Commission gets heated over masks

Most of the Marion County Board of Commissioners meeting Monday was filled with letters, petitions and conversations attempting to persuade the commissioners to take the rapidly increasing cases of COVID-19 in Marion County seriously and issue a mask mandate.

Despite requests from both citizens and public health officials, the commission continued its refusal to issue one.

Public Comments

The meeting opened with a public comment from Eric Meyer, the publisher for the Marion Record and the Hillsboro Star-Journal. Meyer presented the board with a petition that he started, asking for a mask mandate.

“We promised to deliver these comments this morning, and as promised, here are the unedited 88 comments that came in. We had probably two of them in there that are opposed to this, but as a business owner, I can say that it is imperative, in my opinion, that we adopt a mask mandate and enforce that mandate, or the alternative is to be shutting down completely, which no one can afford. And it’s not reasonable to a business owner to enforce this mandate on themselves. Who is going to turn down business in a time like this,” Meyer said.

Meyer said that their website tends to get more traffic on Wednesdays and Thursdays, so for them to get 88 signatures and comments on the weekend during a low traffic time is a substantial number.

Chairman Jonah Gehring thanked Meyer. No other comments to Meyer or about his petition were made.

COVID Update and Mask/Gathering Information

Diedre Serene, Marion County Health Department Administrator, gave her weekly update on COVID-19 in Marion County.

“As of 8 a.m. this morning, we have 243 confirmed, 119 probable, 85 active, one hospitalization and two deaths,” Serene said.

Serene mentioned a letter that the commissioners should have received from Tiana Gaines, a health care provider in Marion, which asked the commission to pass a mask mandate for the county. You can find a copy of that letter here.

Marion County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Don Hodson also spoke to the commissioners.

“I think everyone in health care right now is pretty much behind the eight ball,” he said. “Tiana reached out to me about this and did the legwork on getting permission to get all these different providers and doctors’ names on this letter, and all of them are wholeheartedly behind every measure that we could possibly take to slow down the spread of COVID right now, as I’m sure you’re aware that nationally, locally, pretty much everywhere in the world, we are having a significant spike.”

Hodson went on to explain that if one were to look at the numbers of how the spike is going, it’s getting bad enough that, when going to any store in Marion County right now, the chance that one is going to run into somebody who has COVID in that store is between five and 20 percent, which means every fifth person that community members walk by might actually be spreading COVID.

“We are in a situation right now where if everyone does not wear their mask in establishments when they are within six feet of someone, they are basically unknowingly going to spread it to the next person,” Hodson said. “Right now, many of the cases are family. Someone gets it somewhere, takes it home and gives it to someone in the family, and then, before you know it, everyone in the family has it and goes out and gives it to someone else. So it becomes an exponential math problem.”

Hodson further explained that if everyone today decides to stay in the house and not go out for the next month, the numbers would continue to rise for the next two to three weeks, even with no activity, just because of how the exponential numbers work.

“At this point, there are a lot of people out there who have been exposed and don’t know it, will give it to their family members in the next week or two, and there it goes. It just gets worse with every few days. So we are asking for a mask mandate simply to try to get everyone involved,” Hodson said. “It has been very disheartening to me to go places now where not only the public but the proprietors aren’t wearing masks. In my mind, that’s irresponsible behavior. The only responsible thing to do is to put on the mask if you are within six feet of anyone.”

Hodson said the situation predicted in Kansas and all over the midwest in another two weeks is that medical professionals are going to be triaging people as they decide who is going to get care and who doesn’t.

“The problem of us getting it individually is not the problem, as most of us will be fine. But our health care system is overloaded,” he said. “There will be people waiting on the sidelines to get care. That is unacceptable in my mind, and we need to do everything we can to stop it.”

Randy Dallke asked a question about a letter about a rancher wearing a mask outside.

“I don’t understand what you are asking about some rancher. If you are out alone in the open air, of course, you don’t have to wear a mask,” Hodson said.

Commissioner Kent Becker brought up the rancher again later on.

“That rancher question is not even a question. That should not be brought up,” Hodson said.

Serene reminded the commission that she and Hodson asked for a mask mandate on July 2, and there was already verbiage drawn up to put a mandate in place in order to make things easier. She also offered to give facts for Marion County to help the case for a mandate.

“We are kinda flying blind here, which I normally appreciate so I don’t slip up and spill the beans,” Gehring said. “But if I don’t know where the cases are, and it is hard to make decisions. If we had the information, we could make a better-educated decision on that as far as statistically what areas.”

“OK, does that really make a difference? I mean, would you really make a mandate for Hillsboro but not Lincolnville,” Serene said.

Serene did go on to give particulars to the commissioners, however.

