The three-member Douglas County Commission on Wednesday decided not to follow a recommendation from local health officials to rescind a public health order mandating the use of face masks — instead choosing to leave it in place another week through its May 26 expiration date.
Doing so, commissioners concluded, will allow time to evaluate whether a new public health order for those physically unable to receive the COVID-19 vaccine — namely children between the ages of 5 and 12 — is necessary. The delay will also allow for the community to get through a few big events in the coming days, such as KU commencement ceremonies and high school graduations, with a mask requirement still in place.
All three commissioners — Shannon Portillo, Shannon Reid and Patrick Kelly — and the numerous local health officials present expressed that they were conflicted with how to handle the county’s rules for masks moving forward in light of federal guidance released last week that anyone two weeks out from receiving a COVID-19 vaccination no longer needs to wear a mask in most situations.
“I want to follow the advice from our medical professionals. That’s what we’ve done all throughout this pandemic,” Portillo said. “I think there are a number of folks in our community who are not vaccinated and may not be vaccinated, and that’s something that is much harder for us to do anything about when we don’t have health orders in place.”
Douglas and Wyandotte counties are the only two of Kansas’ 105 counties not to rescind mask orders that were in place prior to the guidance from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention, and Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly quickly announced that the state would adopt the CDC guidance.
During the public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting, more than a dozen people spoke to the commissioners — all but three of whom voiced strong opposition to continuing a mask mandate in any shape or form. Most decried the violation of their “Constitutional rights,” said it was illegal to require masks or face coverings regardless of a public health order, and cited purported scientific studies that claim mask-wearing either doesn’t work to slow the spread of disease or causes the wearer to suffer detrimental health effects.
Some said it was discriminatory against those with disabilities or medical conditions to require the wearing of masks in public spaces, and one public commenter, who identified herself only as Whitney, said that requiring proof of vaccination “takes us back to segregation” and became emotional when sharing that her son was unable to attend school in person since the pandemic started because his school wouldn’t honor a mask exemption she said was obtained from his doctor.
Lawrence resident Bridgett Chapin was one of just three people to speak in favor of keeping some form of a mandate in place, and specifically asked public health officials to recommend that school districts continue with mask requirements. Another speaker said she works in the food service industry and pleaded with commissioners to keep a version of a mask mandate in place because she can’t stop showing up to work based on other peoples’ choice to not wear a mask and be honest about whether they received a COVID-19 vaccine.
The public health officials who presented to commissioners included Dan Partridge, the director of Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, Dr. Thomas Marcellino, the county health officer, and Dr. Jennifer Schrimsher, an infectious disease specialist at LMH Health. All three appeared to be weary about their recommendation to rescind the county’s mask mandate given the inability to truly know who has and hasn’t been vaccinated, but they also conceded that given the CDC guidance and Kansas law that requires the least-restrictive public health orders possible, it was a recommendation they could live with making.
“We’re starting to turn the corner to control the virus. That’s why now we’re in a place where we can think about this and change this, as opposed to maybe a month ago, two months ago,” Marcellino said. “We’re just in a better place. So that’s why I’m comfortable with allowing this to happen.”
Partridge confirmed that Douglas County’s current level of COVID-19 spread is as low as it’s been since June, which is encouraging, and Marcellino conceded that the way the county’s data currently looks didn’t necessarily support keeping a full mask mandate in place, given the recent change in federal guidance.
“We can’t continue an ordinance or an order for masking the entire county if the data supports that it’s safe to remove the mask for vaccinated individuals,” Marcellino said. “But that’s going to rely heavily upon those that aren’t vaccinated to get vaccinated and to be honest about their status.”
Schrimsher, the infectious disease specialist, echoed the latter part of that sentiment many times Wednesday.
“Vaccination is how we get out of this mess, and it’s unfortunate that it’s been politicized, but it’s even more unfortunate and maddening that the Legislature and the nation has decided to politicize public health. These viruses don’t care who you voted for,” she said. “I don’t know what the right answer is. We’ll see in a few months, right? We’ll see how this works out.”
The commission will take up the issue again next week, and if no action is taken then, the county’s mask mandate will expire in its entirety on Wednesday, May 26.