Starting this morning, Thursday, any person in Dickinson County shall cover their mouth and nose with a mask or other face covering inside of, or in line of, any indoor public space, and outdoors in public places when unable to maintain a 6-foot distance.
In the special meeting Wednesday afternoon the Dickinson County Commission approved on a 3-0 vote an emergency county-wide mask mandate order of the county health department.
“Things are on fire across the country. We are in a dire situation,” Dr. Brian Holmes, the county health officer, told the commissioners. “We are dealing with all of the normal stuff we do — heart attacks, strokes, cancer — plus COVID,” he said. “The number of COVID patients hospital-wise has overwhelmed the system and we can’t keep up. There is a nation-wide shortage of nurses. We don’t have resources.”
Holmes said the order does not close any business.
County Attorney Doug Tompson said the order would be enforced by Dickinson County Attorney and is a Class C misdemeanor, subject up to a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
“I don’t think anyone wants to see a sheriff’s deputy or a police officer writing tickets,” said County Administrator Brad Homman. “I would like to think by the nature of the order and situation at hand and what we are risking, people would do the right thing. I know that is not always the response. It may take a visit or a call from someone at the health department.”
County commissioners met with the Dickinson County Health Department Director John Hultgren and Holmes to review an update on the COVID-19 pandemic in the county and the health order which was presented to the commission.
Hultgren said there were 29 new cases since Monday in Dickinson County.
“In the last month we have had 320 new cases and 209 of those have come in the last two weeks,” he said. “We are averaging about 15 cases per day. Certainly, in the last month, we have seen an increase and it is continuing to increase which has been evident in the last two weeks. Cases are going up in all of the counties around us and statewide.
“That is what we are trying to do today, to try and slow those numbers down,” he added.
Holmes said the big concern was hospitalization and finding intensive care units (ICUs).
Holmes said the ratio of COVID positive patients and non-COVID is 50/50 at the Abilene Memorial Hospital.
“We have two wings on our medical/surgical inpatient area,” he said. “One wing is all COVID and the other one is non-COVID.”
He said Abilene is not full.
“Certainly our staff is stretched but able to take care of people and handle emergencies,” he said.
However, last week a patient needed to be transported to a higher level facility with an ICU bed.
“We don’t have ICU here,” he said.
Hospitals in Kansas City, Salina, Manhattan, Junction City, Topeka, Wichita and Lawrence didn’t have room for another ICU patient.
“This person needed transferred and, luckily, about an hour or two later, St. Luke’s called back and said they had a bed and we were able to transfer him there,” he said. “That puts our staff at risk because our staff are not used to keeping patients that require that level of care.”
He said Stormont Vail isn’t accepting any more transfers.
Commission Chairman Lynn Peterson said other counties have taken steps to approve mask mandates recently.
Other states, as a whole, have done the same, Hultgren said.
Peterson said the state allows county health to issue an order to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, epidemic or any other health issue.
“There are Kansas statutes that apply to that,” he said.
Homman said basically the order requires a person to wear a mask out in public when not able to maintain a 6-foot social distance.
“It would also require businesses to do the same,” he said. “It also limits the mass gatherings to 30 people or 50 percent of the rated fire capacity,” he said. “I think you have heard John (Hultrgen) say before that is one of the places we have identified where some of these clusters are coming from. It seems like if you have a wedding in this county, as much as I appreciate weddings, don’t get me wrong — I had one, too — weddings have significantly contributed to the number of COVID. They can directly tie them back to weddings and funerals.”
Homman said it does encourage restaurant curb-side pickup and delivery. It does not close restaurants.
Hultgren said it does close bars and restaurants at 11 p.m. with the exception of Hardee’s which is open 24 hours.
“That has not been an issue around here,” he said.
Opposition to the mask mandate is expected as Mike Schoby, who attended the meeting, did.
“I won’t follow the mandate,” he told the commission, although he stated he had a breathing condition and would fall under the exception.
“None of us in this room like this,” Homman said. “None of us want to do this but at the same time I think it is pretty easy to see the writing on the wall as to where we are going if we don’t take some type of mitigating action.”
“There will be some people that are not comfortable. This is not what they would prefer,” Peterson said. “We have received quite a few letters and communication where people have been requesting this. There is a large contingency out there that has concerns.”
The order does have an end date of Dec. 31. That would require the commission to review it at that time.
Commissioner Ron Roller said the commission could terminate the order at any time.
Speaking to the commission, Schoby argued that there was no discussion among the public. He asked for a compromise.
He also questioned why the Chapman sixth through twelfth grades are not in school. Chapman announced Thursday those grades would go to remote learning and athletics would not resume until next year.
“What right does the health department have making the decision that my kids are not allowed to go to school?” he asked. “It’s not fair to impose this on me.”
After the meeting, Holmes said it was recommended school districts in Dickinson County go to remote learning for students in the sixth through twelfth grades and discontinue athletics until next year.
Herington and Chapman elected to follow the recommendation.
“What shuts down a school is there isn’t enough staff,” Holmes said.
He said there were also a number of students in quarantine there were already learning remotely.
Also, during that time are both the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
“I think Chapman took the lead and is doing the right thing,” Holmes said. “I hope Abilene follows.”
Solomon and Hope have not had many COVID positive cases, he said.
Contact Tim Horan at email@example.com.