By JOHN HANNA
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) – Gov. Laura Kelly issued a new mask mandate Wednesday in hopes of lessening the spread of the coronavirus in Kansas after the state again reported another record seven-day increase in new cases.
State law still allows Kansas’ 105 counties to opt out of such an order from the Democratic governor, and most did when Kelly issued a similar order in July. But the state’s rolling seven-day average for new coronavirus cases is now more than nine times higher than it was than when her first order took effect.
Kelly’s order takes effect Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving, and only in counties that don’t yet have their own mask mandates, though that’s still a majority of them. Kelly said she was giving counties without mandates a week to draft their own alternatives. Her order requires people to wear a “face covering” in indoor public spaces.
The governor’s news conference Wednesday afternoon came only hours after state health department data showed that Kansas averaged 2,767 new confirmed and probable coronavirus cases a day for the seven days ending Wednesday. That’s slightly above the previous record of 2,741 for the seven days ending Monday. When Kelly first mask order took effect July 2, it was 289.
“As COVID-19 continues to spread through Kansas communities and hospitalizations increase at concerning rates, it is clear we must take action to protect our communities and our economy,” Kelly said in a statement before her news conference.
Kelly last month floated the idea of calling the Republican-controlled Legislature into special session to have them repeal counties’ authority to opt out of her public health orders. Lawmakers are not scheduled to reconvene until January.
But in a private Zoom meeting with top lawmakers, Kelly agreed instead to try to work with groups representing local officials to persuade counties to impose mask mandates themselves.
Top Republican legislators have long clashed with Kelly over how to address the pandemic, arguing that local officials should determine whether there are mask mandates or restrictions on businesses and public gatherings. While Kelly kept a statewide stay-at-home order in place for five weeks, ending in early May, the Legislature later forced her to accept local control of pandemic-related rules.
Republican leaders also have extracted public promises from Kelly not to shut down businesses statewide again, as she did for five weeks in the spring.
But Kelly’s mask order could be more than symbolic. It will remain in effect in places where county commissions don’t take specific action to opt out or write their own rules. At least a dozen counties have tightened up their pandemic-related rules during the past two weeks, including some that are heavily Republican and had voters who favored President Donald Trump by wide margins in the presidential election.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment added 5,853 cases to the state’s pandemic tally since Monday, increasing 4.8% it to 128,594. The state reported 60 new COVID-19-related deaths over two days, making the total 1,326.
The surge in cases is straining hospitals. The state averaged a record 44 new COVID-19-related hospitalizations a day for the seven days ending Wednesday, up from the previous high of 41. The state health department reported 130 additional hospitalizations since Monday, bringing the pandemic total to 4,561.
In northeast Kansas, Lawrence Memorial Hospital transformed an ultrasound area last week into a five bed critical care unit, with non-infected patients moving in this week to free up room for coronavirus patients elsewhere in the hospital as their numbers swelled. The hospital hit a record high of 35 COVID-19 patients on Tuesday. A conference room and auditorium later could be transformed into patient care areas, said spokeswoman Rebecca Smith.
Associated Press writer Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas, contributed to this report.