Johnson County weighs CDC’s revised mask guidance as spread in KC region remains ‘high’

Johnson County mask order

The Kansas City metro's "Core 4" governments, including Johnson County, met virtually Wednesday morning to discuss the CDC's revised guidance that even vaccinated people go back to wearing masks in public indoor places. Johnson County's countywide mask order expired in late April, but the Delta variant has since sparked renewed surge across the Kansas City area. File photo.

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Johnson County officials and other Kansas City metro leaders say they are weighing the CDC’s revised guidance on mask-wearing as new cases of COVID-19, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant, continue their sharp rise across the region.

In its revised guidance released Tuesday, the CDC recommends that vaccinated residents living in places with “high” or “substantial” COVID-19 transmission go back to wearing face masks in indoor public settings.

According to the CDC, Johnson County — along with all other counties in the Kansas City region — is experiencing a “high” level of COVID-19 spread.

Overall, more than 60% of counties in the U.S. are experiencing either “high” or “substantial” spread, including nearly all counties in eastern Kansas and the entire state of Missouri.

A map from the CDC shows a county-by-county breakdown of COVID-19 transmission. Counties in red are said to have “high” transmission. Those in orange have “substantial” transmission. Image via Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new guidance reverses the CDC’s recommendations released in mid-May that said fully vaccinated individuals could ditch masks in nearly all public settings.

But the Delta variant, which health experts say spreads more rapidly and transmits more viral particles form person to person, along with stagnating vaccination rates, is forcing a shift in public health calculations.

“Cases are increasing rapidly, driven largely by the Delta variant,” Johnson County health director Sanmi Areola, Ph.D., said in an emailed statement Wednesday morning. “Johnson County Department of Health and Environment is concerned about this. We are reviewing the updated guidance from CDC and will continue to update our residents and elected officials.”

KCMO to reinstitute mask mandate, ‘Core 4’ weighs options

Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Quinton Lucas announced Tuesday evening on Twitter that he plans to bring back an indoor mask mandate for his city. Details of his plan, he said, would be forthcoming later Wednesday.

Johnson County leaders held a virtual call Wednesday morning with the leaders of the metro’s other “Core 4” — Kansas City, Mo., Jackson County and Wyandotte County — in a regularly scheduled bi-weekly meeting, according to a statement from the “Core 4.”

“In this meeting, there was concern expressed for the level of COVID-19 transmissions in our communities and the health and safety of our residents,” the statement read. “These neighboring jurisdictions shared input, concerns and initial reaction to the revised guidance issued by the CDC [Tuesday.]”

The statement went on to say each of the “Core 4” governments would give updates soon about changing conditions and guidance in their own jurisdictions.

It’s not clear if the group collectively will adopt Kansas City’s plan or the CDC’s revised masking guidance.

Mask debate ongoing

Johnson County was one of the first metro jurisdictions to drop its mask mandate when the Board of County Commissioners let the countywide order expire in April.

At that time, the county began “strongly recommending” unvaccinated residents wear masks in public and also encouraged businesses and organizations to follow federal COVID-19 mitigation guidelines.

The Johnson County Commission, led by Chairman Ed Eilert, allowed the county’s mask mandate to expire in April and only recently began holding in-person meetings with crowds. Above, Eilert masked up at a meeting in 2020.

The Board of County Commissioners is set to hold its regular weekly meeting Thursday. As of Wednesday morning, no item about masks or countywide mitigation protocols appeared on the agenda.

On the agenda is JCDHE’s regular COVID-19 and vaccination update.

At last week’s meeting, dozens of mask skeptics showed up outside the commission’s chambers in Olathe, apparently motivated by a social media post that claimed commissioners were  “threatening to reinstate the mask mandate,” though no such item was on the commission’s agenda.

What about schools?

At the same time, Johnson County school districts are deciding what protocols will be in place when students begin returning for in-person learning in coming weeks.

On Monday, the Shawnee Mission board of education voted to require all elementary students wear masks at school when the new school year begins Aug. 12.

Under the COVID-19 plan adopted by the board, middle and high school students would be encouraged — but not required — to wear masks. Teachers who are vaccinated could opt out of wearing masks if they show proof of vaccination, according to the district.

Most Johnson County school districts say they will make mask-wearing optional for the rapidly approaching new school year. Above, elementary students in USD 232 this past spring wearing masks. File photo.

But all other major districts in Johnson County — including Blue Valley, Olathe and USD 232 in De Soto — have so far said they plan to make mask-wearing for students optional.

The CDC has recommended that all unvaccinated individuals wear masks inside school buildings.

Children younger than 12 remain ineligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment’s online COVID-19 dashboard says less than 10% of residents 17 and younger are fully vaccinated.

At Monday’s SMSD board meeting, county epidemiologist Elizabeth Holzschuh in strong language urged the board to require masks in classrooms

“If you take masks away at school levels, you will see widespread transmission, I’m sure of it. We didn’t see outbreaks [in schools] last year because we masked,” she said.

Meanwhile, a Johnson County judge on Tuesday reiterated his ruling that a law aimed at curtailing local governments’ pandemic emergency powers is unconstitutional.

The decision by Judge David Hauber to not issue a stay requested by Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt means, for the time being, local governments — including school boards and county commissions — may feel freer to impose new COVID-19 limits without the threat of facing challenges like the ones that led to multiple lawsuits this spring.