Johnson County commission shows little support for new mask mandate — here’s where things stand

Johnson County mask mandate

The Board of County Commissioners will add a discussion about masking on next week's regular agenda after the CDC this week revised its guidance to say vaccinated people in areas of "high" COVID-19 transmission should return to wearing masks in indoor public spaces. Kansas City, Mo., will also re-institute a mask order there on Monday, but Johnson County leaders say the county's vaccination rate suggests a similar mandate is not needed here. File photo.

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Despite fears expressed by some residents and the return of a mask order in neighboring Kansas City, Mo., Johnson County Commissioners on Thursday opted not to bring back a mask mandate here, and there seemed to be little appetite among commissioners to do so in the near future.

They may discuss the issue at next week’s meeting, but none of the commissioners Thursday expressed a desire to resume rules that required face masks to be worn in indoor public spaces.

Officials of the “Core 4” metro governments met Wednesday to discuss concerns about the rapid spread of the Delta variant, which has prompted a renewed surge of COVID-19 across the region.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas followed that with a call for indoor masking, an order which is set to go into effect in that city Monday.

Eilert ‘not supportive’

Johnson County should consider what is an appropriate response to the increased caseload, said Chairman Ed Eilert. He and other commissioners ultimately decided to have that discussion next Thursday so they could have a week to prepare.

Eilert predicted a “robust discussion.” He added after the meeting that he personally has no enthusiasm for going back to mask rules that expired three months ago.

Ed Eilert
Board of County Commissioners Chairman Ed Eilert, masked at a meeting last year. File photo.

“I am not supportive of a countywide mask mandate. We have folks who are vaccinated and have done the right thing to protect themselves and their community and their families,” he said, pointing to the county’s high vaccination rate, which was hovering near 57% as of Thursday, according to county data.

“I don’t see any need to put additional requirements on those who have done what they can to get vaccinated. And secondly we have no way to enforce a countywide mandate,” Eilert said.

The issue of mask requirements has prompted emotional and often-angry testimony at commission meetings over the past year, including a heated back-and-forth last week between mask skeptics and a woman urging the county to once again take more stringent measures.

Eilert said the county’s efforts should be directed toward supporting safe practices in schools, a subject that individual school boards must decide.

He also said any requirement for vaccination of county employees would be up to County Manager Penny Postoak Ferguson. Masks are already required for county employees.

In a COVID-19 hot spot

Mask rules have come to the forefront this week after the CDC revised its guidance to say even vaccinated people should begin wearing masks again in virus hot spots due to the highly contagious Delta variant.

The entire Kansas City region is in an area with “high” COVID-19 transmission, according to the CDC.

Although rare, breakthrough infections in vaccinated people have also occurred. Officials have said the masks would help keep the spread in asymptomatic persons from reaching the unvaccinated. Public health experts say containing the spread can also slow the virus’s ability to evolve new variants.

Meanwhile, Johnson County’s infection rate has headed sharply upward, according to the latest data from the public health department.

Public Health Director Dr. Sanmi Areola told the commission Thursday that the incidence rate for the past two weeks is now 229 per 100,000 residents, compared with the June 3 number of 47 per 100,000.

Percent of positive test results has also gone up, from 1.7% June 3 to 7.9% today, Areola said.

Data from the past two weeks also shows an uptick, with 69 cases per day the week of July 11 increasing to 93 per day the week of July 18.

Worries about kids, schools

Health officials are especially concerned about how the new variant is affecting kids younger than 12, who are not eligible for a vaccination, Areola said, adding that hospitals are seeing more kids with more severe cases.

“Not only is the increase alarming, it is the severity of the illness itself that they’re seeing in children,” he said.

Epidemiologist Elizabeth Holzschuh added that although she’s not aware of any children from Johnson County being hospitalized, there are some children from other areas in critical condition.

Several dozen people gathered outside the SMSD Center for Academic Achievement on Monday to urge the board against instituting mask requirements for the coming school year. Photo credit Leah Wankum.

Only the Shawnee Mission School District has declared a mask requirement for the coming school year but only for elementary students. Olathe, Blue Valley and USD 232 in De Soto are planning to make masks optional for all students.

Johnson County’s overall vaccination rate has inched up over the past week.

The numbers from the state health department show about 62% of eligible residents in Johnson County are at least partially vaccinated, but that doesn’t include people who received their shots over the state line, so the county’s number could be even closer to 70%, a level often cited by public health experts as a potential baseline for achieving herd immunity.

Although the county’s numbers are above the national average, Areola cautioned that rates in nearby counties also need to be taken into account.

Kansas City’s rate of at least partial vaccination was at 46%, according to the Missouri COVID Dashboard on Thursday.

“We don’t have walls around Johnson County,” he said. “The regional numbers are probably more important than our numbers.”

Areola said there are plans to offer vaccines for children over 12 at schools as part of the services when schools reopen mid-August.

He said Shawnee Mission and Olathe districts have plans to offer vaccine clinics to kids at school with parental permission.