Mask resistance softens in Kansas as coronavirus cases soar

“To be completely honest, everything we’re doing right now is trying to put a finger in the hole of a dam."

Face mask

GREAT BEND, Kan. – Resistance to masks appears to be weakening in Kansas as the coronavirus surges, straining the capacity of the state’s hospitals.

Gov. Laura Kelly’s latest effort to require face coverings takes effect Wednesday, although Kansas law still allows the state’s 105 counties to opt out. Most counties did so the first time Kelly tried to require masks in July. But with the average new case numbers more than nine times higher now than then, there appears to be less pushback.

The governor told reporters Tuesday that adoption of mask orders by counties had so far been “pretty good,” The Wichita Eagle reported.

“We got very little pushback this time around,” Kelly said. “I think it’s because people are so much more aware of how serious this is, how widespread it is. And it is no longer an urban issue. I mean, it’s clearly from border to border.”

Kelly’s order allows counties to adopt their own mandates, and more than 20 had done so since the mandate was announced last week, according to data from the Kansas Association of Counties. Counties that take no action will be automatically covered by Kelly’s order.

In Barton County, commissioners voted Tuesday to unanimously adopt a county-wide mask mandate that goes into effect immediately. The commission had rejected mask mandates twice before, instead appealing to the public to do the right thing. Enforcement is an oft-cited concern.

“I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history when it goes down and says we did nothing,” Barton County Commissioner Jennifer Schartz said.

“But I think that if we stand firm and say we think this is the right thing, that those people who may be teetering on the line, ‘should I or shouldn’t I?’ I think that they will be law-abiding citizens who go ahead and do the right thing,” she said.

In the east central part of the state, the Board of County Commissioners in Miami County voted 3-2 on Monday to allow Kelly’s mask order to go into effect.

Despite some criticism from the Riley County Commission, including by Commissioner Marvin Rodriguez, who likened the mandates to directives issued in Nazi Germany, the commission didn’t override the order during its Monday meeting. The new regulation covers all areas outside Manhattan, where a mandate is already in place.

Large hospitals have been filling up, leaving thinly staffed critical access hospitals in rural parts of the state with few transfer options for their sickest patients.

As of Monday, 46% of hospitals across Kansas reported that they anticipated staffing shortages this week, according to data reported by the Kansas Hospital Association. The numbers were even worse in south-central Kansas, where 57% anticipated shortages.

Robert Freelove, chief medical officer at Salina Regional Medical Center, said the facility has taken steps to cope, although he acknowledged most of them would only work in the short term, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported.

“To be completely honest, everything we’re doing right now is trying to put a finger in the hole of a dam,” Freelove said.

The University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, was treating a record 100 patients with active cases of COVID-19 and another 40 in the recovery state, KCUR reported. About one-third of the patients currently admitted are from outside the Kansas City metropolitan area, said University of Kansas Health system Chief Medical officer, Dr. Steve Stites, during a video conference Monday.

“We are on fire in the Midwest,” he said.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s plan for dealing with the surge centers on moving patients from larger hospitals to smaller providers who have space once a person’s condition improves and they are less infectious.

Amid the surge, the Kansas High School Activities Association Board of Directors voted Tuesday to allow winter sports to begin as scheduled, with spectators largely banned and a longer pause over the Christmas and New Year holidays. Masks will be mandatory except for athletes during competition and officials during live action.

Meanwhile, the top health officer in Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita, signed an order that limits mass gatherings to 25 people starting Friday. Bars and restaurants are limited to 100 people or 50% of fire code capacity.