County Commissioners pass on masking

Margaret Allen

The Ellis County Commission on Monday took no action to require wearing a mask in Ellis County.

Following lengthy discussion about COVID-19 and a report from Ellis County Health Services director Jason Kennedy, the commissioners to a one expressed disinterest in requiring masks.

In stating his choice, Commission Chair Butch Schlyer, who has a nursing degree and who for 23 years was Ellis County health administrator, talked about his experience years ago going through the SARS and H1N1 virus epidemics, and protocols and surveillance guidance of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, including social distancing.

“They never brought up putting a mask on, and that’s because a mask won’t stop a damn virus, and that’s just fact,” Schlyer said.

All weekend he researched masking, Schlyer said, and noted the size of the COVID-19 virus is little more than a micron.

“It would be like if I put chicken wire on my windows and thought it would keep out the flies and mosquitos. It just doesn’t work,” Schlyer said. While it’s fine if people want to wear one for their own comfort, he said, “your mask is not protecting me.”

He cited what he described as conflicting expert medical advice.

“To me this all sounds like a bunch of ducks farting underwater,” Schlyer said. “All I’m hearing is a bunch of gurgling nonsense anymore. But I will be damned if I’m going to try and infringe on the rights of these people, to take away what little liberties we have left.”

Speaking at the commission’s regular meeting in the Ellis County Administrative Center, Kennedy continued to advocate for social distancing. Kennedy said a third of the county’s active cases are from contact with another positive case that lives in the home with them.

“If you are a positive, isolate yourself completely,” Kennedy said. “One bedroom, one bathroom. Ride out your contagious period.”

Cutting those transmissions would prevent at least a third of the county’s active cases, he said.

“Masks,” said Kennedy, “I’m not for them or against. I want them if we need them. Right now is not that time.”

Roths critical of virus coverage

Commissioner Dustin Roths criticized the news media, saying the reporting is about getting gotcha quotes.

Saying the commission is a working board, he said the commissioners discuss items on the agenda for the first time when they meet on Monday evenings.

“It seems like every article that comes out of the news lately is ‘county commission discusses, mulls, considers.’ Well why don’t you just wait ’til we make a decision? We’re happy to stand by our decisions,” he said. “In the meantime we are discussing, mulling and considering, and all you’re doing is trying to get clickbait from those discussions.”

Comments on social media are aimed at shaming the commissioners and saying they don’t care, he said.

“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? How quickly would others jump to take our rights away from us, and our own personal autonomy and responsibility for ourselves, for our family?” Roths said. “I also thank God that this thing doesn’t affect kids. I honestly think that my fatherly instinct would come out if I felt like kids were going to be affected extremely negatively, like those in their elderly age are.”

Roths said he’s sick of talking about the virus and of the news media.

”They don’t want to talk about the good things we do as a board,” he said. “Because they are so desperate for us to have bad numbers of COVID-19 cases.”

In giving his report to the commissioners, Kennedy reviewed numerous counties around the state with mask mandates, and said the data doesn’t indicate if masks work or not in low-population, low-virus count environments where people can social distance.

“If we want to make impacts, we limit groups of people. All of that comes when we meet our metrics to enact our pandemic plan,” he said.

Ellis County metrics

Ellis County’s plan to slow the spread of COVID-19 mirrors the nation’s and Kansas’, relying on three measurements to trigger any kind of restrictions like requiring masks, closing bars, limiting travel or limiting the size of gatherings, he said.

At this point, the county’s COVID-19 numbers have not reached those metrics, said Kennedy.

His recommendations continue to follow the county’s original pandemic plan, when the county got its first positive case March 12, he said.

There’s a danger of enacting restrictive measures too soon, said Kennedy, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If we do these at a point that the public doesn’t believe in them, not only will they not be effective, but we won’t have them in reserve when we need them,” Kennedy said. “CDC’s plan talks about it as a fear, basically a long fatigue is what they call it. Where you’re scared for so long, you stop being scared. You won’t listen, you won’t follow the guidance and won’t enact the measures that you need to combat the virus.”

Both Kansas, the CDC and President Donald Trump’s Reopen America plan have followed the same three metrics to enact restrictions, he said.

Those are the percentage of people in the community who are infected, the seven-day average percent of people tested who come back positive, and the number of hospitalizations.

