Lyon County commissioners gathered for a study session with members of local healthcare organizations Wednesday morning to determine the future structure of community health orders.
The current order — which expires Friday — sets mass gathering limits at 45 individuals and outlines other specific recommendations for nursing homes and businesses, but does not mandate masks, instead “heavily encouraging” them in areas where proper social distancing cannot be maintained. The county order does not take precedence over the City of Emporia’s existing mask mandate, which will be allowed to run through its expiration date pending any further developments. Still, mask wearing requirements could apply to residents living outside the city limits if additional language is added before a final vote on Thursday.
While commissioners had expressed a willingness to simply renew the existing order during previous meetings, discussion served to cast a bit of doubt on the county’s pathway moving forward, with each health official that spoke Wednesday coming out in favor of an expanded mask mandate as the calendar shifts into fall and winter months.
“There’s a lot of concern as we move into the flu season,” said Newman Regional Health Infection Preventionist Esther Knobloch. “We know that influenza is hard on children. So, if there’s widespread flu this year, we do expect a portion of that pediatric population to need hospital services at greater levels than they have during the pandemic so far. We really want to make sure we’re balancing everything out. We don’t want to have a surge in pediatric flu cases as well as a surge in elderly COVID cases at the same time, because that could make for a big strain on the hospital.”
Another major factor health officials encouraged commissioners to keep in mind when making their decision was the simple amount of disruption a single case of the virus could cause, not just for infected individuals, but all those surrounding them in the community.
“We’d really like [newly diagnosed] cases to be at zero each day, but around two is where we have a pretty good control over the spread in the community,” said Flint Hills Community Health Center Environmental Services Director Jennifer Millbern. “We did hit that around June, but after the 4th of July happened, we started seeing increased spread in Lyon County … We get really worried are those days where new cases are around 10 … Over the last several months, we’ve had multiple days where we’re diagnosing more than 10 positives a day.”
Millbern stressed that the Lyon County Health Department’s goal wasn’t only to mitigate the number of confirmed cases, but also to reduce related “community burden,” which can serve to be just as disruptive as major clusters.
“It puts a burden on people in our community because they’re having to quarantine,” Millbern said. “An individual could be perfectly healthy, but they’re not able to head into work and get paid, attend school, or they may not even be able to take care of their children because someone around them got sick ...That type of burden is still quite high at this time.”
Commissioners, for the most part, agreed with Millbern’s assessment of the situation, but said they maintained reservations in rolling out any sort of mandate with additional restrictions, seeing as how area police — along with many other law enforcement agencies across the state — had already had difficulties in monitoring citizen adherence to such orders.
“I don’t even want to talk about the matter of enforceability, because we all know there isn’t,” said Lyon County Attorney Marc Goodman. “There is no enforcement mechanism. For the county, there is no county court. There’s nowhere to go with anything. It’s ridiculous to even imply that we should issue an order that isn’t leaving the room in a quite literal sense.”
Goodman went on to express that he was much more in favor of leaving the matter up to individual businesses, schools and other, smaller community entities rather than drafting another document which could bring added confusion to the mix.
“Different elements of government, whether it’s the school district or whatever, have the ability and have been using their ability to work with [the Health Department] and the hospital when they’re planning sporting events or other crowded events, whatever they may be...” he said. “I’m not inferring that [the Health Department] necessarily agrees with the size of those groups always or how they decide on that, but certainly there can be parallels with things like the NFL and the Chiefs game at Arrowhead last Thursday.”
Another area of difficulty commissioners raised was the fact that the pandemic, in a general sense, has been made political.
“The problem with me and everybody else is that we’re getting tired, I think,” Commissioner Scott Briggs said. “The biggest problem is that mask wearing and all that has become such a stigma. If you wear a mask, you’re automatically liberal. To some people, you may as well be hugging a tree and they’ll think there’s something definitely wrong with you. For some, people that don’t wear a mask are killers out there killing everybody. It seems like there’s no in between. It’s almost a symbol of where you stand on the political spectrum now … I haven’t ran into many people willing to understand the other side, or they just don’t care to.
“As far as masks go, I think they’re very important in a setting where there’s lots of people around. If I ask the people that I know and represent, if I ask them to wear a mask and say, ‘Listen, I really feel like this is the right thing to do, please do it,’ you’ll get a large percentage that might. If I tell them that they absolutely have to do it any sense, they’re going to throw me in the trash. All of sudden, it becomes a constitutional issue. It becomes a, ‘You can’t force me to do something I don’t want to’ situation.”
Commissioners will present their final decision during a regularly-scheduled action session tomorrow morning at the Lyon County Courthouse. The meeting will kick off at 9 a.m. with a vote on the health order expected sometime near 10:15.