Spike in COVID-19 cases in Kansas casts doubt on allowing counties to make local rules

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TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas has not contained a resurgence in coronavirus cases, raising questions about whether Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and the Republican-controlled Legislature erred in allowing local officials to set rules for businesses and public gatherings.

State Department of Health and Environment figures show that Kansas experienced its worst spike in confirmed new cases since the pandemic began in the two-week period ending Friday, with an average of 362 a day.

It was also the fourth consecutive health department report within eight days showing a new record.

The department on Friday reported 993 confirmed new coronavirus cases over the previous two days, bringing the state’s pandemic total to 18,611. The agency also reported an additional two COVID-19-related deaths, bringing the toll to 284.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and people can be infected without feeling sick.

The number of cases reported by the health department increased by 37.5% or 5,073 during the two weeks ending Friday.

Kelly issued a statewide order July 2 requiring people to wear masks in public and workplaces, but most counties have opted either for less restrictive rules or a mere recommendation to wear a mask.

“It is beyond question that the virus is still in our communities, spreading,” Kelly spokeswoman Lauren Fitzgerald said in an email to The Associated Press. “We have to leave politics out of public health and continue to practice social distancing, proper hygiene, and wear a mask.”

The latest reported spike came as Kansas State University announced almost 1,900 employees would be required to take some unpaid leave between early August and the end of June 2021 because of the economic slowdown tied to the pandemic.

Also, state corrections officials said a staffer at the state prison in Hutchinson tested positive for the coronavirus, making the facility the seventh of 10 with a case among workers or inmates.

Kelly lifted statewide restrictions on businesses and public gatherings May 26, following weeks of criticism from Republican legislators that she was reopening the economy too slowly.

Counties have the power to opt out of her orders under a law that took effect last month after GOP legislative leaders argued that a one-size-fits-all approach was wrongheaded.

The governor suggested Monday that she lifted statewide restrictions to persuade Republican legislators to keep a statewide emergency declaration for the pandemic in place past May.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, said Kelly had no choice; GOP lawmakers have two-thirds majorities in both chambers.

“The decisions should have been left at the state level,” Hensley said. “We were doing much better with the governor in control.”

Ninety of the state’s 105 counties have overruled Kelly’s mask order, The Wichita Eagle reported. Although most are in less populated rural areas, about 40% of the state’s residents aren’t covered by a mask mandate.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican who advocated for a faster reopening and for allowing counties to set pandemic rules, said the coronavirus mortality rate is “way down” and that hospitals “are far from overwhelmed.”

Reported hospitalizations have increased less than 16% during the past two weeks and COVID-19-related deaths are up less than 8%.

Some Republicans also have suggested that increased testing is fueling the surge in reported cases, and Kansas has seen testing rise since mid-June. The daily average for reported tests for the two weeks ending Friday was 3,566, about 29% higher than the figure for the two weeks ending June 26.

“There is absolutely no need to spread fear,” Wagle said in an emailed statement. “The truth is the economy is rolling again. ”

House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, said it’s too early to tell whether allowing counties to set pandemic rules was a mistake. But he added that the recent surge in coronavirus cases does demonstrate the need for people to wear masks — and for counties not to opt out of the governor’s mandate.

Dr. Lee Norman, the state health department’s top administrator, said everyone has a responsibility “to take this disease seriously.”

“Just because a county’s guidelines may be more relaxed, it doesn’t mean individuals should relax their own safety precautions,” he said in an emailed statement.

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