Lynne Hermansen
Special to The Gardner News
The Johnson County Board of County Commissioners voted 5-2 Jan. 6 to maintain the county’s health order recommending masks for 5 to 11 year old students. They will reevaluate the mandate in six weeks.
The public health order was originally put in place in August at the beginning of the school year and expires May 31.
Additional motions were also presented leading up to the compromised decision.
Charlotte O’Hara, commissioner, requested the existing mask requirement include an opt out for schools and masks decisions left up to individual school boards. The motion failed 5-2 with O’Hara and Michael Ashcraft, commissioner, voting in favor.
Janee Hanzlick, commissioner, requested extending the mask mandate to include all school grade levels or a general county wide mask mandate. The motion failed 3-4 with commissioners Hanzlick, Becky Fast and Jeff Meyers in favor of expanding the mask mandate.
“I believe the data is overwhelming, and we have a problem,” Meyers, commissioner, said. “I do not have a problem expanding K through 12, as it sends a message making a recommendation should take place.”
Meyers said school board decisions are reflected on what commissioners do and say and that he never makes decisions on politics but what will have the best impact on the community.
O’Hara said school districts had already rescinded mask updates at the upper grade levels and the responsibility should continue to be left up to the schools.
“This is political show,” she said. “Schools that want it will have it, and we are making ourselves a spectacle.”
Commissioners said school districts had mitigation policies in place to re-implement mask wearing when absentee rates reached too high of a percentage.
Ashcraft said they all shared the same desire to keep schools open.
“Schools know their environment better and when it’s necessary to implement mitigation,” he said. “When we sit on high and give blanket orders it doesn’t allow them to make their own decisions or encourage schools to take their own actions.”
Hanzlick said schools don’t have their own experts to rely on for accurate medical information the same way local governments do.
Hanzlick then requested the mask mandate be reviewed in four weeks or infection rates less than 10 percent—whichever came first. The motion failed 3 to 4.
O’Hara said they weren’t going to solve the problem of Covid and had already gone down a failed road with a county mask mandate in 2020.
Ed Eilert, county commission chairperson, said the county had already learned in the past there was no effective way to enforce a county-wide mask mandate.
Ashcraft and Shirley Allenbrand, commissioner, said they agreed with Eilert and county masks mandates had hurt businesses.
Eilert said he wished to reevaluate the infection rate of 5 to 11 year olds in three to four weeks when more in the age group had had the time to be vaccinated.
Johnson County Department of Health and Environment Director Dr. Sanmi Areola and Johnson County Public Health Officer Dr. Joseph LeMaster presented the current county’s Covid-19 case data prior to the vote.
“It’s tough to imagine keeping our schools open without masks,” Areola said.
LeMaster said there had been a faster than anticipated rapid rise in the number of cases, and they were worried about the impact on area hospitals from a staffing and ability for patients’ receiving care standpoint.
“What is clear is that hospitalizations and ICUs are skyrocketing,” he said. “Most concerning is children’s cases.”
Areola said the county had 967 positive cases per 100,000 residents as of 4 p.m. Wednesday and the county had surpassed the 1,000 death mark.
LeMaster said the numbers had gone up beyond anything they had seen so far during the pandemic.
“And these are only the cases being reported,” he said. “We don’t know the full extent—it could be twice as much.”
LeMaster and Areola said they believed the best mechanisms to reduce Covid transmissions were by encouraging vaccinations and mask wearing.
Areola said school environments are conducive for virus spread, and it was a collective responsibility to do what is right.
“Omnicron is more infectious,” he said. “We want kids in school and understand schools have taken steps, but it is still a multilayered approach you have got to wear masks, vaccinate and avoid crowded environments.”
Eilert said they were currently only focused on the ages 5 to 11 year old segment of the population and wanted to know their vaccination data rates.
Areola said 5.62 percent in the county had received their first dose and 23 percent were fully vaccinated.
He also wanted to emphasize, he said, that keeping the community spread low helps keep the virus out of schools.
LeMaster said it was most important to anticipate getting through the winter months to keep infrastructures working and functional.
Becky Fast, commissioner, said she was concerned after Wednesday’s virtual press conference from chief medical officers warning that hospitals were full from Covid patients and also a letter from nine Johnson County city mayors requesting increased testing, education of booster vaccine shots and wearing masks.
