With COVID-19 cases in Ellis County on the rise, the county commissioners said Monday evening they will be forced to look at requiring people to wear masks in the county.


"As we see the infection rate go up — and it will go up — we’re going to have more pressure on us to have a mask mandate," said commission chairman Butch Schlyer. "And we need to consider it."


Commissioners commented throughout their regular meeting Monday evening on the heavy public criticism they’ve taken after exempting the county in early July from Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order.


Kelly mandated all Kansans start wearing masks after the state’s COVID-19 cases began increasing. At that time, the commissioners voiced strong opinions against a one-size-fits-all mask mandate.


On Monday evening, however, Schlyer broached the topic of a local mandate after a presentation on the county’s virus numbers from health services director Jason Kennedy.


Kennedy repeated his message several times during the meeting at the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main: Don’t travel, and avoid large gatherings. He cited the recent Fourth of July celebrations, which bumped up the county’s number of cases.


Commissioner Dustin Roths agreed with Schlyer.


"That’s something we all three need to weigh in on," Roths said of himself and his two colleagues on the commission, Schlyer and Commissioner Dean Haselhorst. "At what point, at what danger level, are we willing to start any kind of draconian measures?"


"Sure," Schlyer said.


"Frankly, right now I yield to Jason. I trust Jason," Roths said. "He is telling you how to keep yourself safe, but he can’t be at your Fourth of July parties and use a yardstick to make sure you guys are staying 6 feet apart."


"The public will know, you guys will know," Kennedy said, "when we reach a threshold that we need to implement these measures."


While the numbers are up already, fall classes will resume soon at Fort Hays State University, Schlyer noted.


"I’ve been accused, and probably my fellow commissioners have too, we’re not being proactive enough," he said. "I’m expecting the infection rate in Ellis County to soar, most especially when the college starts to open again and we get students back in town that are going to do what students do. They’re going to have their gatherings, they’re not going to social distance."


He cited what could be other contributing events in coming months, as well, like the Ellis County Fair at the fairgrounds west of Hays, which starts this week and continues through July 18, and Labor Day in September, followed by a two-day Oktoberfest.


"Are you encouraged by what the community is doing to try to prevent infections?" Schlyer asked Kennedy. "Because I think they’re going to soar. This thing’s going to go up like a rocket in probably about a month."


Kennedy said infections will continue to rise, but that county residents are taking appropriate steps. While sporting events are a concern, he said, only the indoor tournament at Hays Recreation, which brought athletes from out of town, presented a problem.


"There are certain events that carry less risk than others," he said. "Those are those events that are outdoors, more open space, good air exchange. But at some point you have to make a personal determination on what your risk level, your risk acceptance is. There cannot be a measure to protect everybody universally. Everyone has to take steps to protect themselves individually."


Even a mask mandate won’t solve the problem entirely, Schlyer said.


"That still wouldn’t stop the college parties," he said. "You can’t drink beer with a mask on."


Roths thanked community leaders who have canceled large crowd events, citing the Thomas More Prep-Marian High School annual fundraising auction specifically, but indicated a mask mandate may be inevitable.


"When we have to do this, I want people to know that it’s not just being done for any reason other than their absolute protection," Roths said. "And so I believe that was the point that we tried to make when we decided not to enforce the mandate from the governor, was that we didn’t want to lose the trust of the public because we weren’t at an at-risk rate that met a threshold where we felt that draconian measures were needed. That could happen, with all the college kids coming back, and the social distancing aspect being lost. We’ll see it at some point."


Clusters in Ellis County


As of Monday evening, the county had 18 active cases, for a total now of 57. Some 30 of those have been just since July 6, which Kennedy said he expected.


"Probably the one thing I didn’t expect with this was how many of them would be associated with clusters," he said. "Anytime you gather in groups, bring together big groups of people, you have a likelihood of being around someone who has COVID."


Of the 30, 23 are associated with four clusters, two of them private Fourth of July gatherings, one a care home for the elderly, and an Interstate 70 truck stop outside Topeka.


"That case turned into two and possibly three other cases here," Kennedy said, when someone came to visit and other family members contracted it.


"If you don’t want to go get COVID and bring it back to Ellis County, don’t travel," he said.


Kennedy reports the number of active, recovered, probable and total cases every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He indicated that generally people don’t need to know details of where cases come from if it doesn’t affect the general population.


"If they’re impacted by cases in Ellis County, they will be notified by our office," he said.


Even so, he said, if people find out they may have been in contact with a confirmed positive case, they don’t have to wait for the health department to call.


"If you think you’ve been next to a positive in their infectious period, quarantine yourself," he said. "I don’t have to do it. You can do it. Stay away from people."


In Kansas, 34% of all cases have come from clusters, as well as 35% of hospitalizations and 75% of deaths, with 58% of those in long-term care facilities, he said.


"In Ellis County, 52% of our current cases come out of clusters," Kennedy said. "Don’t gather in groups."


He said there have been three hospitalizations of Ellis County residents.


County has community spread


Testing has increased, and Ellis County’s total percent of positives as a seven-day rolling average has increased from 1% or 2% to 8%, which he said is still below the state’s 8.7%.


"That means less community spread," Kennedy said. "Now, we are just absolutely fearful of the word community spread. Everybody wants to know, is it community spread? Yes it is. Has been from Day 1. If you don’t have an origin or a source outside of your county, outside of your town, outside of an individual, you have it in your community. We have it in ours."


To date, all contact tracing has been done in the first 24 hours, but it takes a lot of time, he said.


The commissioners agreed to spending some federal CARES Act money allocated to Ellis County to hire some temporary workers on a three-month contract to help with contact tracing.


"It’s in our community, it’s not going away, we will not see this go away, we’re not going to pick a date in the future and it’s going to be gone," Kennedy said. "Vaccination is the only way to really get rid of a virus. So until then we have to make smart, safe choices."


Mask up at county building


While saying masks give people a false sense of security, Roths asked about masks for county staff, and for the general public doing business at the Ellis County Administrative Center. The city of Hays requires masks for people entering City Hall, 1507 Main.


Roths said there was quite a line of people Monday at the county offices.


Ellis County Emergency Management director Darin Myers said the county has thousands of three-ply disposable masks for county employees. When those run out, he has four cloth masks each for every county employee, and those can be washed and reused. There are also plenty of N-95 masks for law enforcement and first responders, he said.


The county would need to buy more masks to have them at the door for the general public, he said.


"I’ve worn masks in a lot of businesses I’ve gone to, because they’ve requested it," Roths said. "It might be something we should consider as we see cases rise."


Schlyer said it’s worth considering and he’s not opposed to it, but he suggested department heads decide what’s right for their operation.


Roths suggested putting up signs inside the building with Kennedy’s recommendations.


"I don’t think anyone is anti-humanity in this. I think we all want to help each other," he said. "Maybe this is a little opportunity for us to lead by example, without the strong arm of government, to say we think this is a good idea and we’d like you to wear a mask if you can’t social distance in our building."


Schlyer said he wants the public to know that the commissioners are staying abreast of the virus situation as it evolves in the county.


"We will make more recommendations as it warrants," he said. "In the meantime, do as Jason says. Don’t travel, avoid large gatherings, wash your hands, keep your hands away from your face, and wear a mask if you deem it necessary."