“These metrics at these stages, at these plateaus, you either enact or remove restrictions,” Kennedy said.

Applied to Ellis County, he said, that would mean 1% of the population would have to be infected or 280 active infections; some 14% of tests would have to be positive; and 5% or 14 to 15 people would have to be in the hospital, putting HaysMed at 70%, 75% of its reserve COVID capacity, which is not its surge capacity.

“So at 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.”

Not at the threshold

Right now Ellis County’s numbers do not meet those metrics, he indicated:

The county has 34 active cases, or .1% of the population infected, which falls below the threshold metric of 280 active cases for 1% infected.

The county has a seven-day average percent of positives of 8%, which falls below the 14% threshold.

And the county has two people in the hospital, which falls below the 14 or 15 threshold.

The county’s testing rate is 78.5 per 1,000, he said, or about 2,200 to 2,300 people tested so far.

The county’s average growth rate for the last seven days has been five cases per day, Kennedy said. The 20th largest county in the state, Ellis County has two cases per 1,000, he said. That’s below the 12.64 cases per 1,000 in each of the four counties with slightly more population than Ellis County and the four counties with slightly less.

Restrictions in the state and the county were relaxed on May 27 and cases since then have grown, particularly with the July 4 holiday. Since July 3, the county has added 60 cases in 16 days, mostly clusters from mass gatherings, Kennedy said. There’s been one death as of last week.

“We see communities in the state of Kansas not only enacting mask rules but they’re also — the effective ones, or the ones that are making some changes — they have bars closing, they have mass gathering restrictions, they have limitations on personal movement, on travel, all of that,” Kennedy told the commissioners. “Those measures go together with community mitigation to actually make an impact on viral transmission.”

Retail mask mandates

Schlyer expressed his anger at new mandates from retailers requiring masks, particularly Walmart and Dillons stores, despite no virus clusters there in Ellis County.

“It must be political that they’re doing this,” Schlyer said, noting the move is a blow to his 94-year-old father, who is frail and 20 years ago had triple bypass surgery. His father enjoys shopping every Sunday at Dillons, but can’t wear a face covering that reduces his oxygen, Schlyer said, so his only option is not to go.

“That really pissed me off. My dad, 94 years old, World War II veteran, served in the South Pacific. That old man, he fought at Iwo Jima, he was there,” Schlyer said. “And now you’ve got a store that doesn’t even want him to go in. And that’s just pathetic.”

Schlyer also commented on the mask mandate discussion at the Hays City Commission’s weekly work session last Thursday.

“I hear the city commission, if we don’t step up and do what’s right according to them, they’re going to do it, and that’s their prerogative if they want to. I don’t like them necessarily taking the moral high ground trying to tell me what’s right,” he said. “I’ve been told we had a ball tournament this weekend where we expected 90 teams. That’s 900 people in this community that came in from out of town, in our motels, our restaurants, our convenience stores. That’s a very good chance to spread a virus, if you have it.”

Schlyer also referenced comments earlier in the meeting from Edward Hammond, former longtime president of Fort Hays State University.

Advocating for masks, Hammond said, “the economy of Ellis County depends on two things, one, we remain open and two, that the university can bring back 4,000 students in about three weeks,” a decision he said is worth more than $75 million to the local economy.

“You just can’t worry about a mask Monday through Friday and then do what the hell you want to do on a weekend. That doesn’t work,” Schlyer said. “We hear about these 4,000 college kids coming back to town. What’s going to stop them from partying on the weekend?”

Public sentiment key

“There is definite fear surrounding COVID-19 in our community,” Kennedy told the commissioners. “There is fear surrounding both our attempts at mitigation measures, or lack of attempts at mitigation measures, there’s fear surrounding the virus itself. There is fear surrounding the reaction to the virus. So how we manage all of that is how successful we are in Ellis County.”

Masks are one of the measures that is the most polarizing, he said.

“You have people on either side of the aisle,” he said. “We need everybody in the middle.”

Right now, people must make individual choices to protect themselves, Kennedy said.

“I don’t mandate, I recommend, I educate, that’s what public health does,” he said.

Public sentiment makes mitigation measures effective, he said.

“They have to believe in you, they have to believe in me, and they have to believe in the measure for it to be effective,” said Kennedy.