The night before the Centers for Disease Control issued its July 27 call for a return to masking in some parts of the country, Wyandotte County Health Officer Allen Greiner already saw a dire situation unfolding.
“With schools opening (and if any of them refuse to require masks - which we know some will) we could easily repeat the Nov-Dec spike,” he said in an email obtained by The Star through a public records request.
Greiner and other county public health officials were preparing to ask the county commission to issue a new mask mandate. Already steeling themselves for pushback, they fretted over how best to get the message across.
“I guess we could lay all that out and just say ‘our recommendation is that you do what you can to prevent a spike higher than last winter so you don’t have to live with knowledge of disastrous inaction,’” Greiner wrote.
The CDC announcement the next day prompted swift reaction across the border in Kansas City, where Mayor Quinton Lucas issued a new mask mandate for vaccinated and unvaccinated people on Wednesday, July 28.
But in Kansas, response has been slower despite the urgency expressed by local health officials and the recent court order expanding their authority.
The Wyandotte County Commission met July 29 to discuss a possible mask mandate but postponed decisions to this Thursday, despite a presentation from Greiner and other public health officials highlighting a need for swift action.
The Johnson County Commission is scheduled to discuss a mandate for some students in K-12 schools Thursday but will not discuss a county-wide directive. When the new CDC guidance was issued last week, health director Samni Areola emailed commissioners urging the county to act and warning that further infections would occur if vaccinations and masking did not increase over the “crucial” next 2-3 months.
Though Greiner and Johnson County Health Officer Joseph LeMaster may have power to issue unilateral orders now that changes to the Kansas emergency management law have been ruled unconstitutional, emails show neither official discussing the option.
The two county commissions could still vote down health officers’ orders after they are imposed. Speaking to commissioners last week, Wyandotte County Attorney Misty Brown said she believed Senate Bill 40, which barred unilateral action by Greiner, was still in effect outside of Johnson County until the Kansas Supreme Court issues its ruling.
In an email to The Star, Wednesday, Areola said he and LeMaster continue to monitor the situation and will take steps as necessary.
“Johnson County needs to do all that we can now to protect the health of our residents,” he said.
‘Fighting for their lives’
In emails on July 26, Wyandotte County health officials discussed a proposal for an order that would require masking indoors unless everyone in a gathering had been fully vaccinated.
The change, officials said, was necessary because of “exceptionally low” vaccination rates in Wyandotte (35.8% of residents fully inoculated), high transmission of delta, and international trends indicating that the county is still at the beginning of the delta wave — not the peak.
As Greiner, County Administrator Doug Bach, public health director Julie Van Liew and chief epidemiologist Elizabeth Groenweghe discussed plans to bring commissioners and neighboring counties on board, their frustration was evident.
At the time the officials fully expected — wrongly, it turns, out — to be the only county in the CORE 4 (Johnson and Wyandotte in Kansas and Jackson County and Kansas City in Missouri) to move forward with a new mandate.
Johnson County, Bach wrote, was “a hard ‘no’, of course.” Jackson County had indicated they would wait until students returned to class to issue a mandate to maximize the 21 days a health officer’s order could remain in place before state law allowed the county legislature to rescind it. Jackson issued a mandate that will go into effect Monday.
Bach expected Kansas City to hold off as outgoing health officer Rex Archer had expressed a desire to allow incoming leadership to make the decision.
To sway the Wyandotte commission, Bach said, members would need to feel “a lot of pressure.” Van Liew added that she expected pushback.
Groenweghe said commissioners who disagreed should be urged to bring their own suggestions and asked if they expected things to “magically get better on their own.” Greiner suggested making it clear to commissioners that inaction would be “disastrous.”
The sentiments expressed in the emails echoes what Lisa Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officers, said she’s seen nationwide as local health officials once again confront the politicization of measures intended to protect the public.
“These health officials are fighting for their lives in terms of fighting for their communities to keep them healthy,” Tremmel said. “They are not elected by the people, they don’t bring political persuasions into their decision making, it’s all based on what’s going on in the community.”
“This really sounds just like the rest of what’s going across many jurisdictions and I can really feel the emotion in that response.”
The virus can spread unmitigated, Tremmel said, during delays imposed by the political process and uncertain emergency management law.
“When you’re talking about people getting sick, hospitalized, potentially put into the ICU, on ventilators — if there’s a chance we can prevent hospitalization or deaths of anyone through something like tried and true mitigation tactics that counts as lives saved,” Tremmel said. “Time does matter.”