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Could Kansas City return to COVID restrictions, mask mandates as cases rise?

Kansas City Star logo Kansas City Star 7/14/2021 Angela Cordoba Perez, The Kansas City Star

Jul. 14—Are we headed for a return to COVID restrictions, mask mandates, or even shelter-in-place orders? It's the million-dollar question as COVID cases and hospitalizations rise in the Kansas City area and across the state.

City officials have said they will rely on the guidance of local and federal health experts.

Health leaders in the area have expressed concern over the spread of the delta variant in Missouri and Kansas. Dana Hawkinson, medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at The University of Kansas Health System, said in Tuesday's medical update that measures such as mask mandates should be on the table.

"I think when you're talking about the health of your people, and your constituents and everybody around you, I think everything needs to be on the table," Hawkinson said. "And those need to be thoughtful discussions with those policymakers, those legislators to really determine what is the best for everybody."

There are no official restrictions in the works at this time in Kansas City. Instead, authorities are emphasizing "the importance of taking the COVID-19 vaccine to protect all in our community," Morgan Said, spokeswoman for Mayor Quinton Lucas, wrote in an email Tuesday.

Jen Kates, Senior Vice President at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said that this is the best strategy. However, if cases and hospitalizations in the region continue to rise, and vaccination rates remain low, she said public health officials should consider other strategies "and potentially putting mask guidance back in place for indoor gatherings."

"If there are communities with high transmission and increasing hospitalizations, I think having mask requirements in crowded environments and businesses and stuff is something to strongly consider," Kates said. "Because we know how powerful masking is in preventing spread."

She added that while it is important for local authorities to encourage mask wearing, it can be difficult for the community to follow that guidance.

"Something unknown or an open question is for the same people that might not want to get vaccinated may also be reluctant to wear a mask," Kates said. "So I think that's going to potentially pose a challenge."

Across Jackson County there was no concrete information or plan about possible health restrictions or advisories either as of Tuesday, said Mariah Cox, communications coordinator for the health department.

"We're in communication with our partners across the metro for opportunities to establish a potential cohesive advisory," Cox wrote in an email to The Star.

However, last week, the city of Independence did take a first step and issued a health advisory encouraging residents to wear masks in indoor public spaces — regardless of vaccination status.

The Kansas City Health Department requested that the state health department do variant testing for all deaths and hospitalizations in the area to monitor the situation, Rex Archer, Kansas City Health Department director, said in late June. Regarding health restrictions for the city, Archer said they would consider those that most of the area can comply with.

"Public health has a responsibility and the authority to create protocols including mandated restrictions," Archer said. "However unless multiple jurisdictions are going to do this together, the impact of any one jurisdiction doing it alone, is not likely to be very effective."

Dave Dillon, spokesman for the Missouri Hospitals Association, said that it's also the residents responsibility to protect the community, no matter their vaccination status. Missourians should be aware of the risk of exposure in their daily activities, he said, especially if they are in areas where there have been spikes.

"If I was a Missourian living in a community that was within a designated hot spot by the Department of Health and Senior Services, I would certainly be more vigilant with the protections that I put in place," Dillon said. "Whether I was vaccinated or not to protect my own health, but also protect the other members of the community."

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