Johnson County mask order likely to be lifted this week, but herd immunity remains far off

Johnson County mask order

Johnson County commissioners have said they will likely let the county's current requirement that masks be worn in most public places expire at the end of this month, but local health officials have urged that mask still be strongly recommended in order to continue to tamp down the spread of COVID-19. File photo.

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The current Johnson County public health order — which includes a requirement that face masks be worn in most public places — is set to expire at midnight Saturday. And at this point, it seems unlikely a new mandate will take its place.

Dr. Joseph LeMaster, Johnson County’s public health officer, said earlier this month that it was unlikely that the county would institute a new public health order.

And during last week’s Board of County Commissioners meeting, multiple commissioners indicated that they hope to see the mask mandate expire, including chairman Ed Eilert.

The plan when the county’s latest public health order was established in March was to remove the mask mandate once 50% of the county was at least partially vaccinated.

That threshold hasn’t been reached yet, but the county is inching closer to that goal.

Sanmi Areola, Ph.D., director of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, said last week about 42% of eligible residents are at least partially vaccinated, according to data from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Even CDC data —  which shows a higher rate of vaccination in the county than the state’s data since the agency has access to vaccination information outside of Kansas — doesn’t indicate that Johnson County has quite reached the 50% goal.

That being said, Areola estimated that, as long as vaccine uptake doesn’t slow down too much, the county will reach the 50% mark by the end of April.

Areola added that the JCDHE “would be supportive” of the decision to let the mandate expire, provided that it is made clear masking is still recommended in many situations to tamp down the spread of COVID-19 and that county is nowhere close to herd immunity yet.

Herd immunity still a ways off

The 50% partially vaccinated threshold isn’t herd immunity. In fact, it’s far from it, Areola and LeMaster have both said.

“That is the point where the virus, we believe, will stop replicating, stop transmitting and we have a much better chance then of getting back to normal in the way that everybody is hoping that we will,” LeMaster said.

Herd immunity, or population immunity, requires at least 75% of the community to receive the vaccine.

That can’t truly happen until everyone — including children under 16 — can receive the vaccine too. Trials for pediatric vaccines are ongoing.

Masks to still be strongly recommended

Even if the mask mandate expires on Friday as expected, the need for masking won’t disappear, say local health officials.

“What is clear, and as we’ve made pretty clear in talking with constituents across the county, is that the need for masks continues,” Areola said.

Eilert said last week that the plan would be to remove the county’s requirement for masks but include a strong recommendation that Johnson Countians use face coverings and social distancing when in public spaces or at gatherings.

“Masks do work, we know this. We’ve seen it time and time again,” director of epidemiology Elizabeth Holzschuh said. “We know that transmission of COVID-19 happens when people are not wearing masks and when they’re not distancing.”

Look no further than the local school districts, where the institution of mandatory masking policies and social distancing have kept person-to-person transmission in classrooms relatively low, Holzschuh said. At the same time, several Johnson County public school districts have rejected parents’ requests to end their masking policies.

Also, if the uptick in community spread continues, the county might need to reinstate its mask mandate or other COVID-19 policies, Areola advised.

“There’s a lot of variables here that we can’t fully predict, and I think the prudent thing to do is for the board to be ready to take actions if and when they become necessary,” Areola said.

Vaccine availability this week

JCDHE and its vaccination partners have appointments open throughout the week, Areola said.

“For everyone that wants to get vaccinated, now is a good time to do that,” Areola said.

Uptake of the vaccine has slowed somewhat over the last few weeks, Holzschuh said. That’s not because supply is low, but because demand isn’t as high as it was in the first few months of the vaccine rollout.

“We do still need to remain vigilant — it is a marathon,” Holzschuh said.

Making vaccine appointments more convenient

Now that some clinics aimed at eligible teenagers are underway, the county is looking at other areas to increase vaccine accessibility.

That includes examining geographic sectors of the county that have a lower rate of vaccination uptake as well, Holzschuh said.

“I think that we are definitely getting beyond the group that was very excited about the vaccine, who wanted to get it right away,” Holzschuh said. “We’re getting into this group of people who are not necessarily vaccine hesitant, but it’s an inconvenience to have to go to a special location.”

Addressing these barriers will include smaller, more convenient clinics, while also increasing targeted communication efforts towards those communities.

This applies the general public health principle of making “the healthy choice the easy choice,” Holzschuh said.

Information about getting a vaccine appointment in Johnson County can be found here.