“I do have some specifics. Like on Oct. 26, we had six positives out of 30 tests, so we were at 20 percent. On Nov. 2, we had 11 tests out of 25, so it took us up to 44 percent; on Nov. 8, we had six of out 14, which took us up to 42.6 percent; on the 9th, we have six out of 13, which gave us 46.15 percent, and our two-week positivity rate from 10/25 to 11/17 is currently 18.5 percent,” Serene said. “Out of 459 tests, there are 85 positives, so we are in the red.”

Serene also gave an update on the school buildings in the county:

•Marion Elementary School – 13 students out.

•Marion High School – 48 students out

•Hillsboro Elementary School – 39 students out

•Hillsboro Middle High School – 67 students out

•Centre – 35 students out, including one whole grade

“We have come to the point where it is all over the county,” Serene said.

“Those numbers that you are giving us about students, are those positives or are they quarantined,” Becker asked.

“They are isolated and quarantined students, so that means they are out,” Serene said.

“But how many of those students are positive,” Becker asked. “Like only one student in the whole grade is really out positive?”

“Right, but it affects all of them, and even quarantined are out. That just shows how one positive can affect so many,” Serene said.

“Addressing a little bit about what Jonah was talking about of knowing where the cases are so you know what to do,” Hodson added. “It’s not like putting a mask to go in someplace because you think there’s more cases there. This is an invisible disease. At this point, you should treat every person you meet that you don’t live with as if they have it.”

“I know you are trying to get a mask mandate and that is why you don’t see the value in what I am asking as far as the locations, so the other places that I have heard about or have been able to look up on KDHE are also masked facilities just like the schools. This is concerning to me because I don’t want to make the problem worse. I don’t want to say that it is working so well in masked facilities that let’s throw more masks at it. It wouldn’t be the logical choice to do,” Gehring said. “You wouldn’t add gasoline to a fire that you started with gasoline if you wanted the fire to go out.”

“I don’t understand what you are saying,” Hodson said.

“No, I am saying is the masked facilities are having the huge upticks, and they’re having the big spikes in the county. So to say we add more masks that’s going to help the situation when it’s already causing more upticks,” Gehring said.

“You’re saying that you think masks actually make things worse?” Hodson asked.

“Well, yes. Because with a mask, I may get closer to someone than I should or go somewhere that I wouldn’t otherwise,” Gehring said.

“I think if you really look at businesses, people who see positives constantly like the health care system are able to control that by wearing the masks. That’s why their numbers are down when they get numbers within their businesses,” Serene said.

Serene said that many of the cases are coming from events and other gatherings and reminded the commissioners that they can track the cases on the KDHE website.

“I don’t feel the kids bring it from school, but they bring it from outside. I think the masks in school are working,” said Commissioner Dave Crofoot.

Crofoot attempted to explain more of his thoughts of how masks could be helpful but was interrupted as other commissioners cut in.

Becker brought up PCR tests and conflicting information that is out about them.

“There is a lot of conflicting information, and there are good tests and bad tests,” Hodson said. “The problem is some people do not produce enough of that virus in the areas we test, like in their nose, that they actually are easily detected. For some people, it is the second day after exposure and several days before they have symptoms that they test positive. The test is really irrelevant for what we are talking about. We are trying to keep people from getting sick enough where they have to go to the hospital and use the resources that just aren’t going to be available in the next three weeks. We are definitely concerned that we are just going to be triaging people to die. That’s not a fun thing in medicine. And there is only one proven way to slow that down in a community, and that is masks. And if people don’t wear them when they are around other people in a community with COVID, then they are irresponsible.”

Serene pointed out that flu season is also here, and if hospitals are filling with COVID cases, it will leave the hospitals with no room for flu patients, let alone those suffering from strokes, heart attacks or other life-threatening illnesses.

“I think you really need to consider being leaders as the Board of Health and show what’s responsible. Bottom line, you’re right: the patrons of Marion County will do what they want. It’s their responsibility, but it’s being selfish to not wear a mask at an event,” Serene said.

Gehring brought up another concern he had regarding viral load, saying that wearing a mask causes one to restrict their outflow, creating a higher viral load.

“That’s not true at all,” Hodson said. “Your viral load is your viral load. Having your mask on prevents you from getting as much virus as normal from the person that you’re talking to. Your mask you’re wearing has virtually nothing to do with making your viral load higher. That misinformation was spread around on the Internet and was totally bogus.”

After another half an hour of conversation, Dallke made a motion to set a mask mandate through the end of the year. Crofoot seconded. The other commissioners voted against it.

“I cannot have people getting arrested and ticketed,” Gehring said.

“I think you’re not looking at the chair you are sitting in,” Dallke said to Gehring.

“You are voting on personal preference,” Crofoot said.

“I’m not voting on personal preference,” Gehring said. “A lot of times I have regretted my decisions by not trusting myself.”

“I wouldn’t call that a Board of Health decision. That was political. Sorry, goodbye,” Hodson said as he hung up on the call.

“Wow, that’s classy,” Gehring said.

The commissioners continued to discuss but could not reach any conclusion on the matter, and tensions continued to run high for the remainder of the meeting.

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