Kansas governor calls for help with statewide mask mandate

Coronavirus in Kansas

MISSION, Kan. (AP) — Democratic Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is again calling for a statewide mask mandate as the coronavirus case count continues to climb in rural parts of the state that don’t require them.

Kelly said Wednesday that two-thirds of the state’s COVID-19 cases are now coming from outside the Wichita and Kansas City region. Over the summer, she issued an order requiring Kansas residents to wear masks, but more than 90 counties chose to opt out. She said she now plans to speak with House and Senate leadership to work toward a bipartisan requirement with more teeth.

“We cannot sit by as the cases continue to rise in our rural communities, threatening lives and businesses,” she said.

Her announcement came after the state health department reported that Kansas had 1,488 new confirmed and probable coronavirus cases since Monday, bringing the total number of infections reported in the state to 74,456. That pushed the rolling seven-day average for new cases to another record of 757. The department also reported 80 additional COVID-19-related deaths, most of them stemming from a review of death certificates, bringing the state’s fatality toll to 952.

According to data from The COVID Tracking Project, the seven-day rolling average of the positivity rate in Kansas has risen over the past two weeks from 15% on Oct. 6 to 19.4% on Tuesday. Only four other states are faring worse.

On Monday, the health department in rural Norton County reported a coronavirus outbreak killed 10 residents in a nursing home in northwestern Kansas. It said all 62 residents and an unspecified number of employees at the Andbe Home in Norton had tested positive for the virus.

“For months, many have mistakenly shared the idea that this virus would never reach our rural and lower population communities. Now it is worse in those towns and counties than it is in in our cities,” she said. “Harmful anti-mask and anti-science rhetoric has politicized our ability to tackle a public health issue, much of it coming from our elected officials.”

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a Republican from Overland Park, said in a statement shared by a spokesman that he had not been contacted by the governor’s office to discuss a statewide mask mandate yet but is “happy to talk and discuss a mask mandate because it is better than a business shutdown, which he doesn’t want to talk about.” Denning added that he wants the discussions to include a statewide testing plan that is “crucial to dealing with the virus.”

Meanwhile, a 45-page plan that Kansas filed in the past week with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that health care workers and long-term care residents will be among those who will get the coronavirus vaccine first. Other groups that will be prioritized for the initial rounds of vaccinations include people with underlying medical conditions, people 65 and older and essential workers.

Phil Griffin, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment bureau director for disease control and prevention, said the agency will use advisory committees to help determine who should receive the vaccine next. The plan indicates the health department is taking input from groups representing individuals with disabilities, people of color, children and other demographics, The Kansas City Star reported.

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