COVID-19 Update: Johnson County cases going in ‘wrong direction’ as future of mask order weighed

Johnson County's current public health order, which includes a countywide mask requirement in most public places, expires at midnight Saturday. Though county officials have indicated they don't plan on renewing a mask mandate, local health officials warn that new COVID-19 cases continue their upward creep. File photo.

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Johnson County’s current public health order — including the county-wide mask mandate — is set to expire at midnight Saturday.

County officials have indicated they do not plan on renewing the mask order as vaccination rates continue gradually increasing.

Still, local health leaders are warning that COVID-19 numbers are starting to creep up again in Johnson County and across the region and relaxing mitigation efforts like masking and social distancing could lead to more spread.

“Sort of heading a little bit in the wrong direction, certainly, for our cases,” county director of epidemiology Elizabeth Holzschuh said. “We are continuing to see hospitalizations and deaths, almost exclusively in those individuals who are not vaccinated yet.”

Nowhere close to herd immunity

In Johnson County and across the state of Kansas, vaccines are given daily, but herd immunity — that is, the point at which COVID-19 will have little ability to spread in the community because of the collective immunity — is still a ways away.

“It’s still about really doing those things that we know work until we can get the vaccine level up,” Holzschuh said.

By the end of April, the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment projects that about 50% of the county’s eligible population will be at least partially vaccinated.

However, somewhere between 75% and 85% of the total county population will need to be vaccinated before true herd immunity is reached, health officials say.

Keep taking precautions — including testing and masking

Catherine Satterwhite, Ph.D., the regional health administrator for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said on Tuesday that people can’t forget their general COVID-19 prevention tools.

“Just because we’re really, really focused on vaccination doesn’t mean the other things aren’t still important,” Satterwhite said. “We’re really encouraging people to consider that spectrum of prevention and of secondary prevention.”

That means people should still get tested if they’re exposed or show symptoms, keep masking when recommended and following other guidance that matches their vaccination status.

County health officials have seen a notable drop in testing in recent weeks, and they warn that could make COVID-19 data more inaccurate.

Dr. Lee Norman, the secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said this week that the sooner more people are vaccinated, the sooner this pandemic can end and some sense of normalcy can return.

“We haven’t been able to open up more broadly as quickly as everybody would like, but we haven’t reached a critical mass of vaccines in order to completely discard masks,” Norman said.

Here’s a look at some local COVID-19 data:

The positivity rate went up this week, rising to 3.4%.

This is the highest Johnson County’s positivity rate has been since late February, though it still remains well below rates seen last fall, when positivity shot up to near 15% at times.

The incidence rate — the number of cases per 100,000 residents — remained static this past week, staying at 83 cases, which was a slight increase from the previous week.

The total number of deaths in Johnson County attributed to COVID-19 now stands at 646, and there have been 45,226 total cases reported in the county.

Vaccine opportunities this week

The county’s rate of vaccine uptick has plummeted in the last few weeks, but there are still opportunities to get vaccinated without making an appointment.

This week, JCDHE has more vaccine walk-in opportunities from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday.

General vaccine appointments are still available as well and can be scheduled here. 

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