TOPEKA — Researchers at the University of Kansas report counties with mask mandates thwarted significant escalation in transmission of COVID-19 and counties operating without a requirement people wear a face covering suffered steady infection rate increases.

Elected county government leaders in 80 Kansas counties rejected the order issued in July by Gov. Laura Kelly mandating every Kansas resident to wear a mask in public places where 6 feet of social distancing couldn’t be maintained. Four Kansas counties stopped short of rebuking the governor, choosing to decline to enforce Kelly’s mask order.

Twenty-one counties in Kansas maintain a mask mandate, including Sedgwick County, which adopted the rule in September after the virus flared in southcentral Kansas. Sedgwick was among 11 counties to belatedly come on board with a mask edict.

Donna Ginther, a distinguished professor of economics and director of KU’s Institute for Policy and Social Research, said research showed Kansas counties with a mask mandate could expect seven fewer cases per day for every 100,000 people.

Adherence to the governor’s mask mandate in Johnson County is associated with 6.5 to 8.5 fewer cases per day for every 100,000 population, she said.

“Cases in counties with a mask mandate stopped increasing. They didn’t go away. They stopped increasing,” Ginther said. “And, cases in counties without a mandate, starting in mid-August, just kind of went crazy.”

The KU researchers demonstrated Kansas counties without the mask order experienced a surge in coronavirus infection rates that climbed from about 10 cases per 100,0000 in July to nearly 40 cases per 100,000 in October. The number of cases for counties covered by the mask order plateaued since July at around 20 cases per 100,000.

COVID-19 can be spread through exposure to virus-containing respiratory droplets exhaled by a person. Transmission is most likely to occur when someone is within 6 feet of the virus carrier.

Kelly said recently the rising coronavirus caseloads in Kansas prompted her to suggest negotiations with Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate on a new statewide mask directive. She said the conversations should occur prior to the Nov. 3 election and acknowledged some GOP legislators might have a tough time selling a statewide order.

As of Friday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 76,230 cases of coronavirus the state. In addition, there had been 3,584 hospitalizations and 975 deaths from COVID-19.

Non-pharmaceutical public health interventions espoused by Kelly, including stay-at-home orders, testing and contact tracing, limits on mass gatherings and wearing of masks, had a mixed reception from the public and elected officials in the state’s 105 counties in Kansas. There is no approved vaccine against COVID-19 and few pharmaceutical options for treatment of the coronavirus.

“Some people think that government is a problem. But when an international crisis like COVID-19 takes place, we look to government for solutions,” Ginther said.

 UW: Masks save lives

A new article by researchers at the University of Washington published in the journal Nature Medicine estimated a near-universal adherence to mask wearing throughout the United States could save 130,000 lives by the end of February.

Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at UW, said a modeling study showed 510,000 Americans could be lost in the next four months to the pandemic.

However, the researchers said 129,000 of those lives could be saved if 95% of the population in each state consistently wore a mask when in public.

Eric Hargan, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said during a visit Friday to University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kan., that simple public health precautions were necessary to bridge the gap to development of an effective vaccine and new therapy responsible to COVID-19.

When asked about the perspective of HHS officials on mask wearing, Hargan said the administration of President Donald Trump didn’t have authority to compel state and local health officials to impose a mask mandate.

“We don’t actually have the kind of power that I think people might imagine we have interms of requiring a mask across the entire country,” Hargan said.

Trump has shown disdain for people wearing a mask. He frequently avoided wearing a mask before and after the White House announced the president tested positive for COVID-19 in early October. 

KU doctors’ view

A pair of prominent doctors at the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kansas, said wearing a mask was among the best preventative measures available. Physicians Dana Hawkinson and Steve Stites said masks, social distancing, hand washing and limiting exposure to potentially infected people to no more than 15 minutes were good strategies.

“We know that cases are going up. Hospitalizations follow cases. Mortality follows hospitalizations,” said Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at KU Health System. “Just have a mask on.”

Stites, chief medical officer at KU Health Systems, said mask skeptics should take advantage of freezing weather to experiment with how far their breath cloud traveled outside when wearing and not wearing a mask.

“Go outside. Take a deep breath. Blow out,” he said. “Put your mask on. Do the same thing. Now, tell me, where’s your breath cloud? Where does it go when you put a mask on?”

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