By BECKY KISER
In an hour-long discussion Monday night, Ellis County commissioners reiterated their stance on not enforcing the July 2 executive order by Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly to wear face masks in public, at work and when unable to physically distance at least 6 feet.
Counties are allowed to exempt themselves from the mandate regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
"I think we've all been contacted and gotten emails about this," said Commissioner Dean Haselhorst. He noted he received a text earlier in the day from Hays Mayor Shaun Musil about the situation.
City commissioners will consider an ordinance at their Thursday meeting requiring the wearing of masks.
Two people in the audience addressed the county commission asking it to reconsider its decision and enforce the statewide mask order.
"We have always bragged about the safety of our city," said Dr. Ed Hammond, president emeritus of Fort Hays State University and a teacher in the Department of Advanced Education Programs. "Now I'm getting calls from my graduate students saying they don't want to come to Hays. We don't want that to happen."
Hammond noted the $75 million impact the university has on the Ellis County economy each year, in part from the 4,000 on-campus students. Classes are scheduled to start Aug. 17.
Dr. Cheryl Hofstetter-Duffy, FHSU director of composition, was diagnosed with cancer five years ago. She asked commissioners to "think of those who are at high risk" of contracting COVID-19 and "listen to the medical community" about the effectiveness of face masks in stopping spread of the disease.
Commission Chairman Butch Schlyer, the former longtime Ellis County Health Department director, disagrees that face masks work.
During his administrative tenure, there were local cases of SARS and N1H1.
"We (KDHE) talked about social distancing but never about putting a mask on," Schlyer said, "and that's because a mask won't stop a damn virus. That's just a fact."
Schlyer said he spent the weekend researching the coronavirus and face mask efficacy.
"It'd be like I put chicken wire over my windows and thought it would keep out the flies and mosquitoes."
Schlyer also said he is not going to "infringe on the rights of people to take away what little liberties are left," noting that he deletes his emails that refer to the face mask order.
All three commissioners are also concerned about "alarm fatigue," occurring when people have been scared for so long, they quit listening when officials issue a escalated warning.
The Ellis County Health Department on Monday announced 10 new positive cases of coronavirus in the county since Friday.
There are now 34 active cases in Ellis County, with 87 total cases since reporting began, including one death of a man in his 90s.
Two people remain hospitalized.
What does work to stop the spread of coronavirus, according to Jason Kennedy, county health director, is social isolation, but there are local struggles.
In explaining numerous statistics for Ellis County, for counties with mask mandates, and for the state as a whole, Kennedy noted a third of the active cases in Ellis County are contacts of another positive person who resides in the same home.
"If you are a positive, isolate yourself completely," Kennedy stressed. "That means one bedroom, one bathroom (for the positive patient). "Ride out your contagious period, whatever we determine that to be.
"If we cut those transmissions inside the home, that's a third more cases we can prevent."
Social distance and the more distance between people, the better, according to Kennedy. "Those work."
"Masks — there's data either way showing they work or don't. I'm not for masks. I'm not against masks.
"I want them if I need them. Now is not that time."
Kennedy said there is a difference in the data mandating a face covering for people on a New York City subway compared to Ellis County streets.
"We're inherently socially distanced," he said. "Wash your hands. Be safe. Be smart. And stop being scared. Listen. Educate yourself, and we'll get through this.
"I don't mandate. I recommend. I educate," Kennedy concluded. He removed his face mask to address the commission.
To date, between 2,200 and 2,300 Ellis County residents have been tested for COVID-19.
The process of surveillance of positive patients has been accelerated to within 24 hours of diagnosis, according to Kennedy, with the hiring of off-duty Ellis County EMS employees.
Commissioners praised Kennedy for his work, while Kennedy praised the local health care system.
"We have sufficient capacity in Ellis County at this time," Kennedy told the commission. "When we meet the threshold, I will make sure the community knows."
"I'm sick and tired of the news media trying to turn this into something it is not," said Dustin Roths, commissioner. "I want to save our ability to govern the right way when there is an actual threat. And I don't know that will actually happen in COVID-19."
The three Ellis County commissioners were the only people in the commission chambers Monday night who were not wearing face masks.