Kansas counties that have mask mandates in place have seen a rapid drop in cases, while counties that only recommend their use have seen no decrease in cases, the state's top health official said Wednesday.
Dr. Lee Norman, the state health department's top administrator, said Wednesday that overall statewide the numbers of new cases is favorable, but that the reduction of new cases is entirely in the counties that require masks be worn in public spaces.
After Gov. Laura Kelly put a mask mandate in place last month, 15 counties stayed with the mandate while 90 counties abandoned it, Norman said at a news conference Wednesday.
Norman pointed a graph showing the seven-day rolling average of cases per 100,000 people comparing counties with the mask mandates with those counties that abandoned it. The favorable trend line down was entirely in the counties that required the use of masks, while the trend line for those without one was flat, he said.
"Do masks work? Here in this natural experiment called Kansas where we have essentially — not due to any great design, but it has worked out that way — some counties have been the control group with a no mask mandate and some have been the experimental group with masks," Norman said. "The experimental group is winning the battle. All improvements in case development comes from those counties wearing masks."
It is important to understand, he noted, that the 15 counties with mask mandates represent two-thirds of the state's population and include the more urban cities with greater population densities. People in those counties rely more on mass transit there and tend to have more racial and ethnic minority populations that are more likely to be infected by COVID-19.
The declining coronavirus cases per capita in those more urban counties suggest the improvement in the trend lines could be even steeper in rural counties if they had mask mandates in place, he said.
The state health department on Wednesday reported that Kansas has confirmed 29,717 cases since the outbreak began, a 841 increase since the last update on Monday. The state reported 368 deaths, up three from Monday.
In Cowley County, local health officials reported 160 cases, up two since Monday. But cases considered active fell by 11 from 35 to 24.
Cowley County commissioners opted out of the statewide mandate, but Winfield city commissioners passed adopted a mask ordinance.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment identified on its website Wednesday 370 outbreaks which have infected 7,853 people and led to 247 of the state's 368 deaths.
Of particular concern was the 63 coronavirus cases tied to nine sports clusters because there have been a lot fewer sports this summer than there will be in the fall and winter when schools reopen, Norman said.
"Interestingly, we thought there would be a natural protection, if you will, in softball and baseball because you are out in the wide, open air for the most part, but we have had them essentially in all ... sports," Norman said.
Other large clusters reported Wednesday include 136 at private businesses, 98 at long-term care facilities. Another 55 outbreaks were from gatherings, nine outbreaks tied to restaurants and bars that resulted in 221 coronavirus infections.
On Wednesday, the Shawnee County Health Department said they have multiple cases linked to Jeremiah Bullfrog Bar and Grille in Topeka, and warned people who were at the establishment July 24-25 and July 27-28 were at risk of exposure.
In Chanute, Kansas, 11 school administrators who attended a leadership retreat last week in Branson are in quarantine after six of them tested positive for the virus, the Kansas City-Star reported. Superintendent Kellen Adams said their symptoms range from minor to severe, with one being treated in a hospital ICU.
He defended the retreat, saying it was necessary to discuss details of how to operate schools during a global pandemic.
Chanute schools are scheduled to open to teachers on Aug. 10 and to students on Aug. 24. Adams said the outbreak among administrators has not, so far, changed that.
CourierTraveler publisher David A. Seaton contributed to this report.