County health director provides COVID update; commissioners uncomfortable with mask mandates

BY JUSTIN SABATA

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported Monday the state saw an increase of more than 1,300 cases during the weekend. Ellis County, as of Monday, had 34 current active cases compared to 36 last Friday, according to Ellis County Health Director Jason Kennedy. 

There are also two hospitalizations; however, since the last update, one person has died due to the virus.

As reported by Kennedy, on a case-per-1,000-people barometer, Ellis County is currently experiencing two cases for every 1,000 people. He went on to explain how this compares to similarly populated counties in Kansas.

“The average cases-per-thousand (people) is 12.64,” Kennedy said.

The health director indicated the county first relaxed coronavirus mitigation May 27, a time where the county had few cases. It is only recently that Ellis County has seen a noticeable increase in cases, which could be attributed to other areas of the country, according to Kennedy.

“As the other states, other counties, as everybody else has begun to relax their restrictions, we have seen our cases continue to grow,” he said. 

As reported by Kennedy to the commission, there have been 60 new COVID cases in the county from July 3 to Monday, with 0.1% of the population currently infected.

These numbers are utilized by government institutions to determine when to enact coronavirus-related restrictions. According to Kennedy, it is recommended that communities take precautionary measures when there is a 1% active infection rate and a 5% hospitalization rate for those infected, which would equate to 280 active infections and 14 hospitalizations in Ellis County. 

“With those metrics is when I would recommend we implement community mitigation measures,” Kennedy said. “Those community mitigation measures are not one thing at a time; you couple them together to make impacts.”

Second District Commissioner Dustin Roths was the first to address the health director. He did not ask Kennedy any questions but provided his concerns with the media’s relation to the pandemic.

“I am sick and tired of the news trying to turn this into something that it is not,” he said. “I believe that hurts our chance at governing (the pandemic).”

Roths went on to compare the news agencies and public reaction to the coronavirus in Saline County and Ellis County.

“I thought I’d go on there and see how Saline County’s public is dealing with it,” he said. “And, there were about eight to 12 shares, a couple comments, a few people that said, ‘Hey, thank you so much for looking out for us.’ ”

Roths then contrasted this from local Ellis County news agencies:

“And then I looked on ours, and the No. 1 underlying issue on ours is that our news agencies grab ahold of it, share it, scare people with comments, and then blow it way out of proportion,” he said. “Even though we’re very similar in terms of the number of cases, we’re way under the amount of deaths.”

Saline County currently has 153 actively monitored cases and three deaths attributed to the coronavirus as of Tuesday, according to their county health department. 

Roths recalled the emails and messages he has received regarding COVID-19 and how he relates this to the nation’s history. 

“Frankly, I’ve seen enough people on my email thread beg me to take of their individual autonomy and the autonomy of the people around them, and I got to thinking about our country and the people who founded it and some of the quotes that they said,” he said. “And I thought, ‘How can we be the ancestors of these people?’ ”

After sharing a few quotes from the Founding Fathers of the United States, Roths continued with his concern with governments making decisions based on fear.

“I thought about what would happen if I wasn’t in this chair, I thought about if we create a precedence of jumping to conclusions or governing on fear, what that would look like in the future,” he said. “How quickly would others jump to take our rights away from us, and our own personal autonomy and responsibility for ourselves, for our family?”  

From his personal perspective, Roths was grateful that COVID-19 is not as great of a risk to children.

“I also thank God that this thing doesn’t affect kids,” he said. “I think my fatherly instinct would come out if I felt like kids were going to be affected negatively, extremely negatively by this like those who are in their elderly age are.”

The Center for Disease Control reports that, although child infection rates are lower than adults and children do not appear to be at a greater risk than adults, there is still not enough evidence to fully prove whether or not children are more resistant to the virus. 

Third District Commissioner Dean Haselhorst shared a message he heard from the priest at his local church in regard to the coronavirus and the media. 

“Quit watching the six o’clock and 10 o’clock news,” he said. “The news media has nothing to do but report negative.”

Haselhorst continued to relay the message he heard from his priest, including what he believes residents should do instead of watching the news. 

“Turn it off, go find something else to do,” he said. “Read the Bible, pick up a newspaper, pick up a magazine and read something that’s positive – you’d forget about what’s going on.”

Although Haselhorst does not wear a mask himself, he personally does not mind those who do so.

“I don’t care if everyone around me wears a mask; that is their choice,” he said. “Jason (Kennedy) has preached it over and over every week that if you can’t social distance, wear it.”

Haselhorst continued to praise Kennedy’s work during the pandemic. Kennedy did not speak while the commissioner was addressing him. 

First District Commissioner Butch Schlyer asked the health director if there is a difference between COVID numbers in counties with a mask mandate and counties without one. According to Kennedy, it is proven that masks work in certain situations, but there is not enough evidence to determine if they work as a mitigation measure in areas similar to Ellis County. Kennedy then stated his concern with this and if the measure would be taken seriously if it were ever enacted. 

“And my fear with that is if we need them (mitigation measures), will the public follow it? You need 80% adoption for community mitigation measures to truly be impactful,” Kennedy said. “Can we get that today? I don’t know. But if the community believes in me, and they believe in us, when we ask them to, they will.” 

Schlyer then asked if any COVID clusters have occurred at Dillion’s supermarkets. This comes after it was announced by Dillion’s that masks would be mandatory in their locations starting July 22, where a family member of Schlyer’s regularly shops. While Kennedy could not speak on behalf of Dillion’s locations outside of the county, there have been no clusters from the store reported within Ellis County.

The commissioner then continued on to the topic of mask mandates. Schlyer reflected on the trend of masks and how he thinks it is different from the SARS outbreak earlier this century, as well as the more recent H1N1 pandemic in 2009. 

“During both of these issues, one thing that was never brought up, we talked about social distance – they never brought up putting a mask on,” he said. “And that’s because a mask won’t stop a damn virus, and that’s just fact.”

The Center for Disease Control recommends people wear a form of face-covering when in public or around people who do not live with them, stating “cloth face coverings are most likely to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when they are widely used by people in public settings.” (2020).

Schlyer continued to state his skepticism towards masks after researching the topic.

“If a person wants to wear it, if they feel comfort, if they feel like it’s for their own personal safety, I don’t have a problem with it,” he said. “But your mask is not protecting me and I’m not going to be fooled by that.”

The commissioner then attributed the social divide on the issue to the nation’s media.

“I think that’s one way the press has tried to divide this country, saying, ‘I have to protect someone by wearing a mask and they’re protecting me,’ ” he said. “That’s just B.S. That mask you’re wearing won’t protect me at all.” 

Schlyer then reported he has begun deleting emails from residents involving masks. 

“I’m to the point where I’m just deleting everything I get on my email regarding a face mask,” he said.

Kennedy said he would encourage mask wearing when it is needed, but advised the time is not now given the previously stated numbers.

“Right now is not that time,” he said. “Wash your hands, be safe, be smart, and stop being scared – listen.”

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