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Kansas Exceeds 100K Coronavirus Cases As Mask Debate Rages

Kansas News Service

TOPEKA — Kansas on Monday reported another record seven-day spike in coronavirus cases, pushing the state past 100,000 for the pandemic as officials wrestled with getting more residents to wear masks.

The state Department of Health and Environment added 5,920 new confirmed and probable cases to the state's tally since Friday, bringing the total to 103,553 since the pandemic began. The state averaged 2,047 new cases a day for the seven days ending Monday, 15% higher than the previous record average of 1,779 for the seven days ending Friday.

The state health department also reported another 15 COVID-19-related deaths over three days, bringing the pandemic total to 1,081. But Johns Hopkins University put the number of deaths in the state at 1,101.

The state health department's report came with the mayor and City Council in Kansas' largest city of Wichita under quarantine after one council member tested positive. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and associations representing city and county officials have launched discussions on encouraging mask use in the face of resistance to mandating them from many local officials and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

"A legitimate question would be, how bad does it need to get before people realize this is not made up?" said Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino, Shawnee County's health officer and a senior fellow at the nonprofit Kansas Health Institute. "There are the people that will still deny the evidence."

President-elect Joe Biden on Monday implored Americans to wear masks, and some public health officials thought the message would help in Kansas. Other officials were skeptical.

Kansas saw an average of 35 new COVID-19-related hospitalizations a day for the seven days ending Monday, with 71 reported since Friday, to bring the pandemic total to 4,138.

In the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, two Ascension Catholic School teachers tested positive for the virus and another five had to be quarantined, The Kansas City Star reported. The school moved to all-online classes until Nov. 16.

In Topeka, the Stormont-Vail health system closed a child day care until Nov. 23 after 18 of 44 staff members tested positive.

The Legislature this spring forced Kelly to accept local control of decisions about masks, rules for businesses and limits on public gatherings. She issued a statewide mask mandate in early July, but state law allowed counties to opt out, and most did.

The governor last month floated the idea of calling the Legislature into special session to consider a statewide mask mandate but then agreed in a meeting with top lawmakers to try persuading local officials to issue their own. Legislators are not scheduled to reconvene until January.

"There's not really an appetite for a mask mandate," said Erik Sartorius, executive director of the League of Kansas Municipalities.

The Kansas Health Institute said 24 of the state's 105 counties had some form of mask mandate in place as of mid-October. In Lyon County in eastern Kansas, the county commission voted unanimously last week to impose a mandate after the county experienced a spike in active coronavirus cases. Commission Chairman Rollie Martin, a Republican cattle rancher, said the idea is "far more accepted" than it was in September.

Asked about Biden's comments, Martin said: "We run our own show here." "We'll do what we need to do to control the spread, if we can control it," he said.

Kelly's staff, legislative leaders and officials from the cities' league and the Kansas Association of Counties had their first discussions about encouraging mask use before last week's elections and plan to continue them, officials said. The groups have started a social media campaign.

Jay Hall, the general counsel and legislative policy director for the counties' group, said additional counties may impose new coronavirus rules because, "It has their attention."

Yet, the take-up on mask mandates could vary.

Hodgeman County in western Kansas opted out of the governor's mask mandate in July. County Commissioner Marsha Ewy was home Monday after being infected with COVID-19. She said she didn't even know about Biden's comments until her husband mentioned it. Asked about a mask mandate, she said she felt ill and, "I really don't want to think about that right at this minute, if you can understand that."

A mandate doesn't guarantee people will wear masks. Reno County, in south-central Kansas, has a mandate, but Commission Chairman Ron Sellers, a Republican, said between 50% and 55% of the residents are abiding by it.

"I think we are seeing more masks being worn because the community is aware that there are more cases every day," Sellers said. "I don't think a federal mandate would probably make more masks being worn unless it is enforced and I doubt there is any way in the world to enforce something like that."

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