Nemaha County rescinds mask mandate

Nemaha County Commissioners have opted out again of Governor Laura Kelly’s Executive Order 20-52, which requires individuals to wear a mask or face covering while in public spaces. The decision comes after their Monday, Jan. 11, regular meeting when the decision was approved 2-1.

New commissioners Dylan Keim and Jason Koch, who were sworn in at the beginning of the meeting, voted in favor of opting out of Executive Order 20-52, while Gary Scoby voted nay, to keep the mandate in place.

Discussion

Present for the mask mandate discussion was Nemaha County Health officer Jane Sunderland, Dr. Chris Tramp, Dr. James Longabaugh, Dr. Gregg Wenger, Dr. Natalie Frye, Dr. Jarod Snyder, Dr. Heather Meyer, Dr. William Bartkoski, Dr. Angela Stueve, Linda Cross with Nemaha Valley Community Hospital and County Attorney Brad Lippert.

Sunderland presented updated numbers to the commissioners, which has decreased drastically over the past few months.

“I am very grateful to Nemaha County residents for taking public health measures when asked to help lower the number of cases in the county and consequently keep our schools and businesses open,” Sunderland said. “We know this virus has implications in many ways, but we do have the tools to defeat the virus. We need to follow through and use what I call the three Ws, which are wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance, but we do have hope. The vaccine is here and more is coming.”

Sunderland said about 200 healthcare workers have been vaccinated so far in Nemaha County.

“We look forward to being able to vaccinate more as the vaccine becomes available,” Sunderland said.

After presenting the facts to the commissioners, Sunderland and the doctors at Sabetha Family Practice and Seneca Family Practice asked the commissioners to leave the mask mandate in place for another 30-45 days.

“Our cases are down, but we’re remaining cautious as schools reopen and schools are back in session,” Sunderland said. “We don’t want to lose the momentum in Nemaha County, likewise, we don’t want to become complacent and experience months like we did in November and December. Extending this timeframe will allow us more time to get vaccines into the arms of our high risk residents. We see vaccination as the beginning to the end, and part of the pandemic exit strategy. Our health department is eager to put boots on the ground and get our county residents immunized.”

Commissioners asked questions about the second wave of the vaccinations. Sunderland said Nemaha County would follow the Kansas Vaccination Plan. See Page 6 for a list of FAQ about Nemaha County’s COVID-19 Vaccinations.

Lippert asked if the medical group was asking for an extension on the mask mandate, so they could hopefully prevent what happened last November, which includes a spike in active cases and multiple deaths.

“Yes. As health officer, I agree with that,” Sunderland said.

The multiple doctors agreed.

“I think it would be very easy for us to get back into that,” Dr. Tramp said. “We are not out of the woods.”

At that time, Keim made a motion to rescind Governor Kelly’s mask mandate. Koch seconded the motion. Scoby opened the motion up for more discussion.

Keim said he believes wearing a mask should be up to the individual and individual business.

“I see it as an individual decision, not up to the county government to dictate that,” Keim said. “I stress that Jane keep the education and train the public on why they need to do it [wear a mask, social distance and wash their hands]. That is what I think, it should be up to an individual to decide.”

“We tried this back in September, October and November, and we had a mask recommendation, not a mandate, and we saw what happened there,” Dr. Bartkoski said. “Why do you think it’s any different this time?”

“The way I see it is there is not really much you can do to stop it, and to say a government can curtail it is foolish in my eyes,” Keim said. “You’re not going to be able to stop a virus, its going to have to run its course. I don’t believe in taking away individual liberties of a person. So, I don’t feel it’s the government’s authority to do that.”

One doctor said once the mandate was implemented, the number of active cases went down very quickly. They asked how that could be explained.

“Just looking at the numbers, you’re on top of the curve, the curve comes down eventually,” Keim said. “I don’t want to get into that debate, but that is where I stand. County government doesn’t have that authority to regulate a person.”

Another doctor asked if Keim would say it was his fault then, if there was an outbreak and people die.

“No. It would be the county’s issue, if we don’t properly prepare for an issue,” Keim said. “As far as having equipment and things that are needed. Do you want us to regulate the every day business of an individual? Do you want me to mandate that everyone takes the vaccine? Because if I’m allowed to do one thing, I’m sure allowed to do another. That’s scary and I have a lot of people who are not for this and they think it should be left up to them. It’s not an easy decision, believe me. This isn’t something that I take very lightly.”

“When people do not wear masks, they put everyone around them at risk,” Dr. Wenger said. “That is the difference. There is not a question of them protecting themselves, but protecting people around them. It shouldn’t need to be said, but it obviously has to be. Up to 46 percent of people who had COVID don’t have symptoms, and it is well known that people spread this disease either without knowing that they have it or never knowing they had it. The disease spreads before people are symptomatic, so when you say you don’t have the authority to ask people to wear masks… You’ve done it already once. Wearing masks and mandating masks does decrease the infection of this disease. It does decreases the rate of spread. You can deny it, but that’s not true. When you guys mandated this two months ago, mask wearing did increase and it made a difference in our communities.”

