TOPEKA, Kan. — Two northeastern Kansas counties are backing off mask mandates they imposed last month as coronavirus cases surged, and officials set up a clinic in an arena in the state’s city to vaccine thousands of health care workers.
County commissioners in Brown and Jackson counties argued that they had weathered a wave of infections and dropped mandates requiring people to wear masks against the advice of public health officials, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported. But in south-central Kansas, Reno County commissioners kept a mask mandate in place.
Sedgwick County, home to Wichita, the state’s largest city, launched an effort to vaccinate 10,000 health care workers, including dentists, chiropractors, optometrists, and home-health and hospice workers, The Wichita Eagle reported. The county’s clinic is in the north concourse of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita.
The county’s vaccination effort started after four Black doctors told a virtual town hall meeting aimed at the Black community in Wichita that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and needed to save lives.
“Our risk is becoming very ill or even dying, versus the benefit of living,” Dr. Regan DeHart of GraceMed Health Clinic said during the meeting hosted by the Wichita African American Council of Elders and the Wichita Black Alliance. “We are at that point where we are getting close to it’s life or it’s death.”
Kansas has reported more than 216,000 confirmed and probable coronavirus cases since the pandemic reached the state in early March, or one case for every 13 of the state’s 2.9 million residents. It also has reported 2,548 deaths, or one for every 1,143 residents.
But the state also saw new confirmed and probable coronavirus cases peak at 2,767 for the seven days ending Nov. 18 and drop since. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly issued a mask mandate before Thanksgiving and successfully persuaded a majority of counties not exercise their authority under state law to opt out.
But in Jackson County, County Commissioner Ed Kathrens, a Republican, said it was “kind of ridiculous” to have a mask mandate that wasn’t enforceable. The commission voted 2-1 to halt a mask mandate imposed in November.
“The people who want to wear masks are going to wear them and the people who don’t aren’t, regardless of whether you’ve got a mandate or not,” Kathrens said.
The state health department said that Jackson County had 1,001 coronavirus cases and Brown County, 1,000, as of Monday, the bulk of them since Nov. 1. Brown County averaged 15 new cases a day and Jackson County, 12 new cases a day, from Nov. 1 until Dec. 14. Since then, Brown County has averaged eight new cases a day and Jackson County, six.
In Brown County, Hiwatha Community Hospital CEO John Broberg said he was “disappointed” in the county commissioners’ decision to rescind the mask mandate.
“We had something in place that was dropping our numbers,” Broberg said. “Now we will see.”