Johnson County’s COVID-19 risk is ‘low,’ according to CDC, but health experts say don’t throw away masks just yet

Local health experts say mask-wearing and some social distancing, especially during case surges and the wintertime, should still be used when needed as COVID-19 transitions from being a pandemic to an endemic condition. Above, two people wear masks recently along Johnson Drive in Mission, which allowed its citywide mask mandate to expire on Feb. 23.

By Josh Merchant

In a long-awaited announcement on Feb. 25, the Centers for Disease Control said it was no longer recommending indoor mask wearing in communities considered to be at low to medium risk of COVID-19 spread.

And President Biden announced in his State of the Union address the following week that “COVID-19 no longer need control our lives.”

Some medical experts are suggesting that the virus’s transmission is shifting from a widespread, rapid pandemic to an endemic phase, meaning transmission will be more predictable.

As of the first week of March, the CDC assessed the risk of COVID spread in Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties in Kansas as high, and Jackson, Clay, Platte and Cass counties in Missouri as medium. Johnson County in Kansas is low risk. (Detailed statistics on the spread of COVID-19 are available on The Beacon’s COVID dashboard.)

But even before the CDC’s announcement, shoppers in the region could walk into a store or club and see a room of unmasked customers.

Major retailers such as Costco, Walmart, Target and CVS have dropped company mask requirements and now defer to local rules. All cities and counties in the Kansas City region, with the exception of Roeland Park, have jettisoned their mask requirements. (Roeland Park’s current mask order is set to expire on Wednesday.)

But the new, more casual stance toward the virus, while understandable, worries some health experts and public officials.

 Physicians still recommend mask-wearing

“We have some people who have thrown caution to the wind, and we feel that that’s an unwise thing for folks to do because we just don’t know how even low-grade infections affect them later on down the line,” said Dr. Sterling Ransone, president of the Leawood-based American Academy of Family Physicians.

“I can’t in good conscience … not advocate to my patients that they need to protect themselves as well as they can.”

Even with the full COVID-19 vaccination series, the risk for long COVID remains, Ransone pointed out. Some studies have shown that the risk for long-term symptoms in a breakthrough infection is the same regardless of vaccination status.

Vaccination is still the best way to protect against endemic COVID-19 infection, and Ransone encourages all of his patients to receive the vaccine and full booster series. However, the next most important line of defense, he said, is to use an effective mask to limit the amount of virus in the air.

Protecting the vulnerable

Even with overall risk levels dropping, experts encourage Kansas City area residents to be mindful of the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities. Black and Latino people, those with disabilities and lower-income households have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

“There is an element of collectivism — we have to collectively help each other and help our communities,” said Shawn Martin, CEO of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “We all should make an effort to take care of those in our community and around us, especially those that we know are vulnerable, whether that’s food insecurity, housing insecurity or health insecurity.”

To help vulnerable communities access high-quality masks, the AAFP and Project N95, which helps distribute personal protective equipment, has partnered with the Black Health Care Coalition in Kansas City to distribute masks to students and staff at local schools and at community events.

“We know that the Black community across the nation has a higher incidence of COVID-19, about 1.4 times that of white people,” Ransone said. “Certainly, we’re worried that those who are more likely to get it are also more likely to get long COVID.”

Kansas City Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, who is president of the Black Health Care Coalition in Kansas City, said Black communities in the United States suffer from both a lack of access to existing health care services, as well as a disproportionate number of preexisting conditions.

“The people who don’t have access to health care, you have to figure out why they don’t have access, and how you are going to stand in the gap for them,” she said.

The best way to keep vulnerable communities safe is to actively empathize with people of a different experience, and to follow the health guidance of medical experts, Robinson said.

“We have to think of things from some level of community. What happens to my brother or my sister, it happens to me. We have to have some level of empathy and shared responsibility,” she said. “What that looks like is to follow the guidance that our health providers are telling us to follow.”

A permanent behavior change

In the shift from pandemic to endemic COVID-19 infections, experts say vigilance is essential to limiting the effects of the virus, particularly for people with preexisting conditions.

They say it’s not enough to only get vaccinated, but permanent behavior changes such as mask-wearing during surges and some social distancing are critical, as well.

Patients often ask Ransone when they can stop wearing a mask, and he responds that he’ll probably wear a mask every year in the wintertime for the foreseeable future. This is in part because he works in a health care setting, but also because that precaution is effective at preventing both COVID-19 infections and other diseases like influenza.

Anne Miller, executive director of Project N95, said an endemic phase is an excellent time to build up a supply cabinet of protective equipment. This makes financial sense, she said. Masks were difficult to find during the most recent Omicron surge, with Amazon prices increasing by more than 300% for some brands.

Stocking up on effective masks is a form of necessary disaster preparedness, much like preparing for a blizzard or heat wave, Miller said.

“I used to live in Miami, and we always stocked up on water, we had plywood for our windows, we would stock up on things in advance of a storm,” she said. “And so if you don’t need a mask today, you should have five or 10 on your shelf at home. An N95 lasts for five years.”

Josh Merchant is a freelance reporter for The Kansas City Beacon. They were a Fall 2021 intern, and have written stories on a range of topics, from how to help refugees in Kansas City to how employers are deciding whether or not to mandate vaccines for workers.