Kansas to launch pro-mask campaign, but some officials are skeptical

Gov. Laura Kelly walks out of a press conference at the Statehouse where she issued a face mask protocol in an executive order on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, in Topeka.

TOPEKA — Kansas is preparing to launch a media campaign aimed at getting more of its residents to wear masks so that the coronavirus doesn’t keep spreading rapidly, though some officials are skeptical that it will move the needle much.

The campaign comes months after the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature forced Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to accept that local officials would set pandemic restrictions. Kelly issued two mandates for people to wear masks in public, including one set to take effect Wednesday, but a law enacted in June allows each of the state’s 105 counties to opt out.

The state has set aside $1.5 million of its federal coronavirus relief funds for television, radio, print and social media ads promoting masks that are set to start before Thanksgiving and run into January or longer. State officials believe private funding could follow later.

But some officials who’d like to see more people wearing masks, particularly in rural areas, worry that politics are driving resistance too much for the new campaign to be effective. Others suggest that people are already bombarded with pro-mask messages and that new ones won’t get much attention.

“I think anything we can do to increase the prevalence of mask-wearing is generally a good thing, but I worry that folks have been saturated with the message and any further increase in compliance is probably going to depend on some type of enforcement action,” said Phil Smith-Hanes, county administrator in Saline County in central Kansas. “Hopefully I’m wrong.”

Kansas has reported more than 134,000 confirmed and probable coronavirus cases, or one for every 22 residents since the pandemic began, and added an average of 2,718 per day over the seven-day period that ended Friday. The state also has reported more than 1,400 COVID-19-related deaths.

With hospitals struggling to handle a surge in coronavirus patients, the Kansas Hospital Association is managing the pro-mask medical campaign, working with other groups such as the Kansas Medical Society, the Kansas Farm Bureau and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce. The campaign seeks to foster a sense of unity and get people to see that wearing masks will help keep businesses and schools open.

“Simply put, we’re just really going to try to give people permission to do the right thing,” said Kansas Hospital Association spokeswoman Cindy Samuelson.

Some Republican lawmakers in Kansas have argued for months that mask mandates aren’t likely to be strictly enforced and that encouraging people to wear them is a better tactic. Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, suggested at least four months ago that public service announcements were the way to go.

But mask wearing still could be a hard sell in some areas, particularly heavily Republican counties where President Donald Trump remains popular. Trump repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus, called on governors early to reopen their states’ economies and resisted wearing a mask himself.

After Kelly’s first mask mandate took effect in early July, most counties opted out. Many of the people who attended Republican campaign events this year didn’t wear masks, and many Republican legislators don’t wear them during in-person work meetings.

Public health officials have long advised people to wear masks because doing so can prevent infected people from spreading the virus. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that masks also can protect wearers who are not infected, though to a lesser degree.

The CDC released a study Friday that said in Kansas counties with a mask mandate, new cases per 100,000 residents dropped 6% from the week of July 3-9 to the week of Aug. 17-23; cases rose 100% over that time in counties without a mandate.

Sen. Gene Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican who chairs the Senate health committee, acknowledged being “a little skeptical” of mask wearing and saw the new campaign as “silly and ineffective.” He said the money would be better spent on traveling to “have an adult conversation” with county officials directly or to prop up struggling businesses.

“Throwing stuff out on the airwaves or in print is not going to change anything — nothing material,” Suellentrop said.

Earlier this month, Reno County, in south-central Kansas, launched a “10-day challenge” to encourage people to wear masks, practice social distancing and hold church gatherings online. Teresa Ellis, emergency department director at the Hutchinson Regional Medical Center there, said she still sees grocery store customers not wearing masks despite signs asking them to do so.

“There are people that think it’s a political ploy, and there’s people that don’t believe it,” Ellis said. “COVID’s real, and we are losing one to two, well, sometimes three patients a day.”

Samuelson acknowledged that some mask opponents grow more determined not to wear them the more government officials push the issue, viewing it as an issue of personal freedom.

“We should really reframe the discussion as more of a matter of practical problem-solving and empowerment and love of community and noble sacrifice,” Samuelson said.


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