Article last updated at 9:40 p.m. Wednesday:
Douglas County commissioners on Wednesday voted 3-0 to extend an emergency health order that includes a mask requirement through Feb. 9.
The county announced the order on Jan. 5, when the rolling 14-day average of new COVID-19 cases per day was 96.5, and it went into effect Jan. 7.
In the span of just a week since that announcement, in Wednesday’s update from Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, that statistic had hit 231.29 — far and away a pandemic record. There were 916 new cases reported between Monday and Wednesday, bringing total active cases in Douglas County above 4,000. The incubation period for the virus is generally between 2 and 14 days.
Commissioners heard from about 16 public commenters in person who were all opposed to the mask mandate. Another 23 gave comments via Zoom, all but five of whom spoke in favor of the mask mandate. For comparison, the number of public commenters was about half that of when the commission was considering a mandate for children who were too young to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
A large part of the latest concern about COVID-19 revolves around the newest variant, omicron, which appears to be even more contagious than the delta variant before it. Omicron was first confirmed in Kansas less than a month ago, but hospitals statewide are already strained by the two contagious variants.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment determines variants by genetically sequencing a very small sample of all COVID-19 tests statewide. Out of 35 statewide COVID-19 samples that underwent genetic sequencing for the week of Jan. 2, 88.67% were the omicron variant and just 11.33% of the samples were delta. Testing had confirmed nine total cases of omicron in Douglas County as of Friday, the latest available number.
After omicron was confirmed in Douglas County on Dec. 17, new COVID-19 cases spiked fast. In addition, the rolling 14-day average rate of test positivity was higher than ever before Wednesday, at 21.7%. (See the Times’ full COVID-19 stat dashboard at this link.)
At least three of those who spoke via Zoom said they were employees of LMH Health, pleading with the commission to extend the mandate to help slow the spread of the coronavirus disease and protect their staff.
Commission Chair Shannon Portillo said she found it “really jarring” when Dr. Jennifer Schrimsher, infectious disease specialist with LMH Health, said that LMH doesn’t do cardiothoracic surgery and the hospital currently can’t send people to the University of Kansas Health System because they’re not taking new patients.
Portillo said almost 20 years ago, her father had to be lifeflighted to KU for emergency surgery.
“We’ve had 20 years with him that — it scares me that if he had that today, we wouldn’t have,” she said. “This is not just about COVID and the spread of COVID in our community, but it’s about making sure that we have the health care resources for all of the health care that our community needs and deserves.”
Commissioner Patrick Kelly said that Lawrence Public Schools have seen the tremendous impact of COVID. As of Wednesday’s update to the district’s COVID page, there were 149 new cases reported in students and staff so far in January — almost 32% of the total cases for the 2021-2022 school year, in less than a week back to school after winter break.
“We are really struggling to make sure our schools are open and make sure every classroom’s staffed so kids can be learning,” he said. “… I’m very comfortable extending this public health order.”
Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid had prepared some comments ahead of the meeting, which she shared after saying she appreciates that public health officials were showing “courageous leadership” with the emergency health order. She said the health orders throughout the entire pandemic were “about caution, and they’re about community care. It is not about control.”
“We are merely doing our best to find human solutions for mitigating that impact. Our public health officers are doing their best to mitigate nature’s ability to mutate and spread highly contagious viruses across our population, and they have asked for explicit support,” she said.
“This mask mandate is a mutual aid request of our entire community to do what is right for one another and to take every feasible action toward contributing to our collective health and the protection of each other, as well as the protection of vital resources.”
The mask mandate will be in effect through 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 9 unless the commission takes action to alter or rescind it. Here’s the full emergency health order:20220105-Health-order-2
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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-422-6363. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.
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