An effort to overturn the health orders including mask-wearing in Wyandotte County failed in two votes of the Unified Government Commission on Monday night.
The vote was 5-5, with the vote failing because six votes are needed to pass.
When the vote was 5-4, Mayor David Alvey voted against lifting the health orders.
Commissioner Mike Kane made the motion to overturn the health orders. His motion would have adopted CDC recommendations for unvaccinated people to wear masks indoors, but they would only have been recommendations, not health orders that were required.
Commissioner Tom Burroughs seconded the motion. Voting for the motion were Commissioners Melissa Bynum, Brian McKiernan, Mike Kane, Angela Markley and Tom Burroughs. Voting against it were Commissioners Gayle Townsend, Christian Ramirez, Harold Johnson and Jane Philbrook. Commissioner Jim Walters was absent.
Later, Commissioner Burroughs offered another motion, the same as Commissioner Kane’s, with the addition that it would take effect on Tuesday. That also failed on a 5-5 vote, same as the first one.
The commissioners are scheduled to come back and discuss the issue again on May 27. The current health orders are in effect through May 28.
Juliann Van Liew, UG Health Department director, told the commission that Wyandotte County is averaging around 10 new COVID-19 cases a day. Most of the cases have been among young people, many school age, she said.
More than 260 Wyandotte County students were out on quarantine as of today, Van Liew said.
Van Liew said CDC guidance changed on May 13, with fully vaccinated people no longer needing to wear a mask or physically distance except where required by federal, state, local laws, rules and regulations including local business and workplace guidance. She said the CDC has not modified its guidelines for those not vaccinated, and advised unvaccinated people to continue to wear a mask, especially indoors.
Wyandotte County was the lone member of the “Core 4” group including Kansas City, Missouri, Jackson County and Johnson County, that had not dropped its health orders yet.
Van Liew recommended the UG continue to maintain the local Wyandotte County health order. Her primary reason was that seven out of 10 residents of Wyandotte County have not had even one vaccine dose. Only 25 percent of the residents are fully vaccinated, she said.
If you walk into a grocery store, odds are that seven of 10 will not have received even one dose of the vaccine, she said. If the mask order is repealed, odds are that seven of 10 maskless individuals will not have received one dose, putting themselves and their neighbors at substantial risk, she said.
Last week, 12-15-year-olds became eligible for vaccinations, but it will be weeks before they are fully vaccinated, she said. Those who are younger than 11 are not yet eligible for vaccines and that could be months later.
Individuals who are immunocompromised, have received transplants or are undergoing chemotherapy, are at risk, she said. The vaccines may not work as well for these people.
“When we talk about this being a public health issue, and not just a personal health and safety issue, this is what we’re talking about. Our personal decisions impact the health and well-being of those around us,” Van Liew said.
She said the highest risk of COVID-19 transmission is indoors in public settings without masks on.
Just two weeks ago, the Health Department recommended substantial rollbacks to the health orders, she said. They recommended removing the mask requirement outdoors, they recommended removing the social distancing requirements. Those provisions were approved. They were holding tight to the most important health order that needs to remain in effect, the wearing of masks indoors in public settings, she said.
The Health Department’s recommendation was to maintain the existing health order, Van Liew said. Its purpose was to require mask-wearing indoors in public places. The order already provides an exemption to that when everyone in a room is fully vaccinated, she said.
“We know the social and political pressures you are experiencing,” she said. The Health Department has worked under the same pressures, she said. They have kept as the primary focus, the following of data and the promotion of the public health, even under tremendous pressures, she said.
“Tonight, we only ask that you do one thing, that is that you do the same,” Van Liew said.
Doug Bach, UG administrator, outlined three options, to stay with the Health Department’s recommendation, and stay with the current health order through May 28; another option, to go with CDC guidelines and vote for an ordinance to adopt it, allowing people who are vaccinated to remove masks; or to repeal all orders, with just a recommendation to follow the CDC guidance.
Commissioners asked a lot of questions during the meeting, and were not always certain of the fine points of the CDC guidelines.
When asked, Van Liew said the epidemiological risk of allowing fully vaccinated people to remove their masks indoors was very low, but the true risk was that when you walk into an indoor setting, you have no idea who is vaccinated and who is not. The social risk is that individuals who are unvaccinated will feel inclined to remove their masks as well, she said. It is those individuals they are worried about.
An order requiring unvaccinated people to mask when indoors would be very difficult to enforce by a business, and so the requirement should stand for a while longer, she said.
Commissioner Kane said the CDC has said fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors, the vaccine has been made available to anyone who wanted it, and the surrounding communities have lifted their masking.
“It is time for Wyandotte County to lift its masking, too,” Commissioner Kane said.
His motion was to remove the mask order, remove the health orders and issue recommendations consistent with the CDC guidelines.
Commissioner Christian Ramirez said he didn’t agree with lifting the mask mandate unless the vaccination rates increased.
It is the Health Department’s job to make sure the county and people are safe, healthy and prosperous, he said. That’s all they want. There is no political gain in keeping the mask mandate.
“What we gain as a community is we continue to be healthy and safe from COVID-19,” Ramirez said. “Our community was hit the hardest out of the state.”
