As cases surge in Kansas City metro, here’s when Johnson County will decide on masks

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The Johnson County Board of Commissioners is expected to vote next week on whether to issue a new countywide mask mandate, although Chairman Ed Eilert made clear Thursday he is reluctant to do so.

Eilert requested that health officials make recommendations to the board at their meeting next Thursday on how to best address the surge in COVID-19 cases. Commissioners would vote on whether to follow any recommendations, such as a mask mandate, or to issue new guidelines to school districts to determine how to open classrooms safely next month.

Despite Kansas City’s return to a mandate requiring residents to wear masks indoors, Johnson County health officials have yet to make such a proposal. On Thursday, Sanmi Areola, Johnson County health director, stuck to strongly encouraging residents to wear masks as COVID-19 cases mount.

Kansas City’s directive takes effect on Monday. North Kansas City Mayor Bryant DeLong announced on Twitter Wednesday morning that he intends to issue a new mask order as well. In Wyandotte County, officials will hold a special meeting Thursday evening to discuss the health department’s recommendations.

Some officials in Johnson County have been hesitant about returning to restrictions. The county ended its mask mandate in April, and since then has only strongly encouraged unvaccinated residents to wear them.

“I’m not interested in a countywide mask mandate, especially for those who have been vaccinated and taken actions to protect themselves, their family and our community. I’m reluctant to place any additional requirement on those folks,” Eilert said Thursday. “As we’ve experienced in the past, there are many folks who just simply ignore the mask requirement, and we do not have an effective way to enforce that.”

“But that may be an option that’s presented.”

Areola and other health officials have yet to signal whether they will recommend a new mask mandate, but said they are reviewing the updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This week, the CDC recommended that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors, including in schools, in parts of the U.S. where the coronavirus is surging, including in Missouri and Kansas.

Johnson County has reported skyrocketing new COVID-19 cases, including among children who are not yet eligible for the vaccine. County epidemiologist Elizabeth Holzschuh said earlier this week that COVID-19 cases have increased 300% in the past month, driven by the highly contagious delta variant.

On June 3, the county reported an incidence rate — the number of new cases per 100,000 people in the past two weeks — of 47. On Thursday, the rate was 239 per 100,000.

On that same day in June, the county’s positivity rate — the number of positive tests over the past 14 days — was 1.7%. On Thursday, it was 7.9%, the highest since January.

Meanwhile, Kansas City area hospitals are warning that they have reached capacity.

“We also are seeing more infections in our younger population. Our team is investigating a lot of outbreaks at camps, businesses and child care establishments,” Areola said. “We’ve had to close down quite a few recently because of cases.”

The county also reported an increase in vaccinated residents, though. On Thursday, data showed nearly 57% of eligible residents fully vaccinated, with 62% having received at least one dose.

Areola said that’s positive news, but the county must consider the lower vaccination rates elsewhere in the Kansas City region, as residents commute to and from Johnson County.

“Our numbers are good, above the national average slightly. But I want to emphasize that we don’t have walls around Johnson County,” Areola said. “Regional numbers are probably more important than our numbers.”

The Mid-America Regional Council reported on Thursday that in the metro area, 45% of residents have been fully vaccinated. On the Missouri side, that drops to nearly 40%.

Next week, county officials also could introduce new recommendations for school districts. So far, the county has advised districts to require masks for unvaccinated students and staff. But only one district in the county, Shawnee Mission, has agreed to require masks for elementary students.

The other school districts have so far made masks optional. But with the CDC now recommending that even vaccinated people wear masks in school, there’s a chance the health department could advise districts to put more stringent rules in place.

“All of us, our entire community, parents, grandparents, we want our kids back in school. And we want in-class learning. And at the same time, we need to put in place, I think, and to the extent that can be provided, a safe environment for that to occur,” Eilert said.

On Monday, Johnson County confirmed that a summer camp, hosted by the county’s park and recreation district and held at a Shawnee elementary school, was forced to shut down after 10 coronavirus cases were reported out of the class of 24 unmasked elementary-aged children.

The Johnson County Board of Commissioners’ decision on whether to issue new COVID-19 requirements will come one week before some students return to classrooms for the start of the school year.

As Kansas City prepares its return to mandatory masks in response to the COVID-19 delta variant’s sweep through the region, other area local governments are also weighing options.

Kansas City’s new mandate will take effect Monday. The move was announced by Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas following updated guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that says everyone — including those who have been fully vaccinated — should wear masks indoors in areas where the risk of transmission is high or substantial.

All of Kansas City’s metropolitan area is considered high risk for transmission along with nearly all of Missouri and much of eastern Kansas, according to the CDC. Cases in the Kansas City area have also been on the rise, breaching 600 for a single day this week for the first time since January.

Similar to last year, when pandemic restrictions first rolled out before vaccines were widely available, other area governments are now considering mask and social distancing mandates that could follow with Kansas City’s.

Here’s a list of what local governments in the metro are up to:

North Kansas City: North Kansas City Mayor Bryant DeLong announced on Twitter Wednesday morning that he intends to issue a new mask order for North Kansas City.

In his statement, DeLong said there is “no doubt that COVID-19 is yet again posing a significant health risk to our region and community.” He added that the consideration of new rules is based on the CDC’s new guidance.

Jackson County: Jackson County Executive Frank White said Wednesday that he and the health department are asking that everyone follow the CDC’s latest recommendation. He also said a new Missouri law limiting the authority of local governments to impose mask mandates must be taken into account.

“I will work with my colleagues on the Jackson County Legislature to determine the best path forward for Jackson County and will continue to work with our regional partners in hopes of aligning our orders to reduce confusion and increase the impact of our actions,” White said in a statement.

Independence: Independence will require masks to be worn in all city facilities including City Hall, Police Headquarters, Independence Utility Center, Sermon Center, Truman Memorial Building, Palmer Center, Independence Uptown Market, and the Cable Dahmer Arena, starting on July 29.

Additionally, there will be expanded access to Independence Health Department vaccine clinics across the City with options five days a week, beginning on Aug. 2.

Independence has its own health department that operates outside of the purview of Jackson County.

Wyandotte County: A spokeswoman for the Unified Government said Wednesday that health officials will meet with Wyandotte County leaders in a special session Thursday evening to discuss COVID-19 and any health order recommendations.

The Star’s Bob Cronkleton, Cortlynn Stark and Angela Cordoba Perez contributed reporting.

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