“I don’t think using the strong arm of the County to enforce it on people is the right way to go,” Keim said. “I think education might be the best way and not using the strong arm of the government to do such.”

Scoby said he will support what the doctors are recommending.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell anyone that I like to wear a mask, because I don’t, but when I have our county health nurse and 10 doctors saying that is the best course of action, then that is the way I am going to go.”

Dr. Frye said she understands free liberties , but says the mask mandate should stay in place.

“I don’t like wearing a mask either and I will say that 9 out 10 people don’t like wearing masks, but you know what makes my day way worse, is telling someone that I’m transferring their family member to a higher level of care and the fact that I don’t know if they are going to make it,” she said. “That is what really ruins my day. I understand the thought about free liberties, but your freedom ends where someone else’s freedom begins. So, to me, I think it is really important to continue this mask mandate.”

Following the discussion, the commissioners voted 2-1 to rescind Governor Kelly’s mask mandate and issue less restrictive public health order. Scoby opposed.

View full meeting and mask discussion on the Nemaha County Kansas Facebook Page.

County Statistics

Since last week, Nemaha County has seen a slight increase in active cases, while Brown County has seen a decreased in active cases. In Nemaha County, the number of active cases has increased from 22 active cases to 35 active cases, while Brown County is reporting 29 active cases as of Monday, Jan. 11, which is down from the 55 reported last week.

Nemaha County Community Health Services said Tuesday, Jan. 5, that there are still 50 deaths in Nemaha County, which is the same number reported last week. Brown County is also still reporting 29 deaths this week, which is the same number reported last week.

NCCHS updated COVID-19 numbers on Tuesday, Jan. 12. The number of positive cases has increased from 1,352 cases last week to 1,382 this week. There are zero patients hospitalized. According to NCCHS, 1,297 cases are considered recovered.

According to the Brown County Health Department’s Facebook page, Brown County currently has had 1,029 positive cases as of Jan. 11, up from the 976 reported just one week ago. There are five patients currently hospitalized and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) is reporting that Brown County has had 2,492 negative tests.

Both Nemaha and Brown counties continue to have the two highest rates per capita of cases in northeast Kansas.

According to the KDHE, Nemaha County has a case rate of 135.7 cases per 1,000 and Brown County has a case rate of 116.8 cases per 1,000. Both counties are still higher than more urban counties like Johnson, Wyandotte and Shawnee, who are reported to have only 72.1, 101.5 and 75.6, respectively.

State, National Statistics

As of Monday, Jan. 11, there are 247,502 positive cases in Kansas, up from the 231,317 positive cases reported on Monday, Jan. 4. While there are more than 247,000 positive cases throughout the state, 819,014 tests have come back negative.

KDHE also reports there have been a total of 7,351 hospitalizations from COVID-19 since the virus’ onset.

As for deaths in Kansas, there have been 3,255 related deaths, up from the 2,897 related deaths reported just one week ago.

KDHE is not currently reporting the number of active COVID-19 cases in Kansas. However, some counties in Kansas are reporting these numbers on their County Health Department websites or Facebook pages.

To see detailed information on positive COVID-19 cases in Kansas, as well as types of active clusters, visit www.coronavirus.kdheks.gov. Currently, there are no active clusters in either Nemaha or Brown counties.

Nationally, there are a total of 22,322,956 confirmed cases in the United States, as of Monday, Jan. 11. These positive cases have resulted in 373,167 COVID-related deaths.

Call ahead

If you are sick, be sure to call your local healthcare provider before arriving to their facilities. With changes in restriction occurring frequently, please call for any restriction updates to any clinic or hospital in Nemaha or Brown counties.

Stay Informed

Be sure to stay informed with reliable information at www.kdheks.gov/coronavirus, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html or check out the NCCHS or Brown County Health Department Facebook pages for regular updates. Also, feel free to call NCCHS at 785-284-2152 for more information.

People also should remain alert for states on the KDHE travel quarantine list as they make travel plans.

Currently, KDHE is asking Kansans to quarantine if they have traveled to certain areas. The length of quarantine time depends on whether or not the affected person has been tested. As this information is constantly changing, please see the KDHE website — https://www.coronavirus.kdheks.gov/175/Travel-Exposure-Related-Isolation-Quaran — for updated mandates.

The CDC, along with KDHE, has released new shortened quarantine periods. Nemaha and Brown counties have both accepted the shortened quarantines.

 

Heather Stewart226 Posts

Heather Stewart is a reporter for The Sabetha Herald, where she has been on staff since 2015. She specializes in court and sports reporting, as well as photography. Heather is a 2011 Kansas State University graduate with a degree in psychology. She lives in Sabetha with her husband.

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