Article updated at 10:24 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 9:
After hearing from county health officials and more than a dozen concerned residents, Douglas County commissioners on Wednesday voted unanimously to extend the county’s current indoor mask mandate through March 2.
The emergency order was issued as case numbers were rising steeply in early January, and it had been set to expire at 11:59 p.m. Feb. 9. At Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners were considering replacing the existing order with a new mandate that would have maintained indoor mask requirements, but only for “events with over 500 people in attendance.”
Commissioner Shannon Portillo said that although numbers have been trending downward for several weeks, information released earlier in the day by Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health showed that there were still some indications that warranted maintaining the stricter mandate for now.
“What I’m hearing is that our experts are saying this was a really tough call,” she said. “The trend overall is going in the right direction because our community has done what it’s needed to do, but we’re not quite at a point where we’re out of the red. We’re not quite at a point where we’re in a safe space when it comes to unmasking everywhere.”
The order requiring masks in all public spaces went into effect Jan. 7, shortly before LDCPH recorded a 14-day moving average of 340.86 new COVID-19 cases per day — the highest number since the beginning of the pandemic.
New cases in Douglas County have fallen fairly steadily since the mask mandate was implemented. On Wednesday, LDCPH released updated statistics that reflected a new 14-day moving average of 143.71 cases.
However, in Wednesday’s meeting, both county health officer Dr. Thomas Marcellino and deputy county health officer and infectious disease specialist Dr. Jennifer Schrimsher said Douglas County was “not out of the woods yet.”
“Douglas County has done a great job over the past month,” Schrimsher said. “Unfortunately, we’re still at nearly twice what we were at our previous peak a year or so ago, with almost 4,000 active cases in the county. So while we expect those numbers to continue to decline rapidly, there’s still a ton of disease out there.”
Both Schrimsher and Marcellino had supported the measure before the county commission to step mask mandates back to indoor events with 500 or more people, but both also detailed the importance of continuing preventive measures, including mask mandates.
Marcellino explained that although there might possibly be several hundred people shopping simultaneously at a department store, it was important to understand the difference between that type of passing interaction versus a situation where hundreds of people at a concert or sporting event might be sitting together in a tight space for several hours at a time.
Portillo said it was for those reasons that she was concerned about shifting from the current mandate to looser regulations.
“I’ve heard from quite a few parents, particularly from Baldwin and Eudora, that both of those school districts have mentioned that when the county mandate lapses that their schools will go to voluntary masking within classrooms,” she said.
Commissioner Patrick Kelly referred to comments made by several Douglas County residents who had appeared in person to express their desire for the county not only to end the current mask mandate, but to prevent future mandates from being implemented. Kelly said those residents’ calls for freedom were appreciated, but county officials were responsible for preserving public health.
He compared the county mask mandate with a burn ban that was issued in Douglas County a day earlier.
“We do a lot of things that are designed to protect the public health and the safety of our community,” Kelly said. “Today we have a burn ban for example, and it is in place to protect the properties and lives of the people in our community. We want to make sure that we don’t overstretch our resources. I see public health orders being very similar to that. And I think that’s our responsibility.”
Commissioner Shannon Reid agreed. She said she appreciated the work that county health officials had put into creating the order that they were considering, and she understood the difficulty of trying to predict future outcomes. She asked whether it might be possible to delay making a change until county infection rates returned to levels seen prior to the emergence of the omicron variant.
Schrimsher said that based on her projections it appeared that Douglas County could potentially reach those levels in approximately three weeks. After consulting with legal counsel Brad Finkeldei, Reid said she would like to consider extending the current mandate until March 2.
“The goal is to provide a layer of protection and some mitigation to the harm and the negative impacts, knowing that there is no absolute answer and that there is no clear path or blueprint for how to respond,” she said. “That requires adaptability, and it requires us to constantly be examining the totality of circumstances and the situation in front of us and make the best possible choices.”
Commissioners plan to revisit the county mask mandate again at their March 2 meeting.