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Kansas officials reconsider mask guidelines amid COVID surge

Virus Outbreak Governors
Posted at 3:59 PM, Jul 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-28 16:59:19-04

TOPEKA, Kan. — A central Kansas school district is requiring masks to be worn in its buildings, and public health officials in two of the state's most populous counties are recommending that even vaccinated residents wear masks in at least some indoor public spaces.

The developments in the Salina school district and Shawnee and Douglas counties in northeastern Kansas came quickly after a surge in new COVID-19 cases tied to the faster-spreading delta variant led the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to change its guidance on masks. The CDC now recommends that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors in places where the coronavirus is surging, and under its guidelines, those recommendations would apply to 84 of the state's 105 counties.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly scheduled a Wednesday afternoon news conference at the Statehouse to discuss the new CDC guidance. Her office declined to discuss the details beforehand, but she has so far urged more Kansans to get vaccinated against COVID-19 rather than explicitly calling for returning to wearing masks.

Top Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature ended Kansas' pandemic state of emergency in mid-June, citing a decline in new cases. Kelly had wanted to keep the state of emergency in place at least through August, and new cases began rising again only days after the GOP leaders' action.

Kelly didn't mention masks in a statement issued after the CDC revised its guidance Tuesday, but she did say: "This administration has consistently followed the recommendations from the experts at the CDC - and we don't intend to stop."

GOP legislators over time limited Kelly's power and local officials' authority to impose pandemic, but a Johnson County judge earlier this month struck down many of those limits.

The court ruling appeared to leave Kelly with the power to impose a new state of emergency, but only for up to 45 days. Also, counties could opt out of any restrictions she imposed for public health reasons.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican who is running for governor next year, has argued that the judge's ruling created confusion about what Kelly and other officials are allowed to do. He plans to appeal it.

And, in a tweet, Schmidt criticized the "conflicting and ever-changing" CDC guidance.

"Bottom line: no mask mandates, no vaccine mandates, no vaccine passports, no more government control," Schmidt tweeted.

Kelly attempted to impose a statewide mask mandate last year, but she has no plans to pursue vaccine passports and hasn't suggested requiring anyone to get vaccinated.

However, the Ascension Via Christi health system, which operates hospitals and specialty clinics in Wichita, Manhattan, Pittsburg and Wamego, announced that it will require its its staff to get vaccinated.

"Our hospitals continue to remain relatively full on a daily basis," said Kevin Strecker, the system's chief operating officer and regional hospital president.

Confirmed delta variant cases are doubling every two weeks, reaching 1,543 as of Wednesday, according to state data.

The Salina district's board of education voted 5-2 during a special Tuesday night meeting to impose its mask requirement. The district, which has about 6,900 students, appears to be the first outside of the Kansas City area to impose a new mask mandate.

Shawnee County's health officer on Wednesday recommended that all people wear masks "in crowded indoor situations" and that indoor events be limited to 50% of a room's capacity to allow social distancing. The Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health department on Tuesday began recommending that anyone age 2 or older wear masks in schools and other indoor spaces. The two counties are among the top five in Kansas in population.

Kansas saw an average of 743 new COVID-19 cases per day during the seven-day period that ended Wednesday, according to state health department data. That's a fraction of the worst peak in mid-November but more than seven times the average of 96 new cases per day for the seven-day period that ended June 23, before new cases began rising again.

The CDC reported that as of Tuesday, 45% of the state's 2.9 million residents were vaccinated, which put Kansas 30th among states and below the national vaccination rate.

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Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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On Twitter, follow John Hanna and Andy Tsubasa Field.