Kansas Chief Medical Officers stated during the press conference they were close to a position of having to ration care.
Jennifer Watts, MD and Children’s Mercy Hospital CMO, said she urged masking for all kids and staff in schools.
“We would really appreciate the help right now to leave kids in masks,” she said. “Get us through the winter.”
Areola said Children’s Mercy had 30 patients received in emergency care with Covid and 344 staff who were out from testing positive or waiting for test results because of symptoms.
“They’re reporting the highest numbers in the pandemic so far,” he said.
O’Hara said were children in the hospital for Covid or other reasons while also having Covid.
Areola said the 30 patients were admitted with Covid, and not everyone at Children’s Mercy was being tested for Covid, but only symptomatic patients.
O’Hara said she was worried about the impacts the pandemic was having towards children’s mental and behavioral health issues, especially with growing suicide rates among adolescent girls in the community.
“How do we balance, so the cure isn’t worse than the underlying disease,” she said.
Areola said the option was to not let the virus go uncontrolled, and while he too would rather not have to wear a mask there was a virus here.
“And it will kill,” he said.
About 39 citizens spoke during public comments  with an almost even split for and against mask wearing for elementary students.
A few speakers said they would like to see the mandate extended to cover all students through 12th grade and the general public.
Speakers for masks mandates said they worried about younger siblings at home who couldn’t receive vaccinations, child care, having to take off work to home school and the emotional well being of their children.
Cassie Woolworth said the impact and cost of having children home full time because of not masking was great.
She said it was the board of county commissioners job as the public health board to provide cover, and O’Hara had been elected to make health decisions.
Emily Yeretsky, Leawood parent, said school boards weren’t in charge of public health, but the commissioners were in charge.
She said children had suffered great learning losses from the lack of qualified teachers and substitutes along with disruptions.
Yeretsky said suicide rates weren’t up because of mask wearing but because kids couldn’t be in school.
“I can tell you first hand Ms. O’Hara that when kids are not in person in school learning and socializing with their peers, feelings of depression, isolation and sadness likely arise—it’s because they’re not in school not because of masks,” she said. “Shame on you Ms. O’Hara for exploiting suicide for your political benefit.”
Fariha Shafi, resident and parent, said they also agreed that masks were not causing student suicide but the lack of social interaction was the cause.
“Children deserve more,” they said.
Sloane Heller, resident, said the Kansas Chief Medical Officer virtual conference was still haunting her.
“Who gets to live,” she said. “People will have to die unnecessarily and not just Covid deaths. A countywide mandate will help save lives.”
Other speakers spoke against masks stating they don’t stop the spread of the virus. They also said the vaccinations cause more harm and public health mitigation measures infringe on personal liberties.
Dave Trabert, Kansas Policy Institute CEO, said he wanted to see the data driven data analysis that drove their decisions and could prove if masks requirements were less harmful then the negative effects of masking.
“The virus is weakening and the new variant is much milder,” he said. “Stop making children suffer unnecessarily.”
Ben Hobart, Westwood Hills resident, stated Kansas Statutes as examples for how commissioners were engaging in unlawful medical practices by requiring masks.
The district attorney should investigate, he said.
Cheryl Collins, resident, said Dr. Areola wasn’t a real doctor but a veterinarian, and the county needed to stop pimping  kids out.
Shad Thompson, resident, said masks were child abuse and that he wasn’t asking for a ban but a choice.
“They don’t work and never have,” he said. “Majority of people don’t want them, and we aren’t asking for a ban but for choice.”
Camille Adar, resident, said studies and tests conducted during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic proved that coughing and sneezing on someone doesn’t spread the virus, and there had yet to be a study showing the effectiveness of masks.
Laura Klingensmith, resident and parent, said it was up to the students only have to mask in schools but can go mask free anywhere else in Johnson County.
“What is the real motivation,” she said. “No kid in Johnson County has died.”
Joann Atchity, Shawnee resident, said she would like to follow the money.
“Money is what is driving Covid,” she said.
Atchity said money from government grants for Covid mitigation is the main driving factor.
William Bushno, Gardner resident, said Eisenhower had warned about the medical and military industrial complex and vaccines were assault with a deadly weapon while masking was child abuse and assault.
“The county government doesn’t have authority,” he said. “It’s the pandemic of the vaccinated.”