Gov. Laura Kelly orders state employees in more than 80 counties hit hardest by the COVID-19 variant and individuals visiting state offices in those counties to wear a mask. Her directive applies to counties labeled with red and orange coloring. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly responded Wednesday to the rising threat of a COVID-19 variant with high transmission rates by ordering state workers and anybody entering state buildings in more than 80 hard-hit Kansas counties to wear a face covering.
The edict to be initiated Monday targeted counties suffering from the Delta variant. It’s an area that nearly blankets the eastern half of the state and includes 84 of the 105 counties.
“Close to half our population has refused to get a vaccine that is safe, is effective against severe illness, hospitalization and death. And, it’s absolutely free for the asking,” Kelly said. “Those low vaccine rates have allowed the twice-as-contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 to spread like wildlife across the country and now our state.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 56.6% of Kansas adults have been fully vaccinated, and 53.5% of 12 and older in the state have accepted a vaccine.
The governor said she would use her executive authority to direct state employees in the targeted counties, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask indoors at work if it was impossible to social distance from others. That same policy will apply to people entering state facilities in those counties, she said.
She said no thought had been given to issuing a formal executive order mandating the general population wear a mask, preferring to leave that decision to county governments.
In addition, the governor said she would soon issue revised COVID-19 guidance to public schools. State and local school boards hold power to implement preventative measures when school resumes in August.
Kelly said she intended to soon announce incentive programs designed to increase vaccination rates in Kansas.
Since Monday, Kansas has documented 2,177 new cases of COVID-19 and 76 of those people have been hospitalized. Overall during the pandemic, the state has logged 330,932 cases of COVID-19, 11,617 hospitalizations and 5,247 deaths attributable to the virus.
Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the resurgence of the virus was putting strain on Kansas hospitals that continue to take in patients for elective surgery and grapple with other serious illnesses.
"On balance, the trajectory is still going in the wrong direction as the numbers would suggest," Norman said. "The critical nature is prevention and getting the vaccine."
The CDC, responding to new research on coronavirus, issued an advisory Tuesday because the Delta variant was "uniquely different from past strains" and preventative use of face coverings could help blunt spread of the virus. The CDC's recommendation applied even to people who were vaccinated against the virus.
In addition, the CDC proposed elementary school students wear masks along with teachers, staff and visitors when fall classes begin regardless of vaccination status.
The shift in strategy by the CDC reflected concern vaccinated people could carry higher levels of the deadly virus than expected and could transmit the virus to others. It represented a reversal from the agency's advice in May, which was that fully vaccinated people could go without masks outdoors or indoors.
Erin Locke, Shawnee County's health officer, issued recommendations Wednesday in response to the Delta variant that said all people, regardless of vaccination status, should wear a face mask in crowded indoor public spaces without physical distancing and in private spaces with unvaccinated individuals from other households.
In addition, Locke said, Shawnee County indoor events ought to be limited to no more than 50% of room capacity to maintain social distancing. If people cannot be six feet apart indoors and outdoors, small groupings of no more than 10 people should be maintained.
Locke said Shawnee County had documented five consecutive weeks of increasing cases, the percent testing positive and hospitalizations. The statistics were being driven by emergence of the Delta variant as the dominant coronavirus strain in Shawnee County. Early infection with the Delta variant has frequently been mistaken for allergies or a “common cold” before more significant symptoms develop later in the illness, she said.
The public-health measures proposed by the state and county officials in Kansas were at attempt to stay clear of business disruptions, school closures and other lockdowns at start of the pandemic in 2020.
Derek Schmidt, the attorney general and a candidate for governor, said federal guidance from the administration of President Joe Biden on COVID-19 was "conflicting and ever-changing." In a statement, Schmidt didn't address the evolving threat from the Delta variant of the coronavirus identified by the CDC.
"We need clear and unequivocal leadership that Biden, and Laura Kelly, are failing to provide," Schmidt said.
When the governor was asked what she thought of Schmidt's commentary, Kelly offered a terse reply: "Not much."
She admonished elected officials who put politics before public health or remained silent and allowed conspiracy theories replace science and medicine.
"Playing politics with this disease has caused confusion and ultimately suffering and death," Kelly said. "We know that almost every single Kansan who has COVID now and is in an intensive care unit bed is unvaccinated."
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