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With Kansas Hospitals Reeling, Governor Makes Second Push To Tame Coronavirus With Masks

Fernando Salazar
Wichita Journalism Collaborative
Gov. Kelly has issued a new statewide mask order, but counties can still opt out.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is again pressing a statewide mask requirement to tame a coronavirus surge that has filled the state’s intensive care beds and left at least one major hospital caring for patients in hallways.

On Wednesday, Kelly issued her second statewide order. It gives county commissions one week to write their own local mask-wearing rules. If they don’t, her rules take effect.

The counties can still dodge any rules, for the same reason most have done so since her first mask order in July. The Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law that made her emergency orders virtually toothless by letting local officials opt out.

Today, fewer than 40 of the state’s 105 counties have mask rules in force. Sedgwick County is currently enforcing its own mask mandate.

Kelly said she now thinks her orders will stick. She said Republican leaders offered little pushback when she approached them about issuing a second mask order. They even signaled to her that fewer counties would likely reverse them this time.

"It’s encouraging," she said. "I take 'not being against it' as being supportive."

The coronavirus has surged across Kansas, with the state reporting about 36,000 new cases over the past two weeks. Hospitals have run out of rooms and staff. Two Kansas counties, Rawlins and Nemaha, were among the nation’s top 15 for highest number of cases per resident on Wednesday.

Desperate doctors have turned to neighboring states for help, but hospitals there often are full, too.

The Associated Press reports that in northeast Kansas, Lawrence Memorial Hospital transformed an ultrasound area last week into a five bed critical care unit, with non-infected patients moving in this week to free up room for coronavirus patients elsewhere in the hospital as their numbers swelled. The hospital hit a record high of 35 COVID-19 patients on Tuesday. A conference room and auditorium later could be transformed into patient care areas, said spokeswoman Rebecca Smith.

The number of coronavirus cases has shot up across the U.S. to more than 11.5 million known cases.

Most states have mask mandates, and some that hadn’t issued any before cracked down recently, including Iowa and North Dakota. In Kansas, rural areas like Garden City and Dodge City recently adopted mask orders after significant spikes and overwhelmed area hospitals.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is based in the Kansas News Service’s Topeka newsroom. She writes about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. He aims to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.