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Mask Rules Helped Kansas Counties Slow The March Of Coronavirus, New CDC Report Suggests

Stephan Bisaha
Kansas News Service

Even if all Kansans immediately mask up and avoid crowded places, it will likely take weeks to ease the burden on hospitals packed with COVID-19 patients.

In Kansas counties that adopted mask rules last summer, the spread of COVID-19 slowed, new research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.

The study by federal and state epidemiologists suggests that if more counties follow suit, it could help stem a disastrous groundswell that has hospitals in Kansas and across the Midwest reeling.

The release of the new CDC publication comes just two days after Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly made her second attempt to get Kansans across the state to mask up. Most counties overrode her first statewide mask order, and they could do the same to this one.

Physicians at the University of Kansas Health System say taking masks and social distancing seriously saves lives and eases the rush on hospital beds.

Even if all Kansans followed their advice fastidiously and immediately, incubation periods mean the record surge across the state would likely intensify before it gets better.

“This (pandemic) is very quick to get worse,” anesthesiologist David Wild said, “and very slow to get better.”

“People are in the hospital for four, five, seven days, if they're not in the ICU,” he said. “If they’re in the ICU, it may be 15 or 20 or 30. And so it will take some time before we see the benefits of those behaviors changing.”

That means it would likely take three weeks or more of very conscientious efforts by Kansans before hospitals start to get some of the respite — and freed up beds — that they desperately need.

Doctors fear COVID-19’s record surge across the state could worsen over Thanksgiving and Christmas instead.

Already, hospital officials say they’re spending hours calling intensive care units in other cities and neighboring states to see who can fit more people. They’re postponing kidney stone surgeries just to free up a few extra beds, or treating patients in hallways and waiting rooms.

This summer, the Republican-led Legislature passed a law that blocks Kelly from requiring masks. The most she can do is issue rules that county commissions can then reject.

She did so in July, but 80 of the state’s 105 counties blocked the effort. Some have since changed their tunes. Sixty-five still have no mask rules.

Kelly said Republican leaders and others have signaled to her that more county commissions are ready this time to come on board.

“We have reached a new stage in our fight with this virus,” she said, and mask-wearing would help “turn the tide.”

County commissions have until Wednesday to act before Kelly’s rules take effect. They can tweak her version as they see fit — or can again buck her effort entirely.

But the harsh new reality could force their hands. In rural parts of the state, critically ill patients can wait for hours for admission to intensive care units in cities hours away.

Mask rules in Kansas

The CDC and Kansas researchers — which included state epidemiologist Farah Ahmed and former state epidemiologist Charles Hunt — compared the spread of the virus in counties with mask rules to those without them over nearly three months this summer.

The disease’s march — calculated as 7-day rolling averages of new cases — slowed in counties with mask orders. Face coverings appear to have helped, though the authors say extra local limits on public gatherings — things like caps on restaurant capacity — may have boosted the effect in some of those counties.

“COVID-19 incidence rates reversed course,” the authors wrote, but not in the counties without mask rules. There, the pace of new cases kept climbing.

(Researchers at the Kansas Health Institute also contributed to the study. The institute receives funding from the Kansas Health Foundation, one of the Kansas News Service’s financial supporters.)

The CDC and the World Health Organization both recommend wearing masks in public and around people you don’t live with.

The CDC recommends masks for children as young as two years old, though the WHO recommends against requiring it for those under age five because such young children may not wear it properly.

Kelly’s order asks Kansans over the age of five (except those with medical conditions that would make it difficult) to wear masks in public. That includes outdoor spaces where people can’t keep six feet away from each other.

Businesses must also instruct employees to wear masks, and require it of customers.

The swift increase

The epidemiological price of weddings, parties and packed bars and restaurants spiraled rapidly out of control across the Midwest once cold weather pushed socializing indoors.

In just two weeks, Kansas has confirmed 36,000 new cases of the coronavirus that has killed more than 250,000 people in the U.S.

Minnesota’s governor ordered restaurants and bars closed again this week, even as the state said the federal government would send it dozens of staffed ambulances to transport a flood of COVID patients to hospitals.

The governors of Iowa and North Dakota, previously opposed to face-covering orders, broke down over the past week and ordered people to mask up statewide.

Scientists say masks help by filtering some of the droplets that pass into the air from an infected person’s nose and mouth. The CDC summarized the research to date in a recent online summary.

More than 30 states now have rules requiring masks.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter@celialj_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link toksnewsservice.org

I'm the creator of the environmental podcast Up From Dust. I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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