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Sedgwick County Commission narrowly rejects mask mandate

Published: Aug. 19, 2021 at 7:24 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Update: After a few hours of discussion and feedback from Sedgwick County residents who are largely split on an issue that’s become divisive, the Sedgwick County Commission in a 3-2 vote on Friday fell short of passing a proposed public health order that called for a mask mandate that would have been in for about four weeks.

Sedgwick County Health Officer Dr. Garold Minns proposed the mask order in response to the strain on local hospitals. Dr. Minns said mask-wearing isn’t near as effective against COVID-19 as the vaccine, but medical literature does support that the measure is effective in slowing down the virus.

“It won’t take it to zero, but is probably the most effective tool we have,” he said.

During the public comment section of the meeting, several people spoke, largely split on the issue. Among those in support of the order were doctors and nurses who pled with the commission to accept the mask mandate because of hospital numbers.

Several of those opposed to the mandate emphasized personal choice and concerns for the order’s impact on children. The meeting got especially heated when one man speaking in opposition to the proposed mandate told commissioners he knows where they live and said he would show up at their houses if the order was approved. Commissioners perceived this as a threat.

This is all a farce. You’re not going to tell me what I have to wear, or issue an article of clothing on my body. That’s unconstitutional,” the man said. :You’re not going to do it to my kids. We will be outside your houses with megaphones. You will not get sleep. We are not giving up any rights. You’re not going to do this. This is not going to stand. We’re done playing your games. We’re very serious. You did this sneakily when people couldn’t get off work. We’re going to show up outside your houses with megaphones. You’re not going to get sleep. We know who you are. Lacey Cruse. Sarah Lopez. Pete Meitzner. David Dennis. Jim Howell. We will show you. We don’t want this.”

Commissioner David Dennis criticized the man’s comments and had security personnel speak with the man outside the board room. Later in the evening, Eyewitness News learned that commissioners did have some family members leave their homes out of an abundance of caution. As of Friday night, it’s unknown if the man who addressed commissioners with the threat to show up outside their homes would face any criminal charges.

At the end of the meeting that lasted about three hours, commissioners Cruse and Lopez voted for the proposed mandate that would have been in effect for about four weeks, until Sept. 22. They cited protection for children too young to get vaccinated and support for the medical community.

“We’re here today because our medical community is asking for our help,” Cruse said.

Among the health professionals who spoke in support of the mandate were pediatric doctors who discussed how children haven’t been spared from the effects of the virus and the shortage of hospital beds.

Lopez said it’s disheartening to hear some of the negative comments aimed at local health professionals on the front line of the fight against COVID-19. Lopez said she visited both major hospitals in Wichita to get a clearer picture of what they’re facing.

“And it’s heartbreaking to hear some of the things that people get up here and say about people who are doing everything they can to keep their families safe. It’s disheartening to hear so much of that this evening,” she said.

In opposition to a mask order for now were commissioners Dennis, Howell and Meitzner. The trio didn’t formally reject the order, but they opposed its passage by voting to receive and file Dr. Minns’ order without taking action.

Howell touched on the effectiveness of N-95 masks compared to the cloth face coverings more commonly used and indicated that even as a mitigating tool to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in the community, a mask mandate isn’t the answer.

“COVID is not going away. It’s here to stay and everyone has a right to make an educated decision,” Howell said. “At the end of the day, I don’t think a mask order is going to solve this.”

Dennis said the bigger issue is a state problem, mentioning patients from other counties causing some of the stress to Wichita’s hospitals. When it comes to localized decisions on public safety as it pertains to schools, he pointed out that each district has a board of education that can decide on issues like masks. Dennis said vaccines are the solution to overcoming the pandemic and a problem lies with a vaccination rate in Sedgwick County only at about 40 percent. He compared masks to a Band-Aid that doesn’t actually fix the problem.

Among hundreds of emails received ahead of Friday’s meeting, Meitzner said the subjects mostly touched on masks, an issue that, at least in the feedback he received, was more divisive than vaccination.

Update: Dr. Garold Minns, the top health official in Sedgwick County, is recommending a new public health order on masks.

According to the order, masks would need to be worn:

  • within any indoor public space
  • while outdoors, in line waiting to enter an indoor public space and/or unable to maintain social distancing at all times
  • while riding on public transportation or while in a taxi, private car service or ride-sharing vehicle

Additionally, it is proposed all businesses, organizations and non-profits in Sedgwick County must require all employees, customers, visitors or members of the public to wear a mask or face covering when:

  • employees are working in any space visited by customers or members of the public
  • employees who are working in any space where food is prepared or packaged for sale or distribution
  • employees are in any room or enclosed area where other people are present and unable to maintain a six foot distance except for infrequent or incidental moments of closer proximity

These exceptions include:

  • children age two years and under
  • persons with a medical condition, mental health condition, who are hearing impaired or have a disability that prevents wearing a face covering
  • individuals who are actively speaking in front of an audience of other individuals, including at a religious institution, wedding, funeral, an open meeting of a political or taxing subdivision

The Sedgwick County Commission will hold a special meeting today at 4 p.m. to discuss whether to approve and/or amend the order. Eyewitness News will be there and cover the meeting live at KWCH.com.

With the status of area hospitals at a critical level with a surge in COVID-19 cases and depleted availability of beds, Sedgwick County’s top health official is expected to address the issue Friday. Sedgwick County Manager Tom Stolz confirmed the county’s health officer, Dr. Garold Minns is considering a proposed mask order due to the increased stress on the hospital system.

As of Wednesday, the Area Hospital Status Assessment, showed 180 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 compared to 147 on Monday; 61 in the ICU compared to 56 earlier in the week.

“If you compare our numbers and the pace of growth, it’s like we were at the end of October to the beginning of November when our surge really took over and our hospitals transitioned to primarily COVID-based care,” said Wesley Medical Center ICU Medical Director Dr. Chloe Steinshouer who is a pulmonary and critical care physician.

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