County takes measures in response to sharp increase in COVID-19 cases

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By Anne Hassler Heidel

McPherson Weekly News


Positive COVID-19 tests have risen to 728 total cases in McPherson County, according to County Health Department Director Shalei Shea. Reporting to the McPherson County Commission on Monday, Shea said 228 new cases have been identified since her previous report to the commission on Nov. 2.

There are 265 active cases and eight deaths in the county.

Shea recommended that the county return to Phase 2 of Reopening Kansas, which includes the following criteria: mass gatherings of no more than 15 where social distancing cannot be maintained, individual mask wearing strongly recommended, employers should encourage telework when possible, large entertainment venues (500+) and parades and festivals should not open or take place, senior centers closed except for meals and transportation, large sporting events and church services should maintain social distancing or limit crowd to 15, restaurants and bars recommend carryout and drive-thru services if possible. The commission passed a resolution in support of moving back to phase 2 criteria.

Shea also received approval to hire another nurse to help address the increase of COVID-19 cases.

When asked if Shea would recommend a countywide mask mandate, something the commission has not implemented in the past, she said, “Yes, 100%.”

Her sentiments were echoed by Sheila Gorman, M.D., Chief of Staff at McPherson Hospital, who said all ICU beds at the hospital are full, there is a shortage of staff and other hospitals have stopped taking referrals from McPherson, and surrounding communities have even reached out to McPherson about taking patients.

“This is unprecedented. I’ve not in my 20 years in town […] we’re in trouble. Our job is to take care of our community the best we can. We need action,” Gorman told commissioners.

Discussion among the commissioners showed a clear split, with Commissioner Tom Kueser voicing skepticism that a mask mandate would bring down the positive case numbers and Commissioners Keith Becker and Ron Loomis articulating the need for a mandate.

“Let’s say for five days out of the week, they do a good job and they handle their business. A couple of days they get tired of it because we’re individual people. They take a few hours off from the mask. Is that where this is breaking out? Would a county mandate stop that? Or does it push more people into needing that time away from that mask?” Kueser asked. “I’m not going to stand up here and say the mask doesn’t work, but we can’t sew it on our face 24 hours a day.”

“I come back to the fact that medical staff have said we need a mask mandate for a long time already. They’re in that field; I respect what they’re telling us. I personally think we need to put a mandate in place,” Becker said.

Concerns about enforcing a mandate were also discussed. If the mandate was county-wide, would individual cities drop their mandates and all enforcement would fall back on the county sheriff’s office. Loomis proposed that the mandate be put in place on all unincorporated areas of the county (outside city limits but in county limits) and encourage the cities to put their own mask mandates in place. Lindsborg and McPherson already have a mask mandate in place. Loomis’s proposal was put to a vote and approved 2-1 by Becker and Loomis, with Kueser voting nay. The mask mandate went into effect at 8 a.m Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020, with a review date by the commission on Dec. 7.