'I don't think we're there': Doctors say Kansas schools should keep mask mandates as youth vaccination approaches

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
File photo: Raegan Mercer, a 12-year-old Landon Middle School student, receives a COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccine clinic at Topeka High School. [Pool Photography by Evert Nelson/The Capital-Journal]

Kansas doctors are urging educators to keep mask requirements in place as youth vaccination approaches.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Wednesday reported 60 schools have active COVID-19 outbreaks, up from 56 last week.

Marci Nielsen, a pandemic adviser to Gov. Laura Kelly, said Kansas data show outbreaks are smaller and less common at schools with mask mandates.

Currently, only about 15% of public and private schools report requiring masks for all students, according to Nielsen's presentation at a Wednesday meeting of the governor's Safer Classrooms Workgroup. Those schools educate about 56% of the state's entire K-12 student population.

"I am a little bit concerned as I see more places across the state and across the country that are getting rid of mask mandates," said Dena Hubbard, a pediatrician. "I don't think we're there, and this has happened once before where we thought we were in the clear."

Decision-makers should wait to unmask at least until school-aged children can get vaccinated, she said.

Steve Stites, the chief medical officer at The University of Kansas Health System, said during a Wednesday media briefing that the health system is making plans to administer the vaccine in pediatric clinics once it is formally approved.

Infectious disease specialist Dana Hawkinson said it is important to get children vaccinated as soon possible so they will be fully protected for the holidays.

Still, Stites predicts another COVID-19 surge could hit this winter as gatherings move indoors, mask policies are loosened and vaccination rates remain too low for herd immunity.

Biden plans youth vaccination rollout

Vaccines have not yet been approved for children younger than 12 years old, though government advisory committees are scheduled to meeting in the coming weeks.

"The Biden Administration is announcing a plan to ensure that, if a vaccine is authorized for children ages 5-11, it is quickly distributed and made conveniently and equitably available to families across the country," the White House said in a Wednesday statement.

More:Biden administration reveals COVID-19 vaccination plan for kids 5 to 11: 'We're going to be ready'

Officials plan to supply enough vaccine for about 28 million youths, with 15 million doses available in the first week. Doses will be administered at pediatrician offices, children's hospitals, pharmacies, schools and community-based clinics. 

"Millions of adolescents ages 12-17 have been safely vaccinated, and we know vaccines work," White House officials said. "Fully vaccinated individuals are 10 times less likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and have a high degree of protection, including against the Delta variant. The consequences of a pediatric COVID-19 case can be serious and potentially last months."

Kansas cluster list

The KDHE on Wednesday reported 203 active clusters statewide, but publicly identified only a fraction of the exposure locations. The agency's outbreak list is below.

Daycare

  • Love Laugh and Learn Home Daycare in Olathe.
  • M and M Sweet Home Daycare in Emporia.

Government

  • Kiowa County Offices in Greensburg.

Group Living

  • Union Rescue Mission in Wichita.

Long Term Care Facility

  • Advena Living on 10th in Topeka.
  • Advena Living on Woodlawn in Wichita.
  • Catholic Care Center in Bel Aire .
  • Good Samaritan Society in Ellis.
  • Heritage Gardens Health and Rehabilitation Center in Oskaloosa.
  • Homestead of Overland Park.
  • Kidron Bethel in North Newton.
  • Lemke Memorial Hospital Long Term Care Unit in WaKeeney.
  • Medicalodges of Goddard.
  • Riverview Estates in Marquette.
  • The Oxford Grand at New Market in Wichita.
  • The Shepherd's Center in Cimarron.
  • Village Shalom in Overland Park.

Private Business

  • Starkey Inc. in Wichita.

Religious Gathering

  • HillCrest Covenant Church in Prairie Village.

School

  • Circle Towanda Intermediate School.
  • Great Bend High School.
  • Great Bend Middle School.
  • Jefferson Elementary School in Great Bend.
  • Lincoln Elementary School in Great Bend.
  • Overland Christian School in Overland Park.
  • South Central Elementary School in Protection.
  • St. Joseph Catholic School in Shawnee.
  • Stafford USD 349.
  • Timmerman Elementary School in Emporia.
  • USD 377 Effingham.
  • Wamego Central Elementary School.

Sports

  • Washburn University Baseball in Topeka.