TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas set new state pandemic records Wednesday for reported coronavirus cases and COVID-19-related hospitalizations, and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly said she hasn’t dropped the idea of calling the Republican-controlled Legislature into special session to impose a statewide mask mandate.
The state Department of Health and Environment added nearly 3,400 cases since Monday to its running tally for the pandemic, giving the state a rolling average of 1,084 new cases a day for the seven days ending Wednesday. The department said there have been 82,045 confirmed and probable cases in Kansas since the pandemic reached the state in early March.
The health department also said the state had another 106 hospitalizations related to the novel coronavirus, for a pandemic total of 3,752. The rolling average was 35 new hospitalizations a day for the seven days ending Wednesday.
Kansas also reported 31 additional COVID-19-related deaths since Monday, to bring its total to 1,007.
“We are just losing Kansans day in and day out,” Kelly said Wednesday during a Statehouse news conference. “This cannot continue.”
The health department said it switched this weekend to a new, automated system that allows new cases to be added to its count more quickly so that its figures catch up faster with what local officials are seeing.
The department said Wednesday that the change accounted for about 1,500 of the 3,369 new cases reported since Monday, but even with those factored out, the state had a record rolling seven-day average. The state’s previous record was 815 for the seven days ending Monday.
Kelly and top Republicans agreed in a private Zoom meeting Tuesday to try for now to persuade counties that are coronavirus hot spots to impose mask mandates rather than having the state step in. Asked Wednesday how long she would give that approach, Kelly said: “Not long.”
“I don’t have a firm drop-dead date, but I’ll know it when we get there,” she said.
Kelly issued an order July 2 requiring people to wear masks in public, but a state law enacted the month before allowed the state’s 105 counties to opt out, and most did. The Republican-controlled Legislature forced Kelly to accept local control over mask rules, restrictions on businesses and limits on public gatherings after she imposed a statewide stay-at-home order for five weeks, ending in early May.
Republican leaders continue to argue that local officials are in the best position to set pandemic restrictions based on local conditions, even with rural counties being hit hard in recent weeks.
Kelly this week floated the idea of calling a special session of the Legislature — possibly to strip counties of their authority to opt out of a statewide mask mandate — because lawmakers are not scheduled to reconvene until January.
Participants in Tuesday’s meeting said afterward that a special session of the Legislature appeared to be off the table. Kelly said Wednesday that’s not the case.
Top GOP lawmakers said a statewide mandate isn’t likely to get more people to wear masks if she and other officials didn’t build public support and educate local officials. Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican, said Wednesday that local officials can’t enforce a mandate vigorously even if they want to do so.
“Why don’t we have a law that says if you have emphysema, that you can’t buy cigarettes?” Longbine said Wednesday. “I don’t think we as a country, we as a population, are ready for the government to take over our health care.”
Both Kelly and Longbine said the next step is for the governor and several legislative leaders to meet with representatives of the Kansas Association of Counties and the League of Kansas Municipalities and determine why local officials resist mask mandates.
“Is it political? Is it medical? Is it science? Do they need more education?” Longbine said.
In Ford County, which has among the state’s highest total per capita cases for the pandemic, officials are wary enough about what state and federal requirements they might face that the county commission has yet to accept a grant of nearly $180,000 awarded in September for expanded coronavirus testing. The county would have to sign an agreement to follow state health department and U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
The CDC recommends that people wear masks in public. Ford County commissioners opted out of Kelly’s mask mandate.
“I wanted to safeguard against us losing the local control and having the individual counties — and actually individual citizens — be able to make some of those decisions for themselves,” said Commissioner Shawn Tasset, a Republican.
The state health department said Wednesday that the language would not require a local mask mandate.
But County Administrator J.D. Gilbert said: “As a local government, you don’t ever want to commit yourself to any requirements from the state government, especially in the future because you don’t know what the state government is going to do.”