They have seen the light at the end of the tunnel, but there is still a long, dark tunnel to get through, he said.
In answer to questions from Commissioner Melissa Bynum, Van Liew said Johnson County removed its health orders prior to the CDC recommendation, and she understood their vaccination rate was over 50 percent. In Wyandotte County, the vaccination rate is about 30 percent for one vaccination.
Kansas City, Missouri, and Jackson County, Missouri, dropped their mask mandates after the CDC guidance came out.
Dr. Erin Corriveau, deputy health officer, said it appeared from the Johnson County Health Department dashboard that there is an uptick in COVID-19 cases in Johnson County.
All school districts in Wyandotte County are still masking, she said. One district had a case spread within the school, with many children having to quarantine.
Dr. Allen Greiner, chief medical officer, said 10 cases a day are well below the former 200 cases a day. A comparison to flu cases is not really comparable as there is a 20 percent hospitalization rate and 1 to 2 percent death rate from COVID-19, much higher than the flu death rate of .01 percent, according to Dr. Greiner.
“I imagine people are under political circumstances when they’re making decisions, but our job is to save lives. You have helped us save tens of thousands of lives under the past 14 months,” he said.
They don’t want to have tragedies, but they have seen some tragedies, he said.
“The sad, sad stories of young people dying aren’t at the top of people’s minds when they’re talking about the accuracy of PCR tests,” Dr. Greiner said. He added the PCR tests used here are very accurate.
“The sad thing is we’re not getting our vaccine rate up there where we need it to prevent those sad, young hospitalizations and deaths,” Dr. Greiner said. “We understand this is a balance. Our job is not to see bad things happen, and we know science is on the side of masks preventing deaths. It’s out there, and the decision is yours.”
Dr. Jane Philbrook said her optometrist office will not be relaxing any of its mask requirements. She has had vaccinations, and there is a five to 10 percent chance of getting COVID or spreading it. Still, that five percent does not make her feel good. She said she cares about her patients and she is not going to take a chance of spreading it.
She also went on a recent trip to another city and saw that many people were not wearing masks. She kept her own mask on, however.
“I don’t want to bring things back to our community,” Dr. Philbrook said. She said others have shared stories of young people in their families who died from COVID-19 and had other medical problems from it.
“None of us are really COVID safe,” she said. With the low numbers of people vaccinated here, she would have a problem with relaxing the mask mandates.
“I’m not going to put people at risk,” Dr. Philbrook said.
Commissioner Angela Markley said there were businesses that could still adopt whatever guidelines they thought were appropriate, including more strict guidelines.
“My family is still wearing masks,” she said. Regardless of what happens, people need to be good residents and neighbors, she said. No one should be concerned about how their neighbors are behaving, and they should make choices for their own family based on their vaccination status and the guidelines, she said.
Commissioner Brian McKiernan was in favor of aligning Wyandotte County with the surrounding cities, saying they are weaker if they are fractured.
In answer to a question from Commissioner Ramirez, Van Liew said she doesn’t believe Wyandotte County could go backwards if cases spiked again and reinstate a mask order. She said she didn’t think they could put Pandora back into the box.
Commissioner Harold Johnson agreed with Commissioner Ramirez that they are still in a pandemic.
“I am not in favor of lifting our current health order, particularly as it relates to Wyandotte County,” Commissioner Johnson said. They could make any modifications as necessary on May 27, he said.
Commissioner Tom Burroughs said he was a strong supporter of Wyandotte County and small businesses.
Commissioner Melissa Bynum said she has spoken to small business owners, some who want to continue with masks and some who don’t. She said she respected both.
“At some point we need to ask people to step up and help themselves,” she said. “And I think that’s the point we’re at in this community.”
The UG meeting is online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wd90beok2cc.
School districts continuing with masks
The Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools will continue its current policy, which requires students and everyone in the schools to wear masks, according to Edwin Birch, the school district’s executive director of communication and marketing.
The CDC recommends that masks continue to be worn in the schools for at least the rest of the school year.
Birch said the policy to wear masks will continue at least through the end of July. The district will revisit the issue once the next school year begins, he said.
Birch said the district continues to follow closely the guidance of the Wyandotte County Health Department, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment guidelines and updates provided by the CDC.
In the Bonner Springs-Edwardsville Public Schools, there will be no change, as the academic year is concluding on May 27, according to Kaela Williams, communications coordinator for the district. The district plans to keep its current policy in place for these last few days of school, she stated.
The Bonner Springs current district policy was established at the start of the school year and requires all students, staff and visitors to wear masks, she stated.
Lauren Aiello, a spokesman for the Turner School District, stated that Turner has had a mask policy in place all year for students and staff.
“The CDC did not change its school guidance in its recent update to mask wearing, so we will continue to wait for an update to school measures regarding masking from the CDC and KSDE,” Aiello stated.
The Piper School District intends to continue to implement the mitigation strategies it has been using throughout the school year, including mask wearing, for the remaining seven days of in-person instruction, according to Jenny Hurley, Piper district spokesman. The Piper Board of Education plans to re-evaluate its stance on masks for summer activities at the June 14 regular board meeting, Hurley stated.