During a special meeting last week, the Sedgwick County Commission addressed the rising COVID-19 numbers in terms of hospitalizations, infection rates and more – and how enhanced emergency health orders could potentially help.
Cases on the rise
Regarding recent reports from local hospitals, County Manager Tom Stolz said COVID-19 patients are doubling every two weeks.
“If this trajectory does not change, for example, two weeks from today our patient total could be into the 300s approaching 350 or more cases,” Stolz said.
“Unfortunately, our numbers are climbing at an alarming rate, as fast as they’ve ever climbed,” said Sedgwick County Health Officer Dr. Garold Minns, “and the numbers are higher than they’ve ever been; much higher than they were last spring.”
A number of factors could have potentially played a role in the increase of cases and infection rates, Minns speculated - from the weather turning to more time indoors to lack of compliance with previous orders to school returning to session. What he is certain of, though, is that Sedgwick County cannot maintain the necessary level of health care with the current rate of cases.
Given that, Minns recommended to “tighten things up,” issuing stricter emergency health orders that went into effect Nov. 11 – and will remain through 11.59 p.m. Dec. 31 – in an effort to help keep coronavirus case numbers down.
Concerned about the restrictions while trying to maintain the local economy, Minns noted it is a delicate balance. However, recent trends warranted stricter health orders further limiting the size of gatherings, sports activities and working to better encourage compliance with the orders.
One such change to promote compliance is a move requiring businesses and organizations to make reasonable efforts to inform members of the public about the necessity for masks or other face coverings. “Efforts” was determined to include the use of signs, greeters, intercoms and/or directly addressing unmasked employees or customers.
The list of exemptions does still apply, but those individuals must inform the business or organization that an exemption applies to them.
“If we want to get control of this epidemic, we’re going to have to have better compliance with the mask order,” Minns said. “That’s one of the things that’s been shown to be most effective in limiting transmission of this virus.”
Additionally, the new orders put a cap on mass gatherings at 100 people or 50 percent of the fire code capacity – whichever is less – in confined indoor and outdoor public spaces (i.e., restaurants, bars, fitness centers, etc.). Exemptions will still be made for religious institutions, childcare facilities, courts and schools, though 6 feet of social distancing must still be maintained.
With the new cap, there will not be unlimited, distanced pods of 15 people allowed in a facility as with previous orders. The 100 or 50 percent threshold is the maximum allotment of individuals allowed in a given establishment.
Retail stores will also be limited to 50 percent of fire code capacity under the new orders and the curfew will change once again. Bars must close by 11 p.m. while restaurants must also close in-person dining areas by 11 p.m.
For recreational and youth sports (not KSHSAA or school activities), there will also be an attendance limit of two spectators per participant at games and practices – with mask, social distancing and gathering limitations in effect there as well.
Commissioner Jim Howell, meanwhile, raised concerns about the numerous changes without knowing the exact cause and effect tied to the current COVID-19 trends. While Howell continued to call for more collaboration among the county commission with Dr. Minns regarding the health orders, he was struck by the troubling nature regarding the hospital reports.
“Everybody feels like we have to do something because the hospitals are filling up and I am concerned about the hospitals very much,” Howell said. “That’s the number one compelling change that I think gets my attention especially.”
While a motion to affirm Minns’ orders died, a motion to review the orders was approved 4-1.
Enforcing the rules
To further address compliance with the health orders, the Sedgwick County Commission also reviewed a resolution that would allow the county to prosecute individuals in unincorporated areas for noncompliance with Minns’ orders. The resolution was intended to give the framework for cities within the county to apply something similar.
Not following orders would constitute breaking the county code, under the resolution, and come with a potential $500 fine (but no jail time).
“We have to have some type of tool in the toolbox for these blatant examples where they are not even remotely close to adhering to Dr. Minns’ orders,” Stolz said.
County staff noted noncompliance with health orders would not be a citizen-driven complaint but would go through cities and their police departments. It was also noted the resolution is not specific to COVID-19, allowing for enforcement regarding other health orders.
Other cities in Sedgwick County would possibly be able to join enforcement efforts through a Memorandum of Understanding, staff confirmed.
Although education is still the primary objective, staff and commissioners agreed having this enforcement option in place is important.
“That’s really what’s going to matter. We have to come together, work together and follow the rules,” said Commissioner Lacey Cruse. “We need to either start following the rules or face these fines. I think that this is a right step.”
Noting it could be amended at any time, the Sedgwick County Commission approved the resolution regarding enforcement of emergency health orders 3-2 (with Howell and Michael O’Donnell opposing).
For the full amended health orders, visit www.sedgwickcounty.org.