Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, legislators agree to work with counties on mask mandate

Unified testing strategy to double number of tests administered by end of 2020

Gov. Laura Kelly reveals details of her mask mandate talks with legislative leadership during a news briefing Wednesday at the Statehouse. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly said Wednesday she won’t pursue a statewide mask mandate under the condition legislative leaders aid her in convincing Kansas counties to implement their own requirements.

Kelly convened a bipartisan group of legislators Tuesday to ask for support in calling a special session to pass emergency legislation implementing a mask mandate across the state.

Instead, Republican legislators asked her to reach out to county leadership first.

“I agreed, with the stipulation that legislative leaders, in conjunction with their caucuses, reach out with me to county and city leadership, as well as stakeholder groups, and that we move forward as quickly as possible,” Kelly said. “We cannot afford to wait another moment to begin this process.”

Kelly has repeatedly emphasized the need for widespread mask-wearing and called for counties to maintain her July mask mandate. Currently, Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers is on a “mask up tour” around Northwest Kansas, working to communicate the need for masks to local officials.

Reports from Rogers suggested that some county commissioners are ready to reconsider their approach to masks.

“He said that a number of commissioners are starting to see the light,” Kelly said. “I’m thinking we can have some conversations and hear what they have to say. Is there a way they can put a mask mandate in that works for them?”

The governor said she is confident some counties will be willing to discuss the issue. However, if state lawmakers are unable to convince local authorities to take up a mandate, Kelly will move to implement one mandatorily.

The meeting to discuss a mask mandate comes as case rates and hospitalizations spike in counties that opted out of Kelly’s July mask order. A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Kansas demonstrated counties with mandates have effectively stopped escalation of COVID-19 transmission, and counties without a requirement have suffered increases.

Statewide, the state has recorded 3,369 new cases — a record for any single recording period — and 31 deaths since Monday. This brings the reported total to 82,045 cases and 1,007 deaths.

Kansas did not reach 500 COVID-19 related deaths until September, roughly six months after the pandemic began. In a little more than six weeks, another 500 Kansans have died from the pandemic.

In response to surpassing 1,000 Kansas deaths because of COVID-19, Kelly directed that flags be flown at half-staff until sundown Friday in remembrance of those who passed.

“One of the many terrible impacts of this virus has been that families are unable to hold in-person services to mourn the passing of their loved one,” Kelly said. “Each one of these Kansans was someone’s child, parent or grandparent. They were a part of the community.”

Kelly emphasized masks as a primary and necessary stopgap until a vaccine arrives, but said they are just one piece of the puzzle.

The governor also unveiled the framework for the state’s unified testing strategy.

The strategy, led by Marci Nielson, a special adviser to the governor, will coordinate efforts between public and private testing agencies to allow for routine screening in congregate settings like schools and nursing homes.

Until now, Kansas had largely been administering diagnostic tests to symptomatic people. Under the new strategy, the state will expand the types of testing to screening tests — individual testing of critical populations before they become symptomatic — and surveillance tests, which is group testing for specific populations.

With additional CARES Act funds invested in the strategy, Kelly said the state will double the number of tests administered to date by the end of the year.

“We’ve made great strides in improving outbreak response over the past several months,” Kelly said. “However, to effectively locate the virus in our communities, keep Kansans safe, keep kids in school and keep our businesses open, we must do more. We need to expand testing to include regular screening for the virus before it spreads and that’s what the new testing strategy is developed to do.”