Masks

With positive cases of COVID-19 spiking locally, the Dickinson County Board of Health may institute a mandatory mask order in the near future — possibly as early as next week.

“We’re continuing to see an increase of COVID,” County Administrator Brad Homman told county commissioners during their Thursday meeting.

Homman shared information provided by County Health Officer Dr. Brian Holmes that over the last two weeks the average number of positive COVID cases in Dickinson County has been “pushing 22 percent” and in the past seven days that number has been closer to 34 percent.

Between Monday and Wednesday this week, Dickinson County recorded 33 additional positive cases of COVID-19.

“What that tells us is it’s becoming much more prevalent,” Homman said. “That’s just in our hospital but it’s the same across the board. Hospitals we would normally transfer patients to are no longer accepting patients for the most part.”

He told about a COVID patient from Colby in Thomas County that needed to be transferred for care. After being told the hospital in Denver was full, ambulance personnel headed east, hoping to stop in Salina or Wichita, but along the way learned no beds were available.

“They went right on through to Kansas City before they found a hospital that could take ‘em,” Homman said. “It kind of illustrates the urgency on how things are coming about.”

Schools concerned

Homman said he talked with representatives Wednesday from local school districts concerned about the COVID situation.

“It’s very clear they are going to be requesting of you and Dr. Holmes some type of masking mandate,” Homman said.

The schools are seeing a number of cases among both staff and students, Homman said. Those cases also cause numerous exposures, leading to quarantines that last anywhere from 14 to 28 or more days, depending on the situation.

“We’ve got a lot of exposures, both in and outside the school district, that have been documented in that regard,” Homman said. “That’s not good for students and it’s not good for the operation of the school.”

Abilene Public Schools Superintendent Greg Brown told commissioners he had visited with Homman by phone on Wednesday about his concerns, which Homman had just shared.

Homman said he expects school boards across the county will likely talk about the situation during their meetings Monday night. Depending on those results, the county may call a special meeting next week.

Board of Health has authority

At recent county commission meetings, commissioners were asked if they are enforcing Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s mask mandate and the comment was made that counties do not have home rule — the enforcement mechanism that allows them to impose fines or penalties.

“Technically, we don’t have home rule as a county like the cities do,” Homman told commissioners. “However, you do have something the cities don’t have and that’s the public health code.”

The county board of health does have the authority to enforce a mask order as granted by state statute (KSA 65-101 and successive sections), which includes preventing “the spread of infectious diseases.”

The board of health consists of the three Dickinson County Commissioners and County Health Officer Dr. Holmes.

Unpopular move

Homman said Saline County used the public health code to mandate masking several months ago.

“That’s what they utilized for their authority,” he said. “I think we’re getting very close — as much as I hate to say it — because I know it’s not going to be popular. But if we’re going to try and do anything to keep kids in school and keep our schools open, we’re going to have to take the next step and mandate masking.

“We’ve had another death in the county, if not two. The things we are extremely concerned about are here,” Homman added.

He planned to meet with representatives from the cities in Dickinson County Thursday afternoon to gauge their feelings on a mask order. He also plans to restart weekly meetings with them.

Quoting Commissioner Ron Roller, Homman said, “We’re all in it together for the good and the bad and I think we all need to be in it together to manage the problem.”

Superintendent Brown agreed, “I know you, as a county commission, have been catching a lot of commentary and my school board has as well. It seems like it would really be beneficial for all of us to sit down and look at each other’s concerns and see if there’s not a way to help each other out.

“Because this isn’t going to get a whole lot easier down the road,” Brown added.

Commission Chairman Lynn Peterson said the COVID situation has reached a critical time.

“We need to find some thoughtful and reasonable solutions that are workable,” Peterson said, explaining he receives comments from people that agree with steps the county has taken along with comments from those who disagree.

“Yet, the reality is we need to pull together as a county. This isn’t unique to Dickinson County. It’s all the surrounding counties across the nation and so on,” Peterson added. “But having said all that, it’s really how we solve it right here. This is the part we have to address.”

Contact Kathy Hageman at reporter@abilene-rc.com.

Contact Tim Horan at editor@abilene-rc.com.

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