Gov. Laura Kelly pitches flexibility, necessity of mask mandate to Kansas health officials

Gov. Laura Kelly said her decision to allow counties to enact their own form of mask mandate was made in response to concerns from county officials over a "one size fits all" approach. (Oct. 13 photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly on Friday promoted the flexibility of her new statewide mask mandate in allowing county officials to best address the needs of their constituents as they work to curb the spread of COVID-19.

There is growing concern among health experts that rapidly rising case numbers in tandem with Thanksgiving travel could overwhelm virus mitigation efforts. In response, some counties and health leaders around the state are already taking steps to limit gatherings or enforce mask-wearing.

Kelly’s new executive order, which takes effect the day before Thanksgiving, grants county commissioners the option to accept the governor’s mandate, craft their own rules, or take public action to opt out. Kelly said she provided flexibility this time in response to concerns heard about a “one size fits all” approach in the governor’s July mask order.

While Kelly acknowledged local leaders and health officers may be most familiar with their own community’s issues, she asked that counties encourage the use of face coverings.

“Wearing a face covering does not inhibit your freedom or limit where we can go and what we can do — in fact just the opposite,” Kelly said. “Diligent use will allow us to keep our business open, to keep our kids in school, and to protect our kids in school.”

Kelly and state health experts made the pitch for the mask mandate during a call Friday updating counties across the state on what some state departments are doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

As of Friday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has reported 1,410 deaths and 134,353 infections since the start of the pandemic. That includes 5,939 new cases and 84 deaths reported since Wednesday.

With numbers rapidly rising and Thanksgiving on the horizon, Kelly expressed urgency in the need for counties to act on the new mandate. Local officials will have one week to pass their own ordinance before Kelly’s mask protocol is automatically implemented.

The case for widespread mask-wearing also received a boost in the form of newly published Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research reaffirming the role mask mandates played in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in Kansas’ largest counties.

The study examined trends in 25 counties that upheld the governor’s July mask recommendation and the 80 counties that refused to do so. Findings estimated mask mandates prevented an estimated 8,600 infections and could have prevented 2,300 more in areas without an order.

With hospitals and health care providers across the country becoming overwhelmed with staffing shortages and the spike in cases, KDHE secretary Lee Norman expressed his continued support for a mask order.

“We have learned a lot about the virus itself, and we know that it is primarily spread through droplet transmission, so masks are our best line of defense,” Norman said. “Studies like this will help us to better understand the impact of policy decisions in our state.”

Sedgwick County is part of the minority that currently has a mask mandate in place. As a medical hub for many neighboring counties, rising cases in those counties without mask mandates have been trickling into Sedgwick health care providers, especially in Wichita.

Pete Meitzner, the Sedgwick County commission chairman, said as of last Monday, at least 23 surrounding counties had a patient in a Wichita hospital. Most concerning, he said, is many of these counties are not adequately emphasizing the risks associate with COVID-19.

“We can’t do this by ourselves without us all trying to help with whatever solution might help,” Meitzner said. “I want to be respectful for whatever you as a separate County choose to do, but just know that what you’re doing in your own county may be having a large impact in some of the areas like Johnson County and Sedgwick that are really economic engines for the state.”