their health orders after Kansas City issued a mandate that would require masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

Health officials are urging Wyandotte and Johnson Counties to consider updating their health orders after Kansas City, Missouri, announced a new mask mandate.

The Wyandotte County Health Department is recommending a six-week mask mandate, regardless of vaccination status, as the area faces a rising number of COVID-19 cases.

The department told the Unified Government's Board of Commissioners on Thursday night that action is needed “urgently” as case numbers rise to highs last seen in January. Commissioners took no action at the special meeting.

“What masks do is add this extra layer of protection immediately. If we started doing this tomorrow, it would drive down spread very quickly” said Juliann Van Liew, the health department's director. “It can do that actually quicker than the vaccine, and that's why the mitigation measure now is our call.”

The health department said they have been seeing 50 to 60 new COVID-19 cases daily for the last several days. The percent positivity rate has also hovered at 30%.

Case numbers have been driven up by the spread of the highly contagious delta variant and the county's continued low vaccination rate, according to a department official.

With only 35% of total Wyandotte County residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19, health department officials were concerned about the number of young children that are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

Dr. Erin Corriveau, the deputy medical officer for the Unified Government, said that there has been an uptick in the number of young people testing positive for the virus, especially those in their twenties.

“You can see how young people are really getting the virus, and unfortunately, spreading the virus. We think that this pandemic is now really being driven by young people,” Corriveau said.

The department also recommended universal masking for K-12 students, teachers and staff. Other recommendations include physical distancing of at least three feet, diagnostic and screening tests, vaccinations, and contact tracing with isolation and quarantine.

This follows recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommended all students, teachers and staff at K-12 schools wear masks, even if they're vaccinated.

The board also is following federal requirements that place restrictions on long-term facilities if they are in a “red zone,” which currently includes Wyandotte County. Facilities red zones are required to test unvaccinated staff twice weekly and suspend indoor visits if less than 70% of residents are vaccinated.

Seven out of 10 facilities in Wyandotte have over 70% of the residents vaccinated, but 8 out of 10 facilities have less than 70% of their staff vaccinated.

Some commissioners raised concerns about how a potential mask mandate would be enforced.

Van Liew said that while the department has the authority to penalize people with fines for not complying with the health order, education and working with community partners has been more effective. When mask mandates were in place during the winter, she said 95% of businesses complied with health orders after a second visit from COVID inspectors.

UG Commissioner Mike Kane said he wanted to see what Johnson County and Leavenworth were doing before a vote.

“I don't want to be in the same boat that we were in the last time where people had to leave Wyandotte County to get something,” Kane said.

The special session was only informational, and the commissioners took no action.

Johnson County

The Johnson County Commission announced at its meeting Thursday morning that they’ll discuss possible action next week. In public comments, several speakers spoke against reinstating another mask mandate.

“I believe the people of Johnson County are an intelligent, responsible and critical thinking group of people that can form their own opinions and come up with the best strategies on how to best protect themselves against viruses that are in the community,” said Jenny Cox of Overland Park, Kansas.

Johnson County’s positivity rate is lower than much of the region’s at around 8%, but that number is a steep increase from the 1.4% reported by the health department on June 3.

The county also reported higher vaccination numbers than neighboring counties with nearly 57% of eligible residents fully vaccinated.

Dr. Sanmi Areola, director of the county’s health department, said that while the county’s vaccination numbers are “really good,” the county needs to consider the rates across the area.

“One of the things pointed out is to be sure that we look at numbers more across the region than to look at our numbers in isolation,” said Areola. “Because people live here and walk elsewhere and vice versa, and the numbers across the region are not quite as good.

Areola said Johnson County is also seeing more infections in its younger population, including a number of outbreaks at camps and childcare establishments. He said the county recently has had to close a number of establishments recently, which usually don't require masking.

Both counties said the local hospitals are filling up as they see a spike in COVID-19 patients. Last week, the University of Kansas Health System announced that it was at capacity and would no longer be accepting transfer patients from other overburdened hospitals.

North Kansas City

North Kansas City Mayor Bryant DeLong announced on Twitter Wednesday that he intended to issue a new mask order. He cited the CDC’s recent guidance and the increasing number of hospitalizations across the region as the reasons behind his decision.

“There is no doubt that COVID-19 is yet again posing a significant health risk to our region and community,” DeLong wrote.

The North Kansas City School District announced on Thursday that masks will be required indoors for all students, staff and visitors, whether they have been vaccinated or not. The district's mask requirement will begin Aug. 2, the same day Kansas City’s mandate is set to begin.

The City of Independence also announced on Wednesday that it will be requiring masks in all city facilities. Under the new health order, everyone is encouraged to wear masks indoors and to avoid large groups and crowd-based activities. Businesses are encouraged to require employees and guests to wear masks.

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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