TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Gov. Laura Kelly issued a new mask mandate Wednesday in hopes of lessening the spread of the coronavirus in Kansas after the state again reported another record seven-day increase in new cases.
(Due to technical issue in Topeka, the first moments of the broadcast had no audio)
State law still allows Kansas’ 105 counties to opt out of such an order from the Democratic governor, and most did when Kelly issued a similar order in July. But the state’s rolling seven-day average for new coronavirus cases is now more than nine times higher than it was than when her first order took effect.
Kelly’s order takes effect Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving, and only in counties that don’t yet have their own mask mandates, though that’s still a majority of them. Kelly said she was giving counties without mandates a week to draft their own alternatives. Her order requires people to wear a “face covering” in indoor public spaces and in public spaces outdoors where social distancing is not possible.
The governor’s Statehouse news conference Wednesday afternoon came only hours after state health department data showed that Kansas averaged 2,767 new confirmed and probable coronavirus cases a day for the seven days ending Wednesday. That’s slightly above the previous record of 2,741 for the seven days ending Monday. When Kelly first mask order took effect July 2, it was 289.
“We have reached a new stage in our fight with this virus, and how we choose to respond can turn the tide for our businesses, our hospitals and our schools,” Kelly said.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment added 5,853 cases to the state’s pandemic tally since Monday, increasing 4.8% it to 128,594. The state reported 60 new COVID-19-related deaths over two days, making the total 1,326.
The state averaged a record 44 new COVID-19-related hospitalizations a day for the seven days ending Wednesday, up from the previous high of 41. The state health department reported 130 additional hospitalizations since Monday, bringing the pandemic total to 4,561.
The surge in cases is straining hospitals.
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. A conference room and auditorium later could be transformed into patient care areas, said spokeswoman Rebecca Smith.
Dave Garnas, the administrator of the Cloud County Health Center in north-central Kansas, said patients who need care elsewhere are being sent as far away as the Kansas City area, about 170 miles (274 kilometers) away, or Omaha, Nebraska, about 150 miles (241 kilometers) away.
“And the process of finding a bed can sometimes take hours,” he said.
Perry Desbien, a nurse practitioner who works full-time in Smith Center in north-central Kansas, and part-time with a company that provides emergency staffing, said smaller hospitals need to transfer coronavirus patients as they get sicker and he has had to call six or seven other hospitals.
“The problem with this is by the time you transfer these patients out they already are very ill at that point and now time is an urgent issue,” he said.
In northwest Kansas, Ben Kimball, a physician assistant, filled in recently at Decatur County’s small hospital and spent two hours trying to find a larger hospital that could care for a sick non-coronavirus patient who finally was flown to Denver, about 250 miles (402 kilometers) to the west.
“If we find ourselves in a position where a lot of our regional hospitals are full, we could definitely be having a lot of trouble treating some of these patients that end up sicker,” he said.
Top Republican legislators have long clashed with Kelly over how to address the pandemic, arguing that local officials should determine whether there are mask mandates or restrictions on businesses and public gatherings. While Kelly kept a statewide stay-at-home order in place for five weeks, ending in early May, the Legislature later forced her to accept local control of pandemic-related rules.
“Community leaders will still have the final say and will make their own decisions on what’s best for their constituents,” Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said after the governor’s news conference.
Republican leaders also have extracted public promises from Kelly not to shut down businesses statewide again, as she did for five weeks in the spring.
“Mandates and lockdowns will not eliminate the virus no matter how extreme they are,” House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, another Wichita Republican, said in a statement after the governor’s announcement.
But Kelly’s mask order could be more than symbolic. It will remain in effect in places where county commissions don’t take specific action to opt out or write their own rules. At least a dozen counties have tightened up their pandemic-related rules during the past two weeks, including some heavily Republican ones where voters went for President Donald Trump by wide margins in the presidential election.