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Last 2 Kansas counties with mask rules ponder new guidelines

May 14, 2021 GMT

LIBERTY, Mo. (AP) — The last two Kansas counties that require residents to wear masks to slow the spread of COVID-19 will keep the mandates in place for now to discuss new federal guidelines that loosened mask requirements.

Health officials in Douglas and Wyandotte counties are reviewing guidelines announced Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said people who are fully vaccinated do not have to wear masks outdoors and in most indoor settings. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said the state would immediately begin following those guidelines.

Dr. Thomas Marcellino, Douglas County health officer, said in a statement that health officials will discuss the new guidelines with county leaders during the county commission meeting on Wednesday.

The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, said Mayor David Alvey will convene the county commission on Thursday to discuss possible changes to the county’s mask mandate, which requires masks indoors unless everyone is vaccinated.

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County spokeswoman Janelle Friesen said health officials continue to recommend that county government maintain the existing health order, noting that seven out of 10 Wyandotte County residents have not received a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Our community remains at substantial risk, especially to transmission that occurs indoors when masks are not worn,” Friesen said in a statement.

As recently as February, 57 of Kansas’ 105 counties had mask mandates in place. But in the face of strong resistance from some residents and government leaders, most of the mandates were rescinded or allowed to expire and health officials instead issued general guidelines for actions such as wearing masks and social distancing.

With COVID-19 mandates loosening at all levels, health officials will likely pivot to stressing the importance of personal responsibility for people who don’t wear masks or have yet to be vaccinated, said Dennis Kriesel, executive director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments.

The CDC on Wednesday also endorsed expanding the use of the vaccine to people 12 and older and Kriesel said he expects younger people to be a focus of outreach efforts, with an emphasis on how getting vaccinated can help keep their older friends and relatives healthy.

Another focus likely will be that segment of adults who haven’t yet received vaccines but don’t necessarily oppose the shots, he said, noting that some people who might have concerns about the vaccine are still comfortable wearing masks.

“So the message is there is nothing wrong with continuing to wear masks, if you need to feel safe and comfortable,” he said. “It’s still a good choice for you and it offers a degree of protection to others too.”

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment said on Friday that the state has confirmed 311,705 COVID-19 cases and 5,038 deaths since the pandemic began. It said 39.9% of the state’s residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine.